Today, Steve Clifford was fired. And that is really not surprising at all since the Hornets finished with back to back disappointing seasons well below expectations. But two years ago, this would have been almost unthinkable, so how we got from there to here is an extremely interesting story.
After all, if you rewound the Hornets fanbase two years, the opinion on Clifford would be radically different. He had just led the team to its best record since the rebirth of the franchise. In a few days, the Hornets would start a playoff series where Steve Clifford outcoached one of the most respected coaches in the league in Erik Spoelstra, making a key adjustment in the pick and roll offense that made it extremely difficult for Hassan Whiteside to be effective on the defensive end. The insertion of rookie Frank Kaminsky into the starting lineup came with mixed results (including, relatively directly, Luol Deng’s four year, $72 million deal), and ultimately, the series was decided by a combination of Dwyane Wade doing just enough to spite “Purple Shirt Guy”, as well as the five best players on the Hornets being injured at a level that clearly hampered their play or actively kept them out of games.
That season and series got a coach that had already been on the ropes the season before a four year extension (With the last year as a team option) to continue as Charlotte’s coach, the contract that he was just released from today.
So it is quite clear that Steve Clifford absolutely has good traits. In his first season, the 2013-14 season, he came in, built an innovative scheme that had its wings dig heavily so as to protect Al Jefferson, and came away with a top ten defense despite some dubious personnel. Further, even his offense, using Josh McRoberts’ playmaking from the elbow to create better post looks for Jefferson, was well conceived. In his third season, after a year of struggle, Clifford came away with an innovative scheme again, unleashing Nic Batum near his fullest. He exploited the mismatches that Batum’s height generates, creating effective post up offense from the wing that could be replicated consistently, and also did a fantastic job teaching shooters to relocate on the wing in a way that made them more often. Even the year after, in the 2016-17 season that was overall a disappointment, he had Cody Zeller often set higher screens than most teams do, creating a high pick and roll that very few teams could defend. Because the screen was set further beyond the three-point arc, those possessions allowed Kemba Walker to get into pull up threes moving towards the basket, and if the other team did trap him, Cody could catch the ball at the elbow with space to work and a defense in scramble mode, which he was extremely effective at punishing off the bounce.
But if those were the only things he did, we wouldn’t be here today. Steve Clifford would still be employed and probably even viewed as one of the top coaches in the league.
So let’s rewind to the 2014-15 season this time. After making the playoffs in a successful 2013-14 season and rebranding to the Hornets, the buzz was at a local high. On top of that, the Hornets had added fringe all-star candidate Lance Stephenson and top ten pick Noah Vonleh, as well as replacing Josh McRoberts, who went from McJesus to McJudas after signing with the Heat, with Marvin Williams. The team was expected to take a major step forward, and then, well, it just plain didn’t. Marvin had a fair season splitting time with Cody Zeller at the four, but Stephenson and Vonleh were unmitigated disasters that could be directly attributed to Clifford.
Stephenson, one of the most improvisational, “feel based” players in the league, never had a chance under a coach who expects rigid adherence to the scheme like Clifford. He turned the ball over a ton and took so many ill-advised, out of rhythm threes that he set the all-time three-point futility mark (minimum 100 attempts). And crucially, he failed to build any kind of chemistry with anyone other than bench center Bismack Biyombo. Neither of them would return the next season.
And then there’s Noah Vonleh. Ninth overall pick, young, raw, and full of talent. The alternative was Jason Maxiell, career backup big who spent most of his career in Detroit, but at this point, he was 31. I don’t think I need to tell you which one got the bulk of the minutes. Despite zero on-court indication that that was the right choice.
And listing only those two actually neglects to mention Brian Roberts being given the primary backup point guard role, one that he was clearly outmatched for from day one. Roberts, a third-year player at 29, really never should have been put into any kind of prominent role. And in his defense, he had shown some signs of potentially becoming competent for New Orleans. Admittedly, those hopes quickly evaporated upon actually playing in Charlotte, but regardless. At no point before it was already far too late, even once it was clear that Roberts was insufficient, did Clifford think to try any other option?
But hilariously, none of those was the biggest misuse of talent in that season. After managing to stick someone else with Gary Neal’s selfish style of play, the Hornets took back Mo Williams, who had some absolutely fantastic scoring outputs and yet did more harm than good overall. For some reason, Steve Clifford got the idea that playing Mo Williams (6’1”) and Kemba Walker (Claims 6’1” and then everyone chuckles) together was a good idea. It was not. Lineups with those two together hemorrhaged points and the Hornets went 6-16 over their last 22 games to miss the playoffs.
Those were hardly the only mishandled players in Steve Clifford’s career though. Gary Neal was allowed significantly more time standing and dribbling than any coach ever should allow. Jeremy Lamb was underplayed for two whole seasons because of mythical defensive concerns that somehow disappeared once there was no other choice. Troy Daniels could not find consistent court time because of similar defense claims, only to be traded for nothing and improve his output in his next two stops because they gave him appropriate minutes. It took a pot suspension and a significant injury for Al Jefferson to lose his starting job, despite Cody Zeller having been better for over a year. Marco Belinelli would frequently close games over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after spending the entire night chucking and refusing to play defense. Ramon Sessions was never once held accountable for refusing to get back in transition or run anything resembling an offense. Roy Hibbert was almost given the starting Center job over Cody Zeller before a lower-body injury stalled that out. Treveon Graham took one and a half seasons to get real minutes, despite consistently showing that he was a capable player. Frank Kaminsky has played the power forward for eighty percent of his career, despite being a five in the view of basically everyone except for Clifford, including Frank himself. Christian Wood saw 107 total minutes across 13 games in his Hornets tenure despite having been excellent any time he was asked to do anything other than play on ball. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 27 games in the 2017-18 over 60% True Shooting, and only received 30 minutes in two of them, indicating a disconnect between his minutes and his performance. Michael Carter-Williams received NBA minutes and had the quality of his defense compared to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Malik Monk’s well-documented benching for Carter-Williams’ historically awful play. Cody Zeller was moved to a bench with relatively weaker pick and roll ball handlers, and then ran the pick and roll significantly less despite that being his greatest strength. Dwight Howard was allowed to never leave the paint on defense despite teams drilling the Hornets from outside on the screen and roll because Dwight was nowhere near to contain. Dwight Howard was allowed to post up more times than anyone in the league with two exceptions, in Joel Embiid and LaMarcus Aldridge, both of whom will probably make an all-NBA team this year. Dwight Howard was allowed to dribble the ball up the court. Dwight Howard was allowed to shoot midrange jumpers. Dwight Howard was allowed to clog the paint so that our cutters were neutralized. Dwight Howard set screens at the three-point line, causing a drop in Kemba’s three-point percentage because he was taking them while moving side to side rather than towards the basket. And oh yeah, it bears repeating, but Frank Kaminsky is still playing power forward.
If that list seems overwhelmingly long, imagine the plight of the fan base that had to watch all of that. And then remember that there are lots of things that I had to leave out in order to not lose readers because of rambling.
The simple reality of it is this: Steve Clifford is extremely good at designing schemes to do something specific. He can create better looks for shooters, can protect a slightly overweight Center who was finally willing to give just a little bit of effort on defense, and engineered one of the most difficult to stop play sequences in basketball. But that positive has to stack up against a laundry list of negatives. He doesn’t evaluate players well, doesn’t hold veteran players accountable, refuses to allow young players to develop on the court, doesn’t know his players strengths, doesn’t make adjustments in his rotations to opponents, refuses to admit that there are personnel that he can’t get a good defense out of, chooses one rotation and then insists on it until it’s too late to change, and so on.
The thing is, sometimes those strengths actually do win out over his flaws. Clifford did lead the Hornets to two playoff berths in his five years with the organization, a relative degree of success for that organization, and he was also responsible for the only offenses that Charlotte has managed to put above league average since the team came back as the Bobcats.
But when the flaws won out – and the last two years, they certainly did – Clifford was a flat out bad coach that handicapped his team, and that is why the Hornets are making a change.