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In My Opinion

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New coach entering uncertain territory

By Scott Fowler
Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

What’s the main difference between walking the plank and being hired as the Charlotte Bobcats’ head coach?

At least when you walk the plank, you know when your time is up.

The Bobcats’ coaching job has a far more uncertain lifespan, but it never lasts very long and rarely goes very well. Yet the team keeps finding candidates to fill its vacancy. The latest is Steve Clifford – a defensive-minded NBA assistant who you’ve never heard of but who is a far more respected and conventional hire than the last guy.

The last guy you had also never heard of was Mike Dunlap. He reminded me of one of those college professors that nobody is very fond of, and he lasted only one season.

So you might say that here the Bobcats go again with another no-name assistant. The last two times they tried that, with Dunlap and Sam Vincent, it was a one-year flop.

But in that statement, you would be wrong. All NBA assistants are not created equal, and to lump Clifford in with such men is unfair to Clifford. Clifford has a much more impressive NBA resume, working for both Van Gundy brothers and then for the L.A. Lakers this past season. The Bobcats hope he will be another coach like Tom Thibodeau, the defensive-minded Chicago Bulls coach who had a similar background before being hired for his first NBA head job. And the Bobcats might actually be right. This hire could turn out OK.

Still, the team’s track record is horrendous despite (or because of?) the fact that Michael Jordan is Charlotte’s primary owner. The Bobcats only began playing in 2004, but Clifford becomes their sixth head coach.

The Bobcats have never won an NBA playoff game and have made the playoffs only once. Their roster is uninspiring. Their record over the past two seasons is an NBA-worst 28-120. The best thing you can say about them in recent weeks was that Jordan finally committed to changing their nickname back to the “Hornets,” which was a smart thing to do.

So Clifford just bought into the NBA’s ultimate fixer-upper. He had interviewed for the head-coaching job with Milwaukee, too, during this offseason and had become one of the hotter names riding the coaching carousel. He is expected to sign a two-year deal with a team option for the third year. The Bobcats don’t give out long coaching contracts, which is understandable given their predilection for firing them.

Clifford will have some pieces. Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson are fine NBA players who are still on the way up. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a decent role player. The Bobcats pick fourth in next month’s draft and might have three first-round picks in 2014, as well as up to $21 million available under the salary cap.

I am going to withhold judgment on Clifford given that I’ve never talked to him. He knows what he’s walking into though. And the new coach undoubtedly thinks this is not a plank at all, but instead a diving board that will spring him toward the place he has always wanted to be.

We owe Clifford the benefit of the doubt. But given the way the Bobcats have bumbled through their brief existence and the career-killer this job has been for several other men though, we certainly can deduce one thing: Clifford is a brave man.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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