The Charlotte Hornets fell short in numerous ways in finishing 36-46 this season. It wasn’t the regression in offense or defense that coach Steve Clifford found most damning.
It was the deficit of spirit.
“That’s the part that is most disappointing,” Clifford said at a season wrap-up news conference Wednesday at Spectrum Center.
“One thing I think that we have always had here is great spirit. I get that all the time from college coaches who come and watch us,” Clifford said. “It’s not fake. And we didn’t have that this year - not nearly the spirit or togetherness we’ve had in other years.
“I don’t know what the answer is, but it has to start with me. Any relationship, you either work at that relationship that gets better, or it’s not going to work.”
Whether Clifford is back next season to finish out his current contract is yet to be determined, with Mitch Kupchak arriving this week to take over the basketball operation. Clifford said he’ll meet with Kupchak later this week after Kupchak meets with the players.
Spirit, chemistry, whatever it’s labeled, has been a traditional strength of this team in Clifford’s five seasons. It’s been a roster of strong character and maturity. The players most associated with that leadership – Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams – each said separately Wednesday they agree with Clifford that something changed for the worse this season.
“That starts with me, MKG and Marv,” said Walker, a two-time All-Star and the Hornets’ best player. “We’re players who play with a lot of passion, and I don’t know if we did that consistently this year. We’ve been here. We know how we play and how we act.
“It’s hard to put your finger on just one thing (that undermined that), but you just know.”
The Hornets made significant roster changes last summer, looking to get back into the playoffs and possibly get home-court advantage in the first round. They traded for center Dwight Howard, a future Hall of Famer, and added two rookies in Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon. They also made a mid-season trade with the New York Knicks for reserve center Willy Hernangomez.
Starting forwards Kidd-Gilchrist and Williams each said perhaps the leaders took it for granted that setting an example with their behavior was sufficient, when speaking up more might have been necessary.
“I think I have to do a better job of speaking up on and off the court at times. That is really something I have to focus on in my leadership going forward,” said Kidd-Glichrist.
“I think chemistry was a big difference. That was nobody’s fault – I’m not pointing a finger – but for me and Marvin and Kemba, communicating to the team on the floor – about the schemes and the little stuff that we don’t (consistently do) - that’s the leadership part.”
Williams just completed his 13th NBA season and his fourth in Charlotte. He said he’s the most talkative of those three Hornets most associated with leadership, and that isn’t saying much.
“There are always opportunities when guys can speak up,” Williams said. “Sometimes it becomes difficult when you have leaders who are very similar, like Mike and myself and Kemba: not always barking (at teammates). Guys who lead more by example; that is our leadership style.
“Of the three of us, I’m probably the most vocal, and that’s not saying a lot. I think that, for us, is where it became kind of difficult” to address problems.
“Mike may be a little reluctant to speak sometimes, but he’s got the respect of everyone in that locker room. What he says, everyone will listen. Vocal is not really how we’ve done it.”