It took several misadventures under Michael Jordan’s watch as Charlotte Hornets owner, but they got a coaching hire so right in the summer of 2013 when they selected Steve Clifford.
To let Clifford’s contract expire next summer would have been folly. Several teams had him on their watch lists. Put it this way: Clifford would have been an NBA head coach again long before the next guy would have gotten this team to the playoffs.
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Wednesday the Hornets and Clifford agreed to a contract extension that will pay him guaranteed money through the 2018-19 season. He’s earned it. Last season’s 33-49 record was disappointing, but that was primarily about injuries. He has the players’ attention and respect and that’s not an easy thing when you are supervising people who, for the most part, make more money and have more job security than you do.
When you talk to the players about Clifford, there is a consistent theme: You might not like what he tells you, but you always know where you stand. They appreciate his transparency, and that’s not as commonplace to this profession as you might think.
"The one thing I love about him is he keeps it real with you. He doesn’t say one thing to your face and another thing behind your back," center Al Jefferson said at shoot-around Wednesday.
"He changed this whole team around from Day 1. He works harder than any head coach I’ve been around. He demands you play hard and play together."
Jefferson was arguably the most consequential free-agent signing in this franchise’s history. He chose the Hornets a month after Clifford was hired largely on the vision Clifford laid out for how he’d best be used here.
Those discussions weren’t just praising Jefferson’s low-post scoring skills. They were also frank statements about what Jefferson would have to do better as a defender.
That happens a lot. Jeremy Lin told me the Hornets weren’t necessarily high on his list of options until he met with Clifford over the summer. Clifford’s assessment of his game was so much more detailed – both Lin’s strengths and flaws – that it grabbed the free-agent point guard’s attention, and he signed with Charlotte.
Obviously it helped that Clifford had worked with Mike D’Antoni in Los Angeles. D’Antoni is a big Lin advocate and knows his game intimately. But those connections are part of what makes Clifford good at this job.
A friend of mine who has worked in the league for more than 20 years says you coach NBA players by their permission: If they believe you point them in the right direction, they respond. Otherwise, they tune you out. Typically, that leads to a new coach, not a new roster.
These players don’t tune Clifford out. They recognize work ethic and expertise.
"There have been numerous times when I came to the arena late at night to put up some shots and he’s still here," point guard Kemba Walker said. "Slippers and no socks, just walking around. He works at his craft every day. He puts in the time and the effort."
Players know the difference. It took about two weeks for the then-Bobcats to recognize Sam Vincent wasn’t ready to be an NBA head coach. It took perhaps a month for the team to come to the same conclusion about Mike Dunlap. It’s no coincidence Vincent and Dunlap each lasted a single season in Charlotte.
It took longer than I thought it should have for Clifford to get this extension. Maybe Jordan and vice chairman Curtis Polk wanted time to see how Clifford would fit with this new, more offensively-oriented group.
So Clifford coached a roster half full of newcomers to an 8-6 start. He made his point and got his financial security Wednesday. Much more importantly, this franchise brought stability to its basketball operation.
That defines win-win.