Hornets look to a familiar face in Steve Clifford to propel the team as free agency approaches

 By Chase Whitney 

June 28, 2022

Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak’s wish to have a head coach in place by the NBA Draft failed to come to fruition after Kenny Atkinson decided to back out of the job, but he didn’t have to wait long after draft night before another new coach was in place.

Steve Clifford, a familiar name in Charlotte, has been hired back as head coach of the franchise. Clifford previously spent five seasons at the helm, amassing a 196-214 record and two first-round playoff appearances before being let go in 2018 when the front office opted for a rebuild. He then led the Orlando Magic for three seasons, making the playoffs twice again before mutually parting ways with the team following the 2020-21 season and spending last season as a coaching consultant for the Brooklyn Nets.

 

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Known for his defensive acumen, it’s fair to assume the team will improve on that end in Clifford’s first year. The Hornets were a top-20 defense each season under Clifford per Cleaning The Glass, peaking at sixth in his first season in charge (2013-14) when they allowed 104.2 points per 100 possessions. He’s a coach that instills discipline and effort in his roster and makes the most out of the players he’s given; the biggest concern arises with his offensive system, which is very slow-paced and discourages risky passes that can lead to turnovers. The Hornets never cleared 18th in transition frequency with Clifford at the helm, per Cleaning The Glass. Whether he can adapt to the traits of a more offensively talented roster and maximize LaMelo Ball’s skillset will be the question.

No player currently on the Hornets roster has ever played for Clifford– Miles Bridges was drafted the same summer he was let go and played his rookie year for James Borrego. Thankfully, he’s got a long-standing reputation of being a likable coach that builds strong relationships with his players and staff. There are few off-court questions about Clifford’s fit with the franchise, but it does remain to be seen whether he can switch up his style in accordance with the young roster’s strengths and lead them to the playoffs.

On draft night, Kupchak gifted Clifford one thing he never had in his first stint as the Hornets head coach despite consistently turning out solid defensive teams; a gargantuan, shot-blocking rim protector (excluding Dwight Howard) in Mark Williams out of Duke. The 7’2” Williams was the biggest player at the NBA Combine this season, measuring in with a 7’6.5” wingspan and a 9’9” standing reach, the second-longest ever recorded behind Tacko Fall. The sophomore center put up 11.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game while shooting an absurd 72.1 percent from the field, including 78.1 percent at the rim with 96 dunks in 39 games. Williams is just 20 years old but could already be the best rim-running center Ball has played with to this point in his career.

Though it’s uncertain how much Williams will play initially, it’s almost a guarantee he’ll be in the opening night rotation given how much the Hornets could use his defensive skill set. Veteran Mason Plumlee’s contract was fully-guaranteed last week and Kai Jones and JT Thor could challenge for frontcourt minutes as well. Williams’ performance in the Las Vegas Summer League and training camp could also catapult him as a starter early in the season. 

Just a few minutes prior to selecting Williams at 15th overall, Kupchak picked up a slew of future draft picks in exchange for Memphis center Jalen Duren, who wound up with Detroit via New York with Kemba Walker in a salary dump for the Knicks. In return for giving up Duren, the Hornets received a 2023 first-round pick and four future second-rounders.

Though it stung in the moment as the Hornets traded away the consensus number one center outside of the top-three picks, they received valuable assets in return while filling a big beed. Plus, the Hornets were able to cash in the 2023 second-rounder via New York and move up five spots in this year’s second round to select Bryce McGowens out of Nebraska with the 40th pick. McGowens is a 6’7” scoring guard that draws a ton of contact at the rim with quick acceleration, length and impressive handles. He’s likely to be on a Two-Way contract this season despite being widely regarded as a first-round talent after one college season.

Two days before the clock strikes midnight, free agency begins and the 2022 offseason shifts into fifth gear. The Hornets have a head coach in place and have drafted a potential long-term starter at center while adding another high-upside perimeter prospect. On June 28, the Hornets picked up the team option on Jalen McDaniels’ $1.9 million contract for this season, which becomes fully guaranteed on August 1. The team also extended qualifying offers to both of its restricted free agents, Miles Bridges and Cody Martin, and Kupchak would prefer to keep both of them despite rumors to the contrary. Martin has plenty of suitors due to his reliability as a floor spacer and wing defender, and Bridges especially has garnered league-wide intrigue as one of the top free agents this summer. During Clifford’s introductory press conference, Kupchak took that intrigue and squashed it like a bug. It surely seems like Bridges is staying in the Queen City.

Though it seems like most of the Hornets’ actions this July will come in the form of re-signing players, the team still has a bit of space to work with, especially if the contracts of Kelly Oubre Jr. or Plumlee can be included in a trade. If Plumlee is shipped out, mid-level exception candidates like Nic Claxton or Isaiah Hartenstein would be reasonable targets to pair in the frontcourt with Williams. Neither are expected to command much over the $10 million per year allotted for the mid-level exception. We still have a couple of days before free agency kicks off, but it should be an active summer all around the league when negotiations are allowed to begin starting at 6:00 p.m. EST on June 30.




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