Here are key thoughts on Friday’s firing of Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, who spent five seasons with the NBA team:
No hard feelings
New general manager Mitch Kupchak did Clifford a favor by letting him go now with a season left on his contract. Being a lame-duck coach can be miserable, as John Fox experienced with the Carolina Panthers in 2010. If everything went perfectly next season – and that never happens – the Hornets would be a 45-victory team and no better than the sixth playoff seed. That doesn’t get Clifford a contract extension.
He’ll be an NBA head coach again, whether it’s next season or after another stint as an assistant. He had a good run here, leaving with his reputation intact.
A lot of coaches talk about how hard they work, and it’s more marketing than reality. But Clifford was devoted in a way that will be hard to match. Whenever Clifford would take the blame for the team’s failings, it would frustrate guard Kemba Walker because he knew how well prepared this team was for eventualities. If this team needs a new voice, fine. But don’t mistake that for Clifford failing.
If the Hornets had selected guard Donovan Mitchell with the 11th pick, I’d be writing about playoff preparations instead of a coaching search. Malik Monk over Mitchell was a close call and the wrong one. Mitchell is the way the NBA is headed, as far as a player with the defensive versatility to constantly switch who he’s guarding, plus plenty of offensive talent. More importantly, he would have paired with Walker better than Monk has a chance to, as far as size to match up with wing players.
Monk showed nice progress late in this season and shouldn’t be written off as a prospect. But that was a blown opportunity of major consequence.
I threw out some names Friday morning, as far as available coaches, in reaction to Clifford’s firing. The one I’d be most intrigued by would be David Fizdale, though he lasted just 101 games with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Fizdale got himself sideways with Grizzlies management after some friction with star center Marc Gasol. But he established a great reputation around the NBA as a Miami Heat assistant, and his vibe with the Grizzlies said he’s that assertive, confident coach you want in these jobs.
But Fizdale, who famously ranted “Take that for data!” after a playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs, is feisty, and I wonder how feisty fits with this organization. I think some creative tension – conflict, even – is part of major-league sports, and I’m not sure if that’s particularly welcomed by owner Michael Jordan and managing partner Curtis Polk.
Paying for talent
I think this perception Jordan won’t pay for a winner is a myth. He signed off on the 12th-highest player payroll (more than $117 million this season) among 30 franchises. However, as colleague Scott Fowler detailed, two of Jordan’s past coaching hires - Sam Vincent and Mike Dunlap - were shooting low and cheap, with predictable results. Neither lasted to a second season.
They got fortunate finding Clifford, who hadn’t previously been an NBA head coach. No guarantee they find another undiscovered gem. If Kupchak recommends a big-name coach, who would command lots of money and lots of years, I hope Jordan listens because this fix-up will be long and challenging.