Return to the hive: Hornets rehire Steve Clifford as coach

The 60-year-old coach is coming back to Charlotte for his second stint with the team

Steve Clifford, right, is returning for a second tour of duty with the Hornets after being hired to replace James Borrego. (David Zalubowski / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Much like the rest of life, sometimes reality in the sports world is stranger than fiction.

In April 2018, Mitch Kupchak took over the Charlotte Hornets’ front office as the team’s president and general manager, entering the job with an immediate task to fire Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, whose team had just skidded to a 36-46 campaign in his fifth season at the helm.

Clifford exited the team on relatively good terms, holding a 196-214 overall record with two playoff appearances and a general reputation for being a formidable defensive-minded coach. Simply put, Charlotte’s front office just decided to go another direction by hiring San Antonio assistant James Borrego.

It’s amazing what can happen in four years.

On Friday night, Kupchak announced the team has rehired Clifford as head coach, filling the coaching void left in the wake of Borrego’s dismissal in June after four seasons in Charlotte. Clifford will reportedly receive a three-year deal worth $4 million per season during the first two years, per league sources.

“We are pleased to welcome Steve back to our franchise,” Kupchak said in a press release. “We believe that his previous experience and coaching philosophy make him the best coach for our team. Steve has a proven track record of improving defenses and is detail oriented. He has a history of maximizing players’ talent and working with them to develop and expand their skill sets.”

Clifford, 60, returns to Charlotte as the second-winningest coach in the franchise’s history and a familiar face for the city, although not a single player from his 2017-18 roster currently remains on the team.

“Steve is committed to playing with the same offensive pace that our fans are accustomed to seeing the last few years,” Kupchak added. “We are confident that he will be able to help our young players continue to grow as we look to take the next step as a team.”

The path that led to the Clifford 2.0 era in Charlotte has been anything but ordinary.

On June 10, league sources broke the story that Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson had agreed to a four-year deal with the Hornets to be their next coach. Nearly a week later, Atkinson backed out of the job to instead stay with the champion Warriors, citing that he had had a change of heart due to family reasons.

The news of Atkinson’s last-minute reversal — a relatively rare occurrence for professional coaching hires — took the Hornets by surprise, but the team had no choice but to move on.

“I think he would have been a good pick, but if he’s not comfortable here I would rather find out now than a year from now,” Kupchak said of Atkinson following the NBA Draft.

The Hornets went back to the drawing board to revisit their list of finalists for the job. Last week, team owner Michael Jordan reportedly met with former Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, who was a serious candidate for the position and perhaps an original runner-up to Atkinson.

Instead, it was Clifford who emerged as the frontrunner despite not being a part of the team’s initial interview process. He was then granted his second stint with the franchise.

“I’m happy to be returning to Charlotte, and I want to thank Michael Jordan, Mitch Kupchak and Buzz Peterson for this opportunity,” Clifford said in a statement. “This is an exciting young team with a lot of talented pieces. Charlotte is a great city and I know first-hand the passion that Hornets fans have for this franchise. I can’t wait to get back to town and start working with our players.”

The Maine native has a career record of 292-345 as a head coach in five seasons with Charlotte and three seasons in Orlando. He also spent 13 seasons as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks (2000-03), Houston Rockets (2003-07), Orlando Magic (2007-2012) and Los Angeles Lakers (2012-13). He was most recently a consultant for the Brooklyn Nets during the 2021-22 season.

With young stars like LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges hoping to jump to the next level in their careers, Clifford has now been handed an opportunity to develop and mentor them the same way he did with Kemba Walker in the not-so-distant past.

The newest chapter of Hornets basketball, though familiar, has arrived.