Clifford has agreed to a multiyear contract to return as head coach of the NBA’s Hornets four years after being fired by team owner Michael Jordan, the team announced Friday night.
Charlotte previously agreed to terms on a four-year contract with Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson to become head coach, but Atkinson later informed the team he was not taking the job citing family reasons.
“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 release. “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 60-year-old Clifford spent five seasons coaching the Hornets from 2013-18, compiling a 196-214 record with a team that included Kemba Walker.
He led the Hornets to two playoff appearances prior to being dismissed in 2018 when Kupchak arrived as general manager. Clifford coached the Orlando Magic from 2018-21, reaching the playoffs twice. He spent last season as a coaching consultant for the Brooklyn Nets.
Clifford is 292-345 in eight seasons as an NBA coach.
His best season in Charlotte came in 2015-16 when the Hornets went 48-34 and lost in seven games to the Miami Heat in the first round the playoffs.
Team owner Michael Jordan met Wednesday with Clifford, who left the team on good terms in 2018.
Clifford, known as a defensive-minded coach, inherits a team that eighth on offense last season but 22nd on defense. The Hornets gave up 132 points in a 29-point loss to the Hawks in the play-in elimination game last season, which didn’t sit well with Jordan.
The Hornets finished sixth, 10th, ninth, 17th and 17th in defensive rating during Clifford’s five seasons.
During his eight seasons as an NBA head coach, Clifford’s teams have never finished outside the top five in the league in fewest turnovers committed, and in seven of his eight campaigns his team finished in the top two in offensive rebounds allowed and the top five in defensive rebound percentage.
Kupchak said he expects the Hornets to continue to play at a high pace.
“Steve is committed to playing with the same offensive pace that our fans are accustomed to seeing the last few years,” Kupchak said. “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.”
Clifford inherits a team that is arguably more talented than any of his previous Charlotte teams with All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Miles Bridges anchoring the squad.
Atkinson’s decision to the renege on his contract on Saturday shocked the Hornets and sent them scrambling for a replacement.
Kupchak said that it was “disappointing,” but that in some ways he’s grateful it happened when it did.
“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 Thursday night during the NBA draft.
Mike D’Antoni and Terry Stotts were also in consideration for the job.
Kupchak orchestrated the team’s draft this year without a head coach in place, but said it was not a big deal and that in the pas years he’s worked with coaches who aren’t even in the draft room.
Charlotte team traded its 13th overall pick to the New York Knicks for a future first round pick and four second round picks and then took Duke center Mark Williams at No. 15. Charlotte added Nebraska guard Bryce McGowens in the second round after Kupchak made another trade.
“The roster is really what wins games,” Kupchak said. “A good coach is going to help with the roster, but the most important thing is to get the roster together.”
The general manager said Atkinson’s decision reminded him of when Steve Kerr turned down the Knicks coaching job, only to go to Golden State where he’s won four NBA titles.
“It looks like (Kerr) make a good decision to take the job at Golden State,” Kupchak said with a laugh. “So maybe Kenny spoke to Steve, and Steve said, ‘Hey, maybe things will work out this way for you.’ I don’t know.”
Kupchak also pointed out NFL coach Bill Belichick abruptly resigning before his introductory news conference with the New York Jets in 2000. Belichick went on to coach the New England Patriots and win six Super bowls.
“That was a good decision, too. So maybe Kenny is on to something,” Kupchak quipped.
Atkinson has not responded to interview requests from the AP seeking comment about his decision to back out of the agreement. However, Kerr told NBC Sports that Atkinson turned down the job because he didn’t want to uproot his family again.