Can Steve Clifford Lead the Hornets to the Next Level?

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It’s been a tumultuous year for fans of the Charlotte Hornets. First, the team barely missed out on securing a generational player, placing second in the 2023 NBA Draft Lottery, and losing a chance at big man Victor Wembanyama in the process. Next, long-time owner and North Carolina sporting legend Michael Jackson sold off his majority share in the team following more than a decade at the helm. Although Jordan never managed the same level of success as an owner that he did during his playing days, it still marked the end of an era for the long-suffering fanbase.

The Hornets weren’t expected to be competitive this season, even with second-overall pick Brandon Miller entering the fold, and head coach Steve Clifford has been given a raw hand as he tries to resurrect a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in nearly a decade. With plenty of changes in store for the Hornets, as a new ownership group tries to enact their vision for the franchise, Clifford’s job could be at stake: it all depends on what the front office thinks of his ability to turn the team into a winner. Here’s a look at what could affect that decision.

Not a Fair Audition

The first thing to keep in mind about this Hornets squad is the fact that we aren’t seeing them at anything close to their full potential. As such, we have to give Clifford some slack… at least for now. The team has had some horrible injury luck, with star point guard LaMelo Ball playing in just 22 of a potential 64 games this season after dealing with continued ankle troubles.

The Hornets weren’t projected to do much this season even with Ball in the fold, with their over/under win total set around 28 games before the 2023-24 campaign started. Right now they’re on pace for a 20.5-win season, but one wonders how much differently things would’ve gone with Ball fully healthy. Maybe the team wouldn’t have traded Terry Rozier to the Heat—a move that sparked a brutal 10-game losing streak that all but sank their season—if Ball was healthy, hoping to rely on the duo to make a late playoff push. Instead of kicking the can down the road with the hope of acquiring future prospects, maybe they would’ve been buyers at the deadline, attempting to supplement their young talents and set themselves up for immediate success next season.

Moreover, the potential for North Carolina sports betting legalization might have influenced their strategic decisions, considering the additional revenue streams and fan engagement it could offer, potentially altering their approach to roster management and investment strategies. As things stand right now, we’ll never know the answers to these questions, but it’s impossible to fairly judge Clifford in a season with the odds stacked against him.

Major Key: the Hornets’ General Manager Search

Another factor that will play a role in Clifford’s ability to succeed in Charlotte is what will happen with the team’s front office this season. The team currently has a vacancy at the general manager’s desk after Mitch Kupchak (who also served as their President of Basketball Operations) decided to take a step back in February, opting to move into a consulting role.

Whether or not Clifford stays with the team will hinge on what the new general manager, whoever that may be, decides to do with the team. Many front offices like to repopulate a club with their own personnel once taking over, hand picking a coaching staff whose philosophy best fits their vision in building a roster.

As such, Clifford could get cut out of the picture through no fault of his own—a factor he’s likely painfully aware of as the regular season starts to wrap up.

What’s the Verdict

No matter what the new general manager decides, I will maintain that Clifford deserves at least one more year at the helm. He’s received a rough deal during his two years in the Queen City, and even the best head coaches would struggle to win in light of the ownership, front office and personnel struggles he’s had. The team isn’t trying to win amidst their rebuild—as evidenced by their trading Rozier, who was enjoying a breakout season on a team-friendly contract—and it simply isn’t right to punish Clifford for not winning with a roster that isn’t competitive.

Similarly, it’s incredibly difficult to have a winning culture without some semblance of consistency. Creating a coaching turnstile without giving Clifford a chance to prove himself won’t do anything to help the team win… and, worst case scenario, he’ll show he isn’t the guy for the job next year, giving a new general manager a chance to start anew with a coach of their choosing. With so much turnover surrounding the team, it’s the least the Hornets can do to pay due diligence to Clifford’s ability. I’m not saying that Clifford will lead the Hornets to the promised land, but it would be silly to not exhaust all options before moving on Whether they see things as I do is another matter entirely.