Scott Fowler

Will Steve Clifford’s return to the Charlotte Hornets make any difference?

It is great news that Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford is scheduled to return to the team Tuesday after a series of chronic and debilitating headaches cost him about six weeks of this NBA season.

What is not so great is the team he will come back to.

I hope and pray that the doctors have found an excellent long-term treatment plan for “Cliff,” as most everyone calls him, because he’s walking back into a tremendous challenge.

The Charlotte squad that Clifford comes back to coach has been disappointing by every measure. Thought to be a playoff team this year in the Eastern Conference – and perhaps even a top-four playoff team – Charlotte instead languishes at 16-24 overall, which ranked as the 11th-best record in the 15-team East after Friday night’s games.

The Hornets do not appear to be a team destined for a quick fix. They instead look a whole lot like a team destined for yet another NBA lottery and another blown-up roster and front office.

Clifford unexpectedly had to stop coaching on Dec. 4 to deal with severe headaches that pre-dated this season but have worsened dramatically at times during the year. Lead assistant coach Stephen Silas took over, and the Hornets have gone 8-11 since.

Silas — who still has three more games to coach before Clifford returns — has done a very good job in this “awkward” (his word), long-term substitute kind of role. The Hornets upset Golden State on the road, for one thing. With Silas in charge, the Hornets have won 42.1 percent of the time entering Saturday’s game against Oklahoma City.

Before Clifford’s headaches forced him to take his medical leave, the Hornets were 8-13. With Clifford in charge, the Hornets won 38.1 percent of the time.

I’m not saying Clifford’s return will make no difference, because it will. It lends an air of stability to a very unsettled situation. No one knew for sure if Clifford was walking into the locker room in the next 20 minutes or never again.

A perpetual grinder, Clifford, 56, is well-liked by basically everyone who meets him, including me. But these Hornets were not very good implementing Clifford’s core concepts before he left – especially on defense — and I’m not sure they will be much better when he returns.

The Hornets were well-rested, playing at home and relatively healthy Wednesday night. They still wasted an amazing 41-point game from Kemba Walker and lost to a bad Dallas team. They played better Friday night in a win over Utah with owner Michael Jordan exhorting them from courtside. But it’s been like that for the entire season -- a step forward, a step back.

cliff-batum
Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, right, talks with guard Nicolas Batum. Clifford returns to coaching next week after missing more than a month of the season due to severe and chronic headaches. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Hornets have churned their roster with regularity for years. They often seem like they should change their name to the Charlotte Hamsters, for they constantly spin their wheels.

As for Clifford, this is a guy who has had frequent and severe headaches, and he’s returning to a stressful (although very well-paying) job.

Doctors have been trying to slowly ease Clifford back into a functional life, and that apparently has been working. But he’s about to once again pick up the reins of a dysfunctional team.

Clifford has one job. But it’s much easier said than done: The Charlotte Hamsters need a direction. He has to get them off the wheel.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

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