Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford’s salary for the 2015-16 season became guaranteed when the then-Bobcats qualified for the playoffs a year ago.
Clifford’s contract, signed in May 2013, was originally portrayed as two seasons guaranteed with the third season a team option, worth $6 million total if he serves all three seasons.
However, multiple sources told the Observer this week that Clifford’s contract for next season is already guaranteed because of an incentive clause: If the franchise qualified for the playoffs in either of Clifford’s first two seasons, the third season locked in.
Hornets officials declined comment Thursday, abiding by a policy not to discuss employment contracts publicly.
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The then-Bobcats doubled their season victory total in Clifford’s first season as an NBA head coach, from 21 under former coach Mike Dunlap to 43 under Clifford. The franchise reached the playoffs for the second time since the Bobcats’ inception in 2004. They were swept by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat after center Al Jefferson suffered a plantar fascia injury.
Clifford finished fourth in balloting for NBA Coach of the Year last spring.
The renamed Hornets had a very different season. They are 33-45 and on the verge of elimination from the playoff race. But there have been numerous complications.
The Hornets have lost more than 140 player-games to injuries, illness and suspension. Three starters are currently out with long-term injury. High-profile free agent Lance Stephenson has had little impact despite making $9 million per season.
Clifford has received criticism from fans engaging on sports-talk radio and Twitter. He has criticized himself at various times this season and recently said he was the strongest advocate within Hornets management to sign Stephenson.
Hornets point guard and tri-captain Kemba Walker recently came to Clifford’s defense, saying the players should take the brunt of the blame for any disappointment this season.
“It has nothing to do with him,” Walker said of the Hornets’ struggles. “He does a great job, he is a fantastic coach. He always does his best to give us the best game plan, to try and get wins.
“I’m 100 percent behind him. I believe in him.”
Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; @rick_bonnell