At the end of his end-of-the-year news conference Thursday, I asked Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford if he was sure he would be around to coach this team next season.
“Well, when I came in this morning, the door opened,” Clifford said, provoking laughter.
A minute later, with the news conference over, Clifford walked by me.
“But,” he cracked, “that door did stick a little bit.”
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The door to the Hornets’ future seemed wide open last summer. Then it was slammed shut and triple-locked as they limped to a 33-49 season that ranks as one of the most discouraging in Charlotte pro basketball history.
“This is a disappointing year,” Clifford said during his news conference. “We took a step back.”
Did they ever. All sorts of questions loom. Here are five I wonder about:
1) Should Clifford be back?
Absolutely. There’s a practical reason for that – his contract is guaranteed for next season by virtue of having made the playoffs in 2013-14, and owner Michael Jordan would rather not pay two coaches.
There also is an intangible reason. Clifford knows what he is doing. Although he never could figure out what to do with Lance Stephenson this season, he’s a basketball lifer with a great feel for the game. Clifford knows well that another season like this might be his last.
“You don’t get paid to come close, to be competitive,” Clifford said.
You get paid in the NBA to win, as Clifford knows, or you don’t get paid anymore. Clifford should get one more solid chance here, because after all his first season was tremendous. But he can’t afford another season like this.
2) Will Al Jefferson ever return to the form he had for the last third of the 2013-14 season?
That’s the big question, and I don’t know the answer. Clifford still plans to stake the immediate future on Jefferson, even though that rarely worked out this season for the injury-plagued center.
Said Clifford of Jefferson: “Last year we had a star – one of the 15 best players in the league. … We need to have a best player, and it needs to be Al.”
Jefferson remains Charlotte’s best offensive threat, but he deteriorated this season.
“I wasn’t the player I needed to be,” Jefferson said.
We all saw the negatives. Jefferson’s defense is extremely suspect. In an NBA where the trend is “pacing and spacing,” Jefferson seems like a slow-moving dinosaur when he is not playing well. And Charlotte doesn’t employ enough shooters to surround him to make him more effective.
Jefferson said Thursday he plans to exercise his $13.5 million player option for next season and stay with the Hornets. He said he has “unfinished business” in Charlotte and that he is still a “young man” at age 30.
He also said he hopes to lose 20-25 pounds during the offseason because of the strain playing at 285-287 pounds is putting on his lower body. That weight loss would be a great step for Jefferson, and for the Hornets. He remains a superb leader and a great locker-room presence, but he must be better on the floor.
3) So whose fault was this season?
It was a team effort. But general manager Rich Cho should shoulder a good deal of the blame. He knew this roster badly needed more shooting and the Hornets still ended up ranked dead last in the NBA in 3-point percentage (31.8). How does that happen?
Marvin Williams, Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston made no impact when it mattered. Josh McRoberts never should have been allowed to leave. Cody Zeller, another Cho draft pick, has improved but remains a below-average power forward. Lance Stephenson’s first season was horrendous.
“We’re not a 33-win team,” Clifford insisted Thursday. “We’re better than that.”
They sure didn’t look like it, and that largely was because they always seemed undermanned. Don’t just blame injuries for that; blame the front office, too.
4) Will Charlotte make a big-name free-agent splash in the offseason?
No. Clifford squashed that idea Thursday.
“We’re not in position to get a max-level player,” he said, “nor do we need one in order to be good.”
Of course, you only have to look at Stephenson to know that a free-agent splash over the summer is not always a good thing.
5) So can Stephenson ever find a role in Charlotte?
Stephenson became the answer to a trivia question this week. Of all NBA players in history with at least 100 attempts in a single season from 3-point range, he shot the lowest percentage in history (17.1). The previous low was Micheal Ray Richardson (18.8) in 1981-82.
While Stephenson will never be a shooter, he sure would play better if several of them surrounded him. That would make his drives to the basket, and his passes, far more effective.
Look, I wish the Hornets already had traded him. Signing him was a mistake. But you’re not going to get anything for him right now. He has to get his confidence back, and that begins by getting his shot back.
Much like Stephenson, the Hornets themselves seemed to lose confidence late in the season.
As Clifford said Thursday: “To me, we’re competitive,” he said. “We’ve got to get good.”
That’s the bitter reality for the Hornets at this point. A year after making the playoffs, they no longer are a good team. And the only way out of the hole is yet another long, hard climb.
Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler