Three days after arriving in Charlotte, new Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak fired coach Steve Clifford Friday morning with a season left on Clifford’s contract.
The move was not much of a surprise after the Hornets missed the playoffs each of the previous two seasons. They finished 36-46 after Tuesday’s season-closing victory over the Indiana Pacers, despite Clifford having called this his most talented roster in the preseason. The Hornets’ player payroll this season, in excess of $117 million, was 12th-highest among 30 NBA franchises.
Clifford finished five seasons as Hornets coach with a 194-214 record, winning 48 percent of his games. The Hornets made two playoff appearances in Clifford’s tenure, but did not advance beyond the first round. Clifford acknowledged, when he met with media Wednesday, that his job was in jeopardy.
"I don’t have my head in the sand (as far as) what this head coaching is all about," Clifford said of expectations to win. "I don’t care how many years you have left on your contract. You can get fired in one week in this league."
Clifford worked for the Los Angeles Lakers as an assistant coach in the 2012-13 season before being hired by the Hornets. Kupchak was Lakers general manager at the time.
Kupchak said in a prepared statement Clifford worked “incredibly hard” for the franchise, adding a coaching search for his replacement will commence immediately.
Among coaches who could be available if Kupchak is interested: former Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Fizdale; former New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams; former North Carolina star Jerry Stackhouse (who has coached the Toronto Raptors’ G-League team to that league’s championship round); and Hornets associate head coach Stephen Silas.’
Silas and the other assistants on Clifford’s staff had been retained as of Friday. However, the Hornets announced Noel Gillespie, coach of the Hornets’ G-League team in Greensboro, will not return after two seasons in that role.
Clifford being available now could work to his advantage, with several other teams going through coaching changes. Among those, the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks, two teams for which Clifford has served as an assistant coach.
Clifford said Wednesday this season’s roster failed to improve collectively as his previous Charlotte teams had. He also said this group lacked the “spirit” of previous versions, and several key players - including All-Star point guard Kemba Walker - agreed.
In his last Charlotte media availability Wednesday, Clifford was typically candid, saying the team didn’t have enough positional size or versatility to be as good defensively as it needed to be. The Hornets finished 16th in defensive efficiency and 12th in offensive efficiency, after Clifford had set a goal of a top-five defense.
“You can’t have too many guys on the floor who can’t guard their positions,” Clifford said.
Clifford’s job performance was complicated this season by a health crisis: He missed 5 ½ weeks of the season treating severe headaches related to sleep deprivation. Working with a neurologist, Clifford has retrained himself to sleep at least 6 ½ hours a night; previously he wasn’t getting more than five hours of sleep.
"I just didn’t think I needed to sleep much. I didn’t realize what a toll it took on me as I had gotten a little older," Clifford said.