Steve Clifford has agreed on a deal to become the Charlotte Hornets’ coach, returning for a second run on the job, the team announced Friday.
Clifford, who led the franchise to two playoff appearances in a five-year run that ended in 2018, returns in the wake of Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson changing his mind about accepting the Charlotte job and deciding instead to stay with the Warriors.
Clifford always had a strong working relationship with Hornets owner Michael Jordan and fit the profile of what Jordan and general manager Mitch Kupchak wanted for this developing, young roster: a coach who could improve them defensively and transform them into a playoff team. Clifford is well-regarded among his coaching peers and respected for maximizing the talent on his rosters in both Charlotte and Orlando.
“We believe that his previous experience and coaching philosophy make him the best coach for our team,” Kupchak said in a release. “Steve has a proven track record of improving defenses and is detail oriented. He has a history of maximizing players’ talent and working with them to develop and expand their skill sets. Steve is committed to playing with the same offensive pace that our fans are accustomed to seeing the last few years. We are confident that he will be able to help our young players continue to grow as we look to take the next step as a team.”
Clifford met with ownership and management in recent days and momentum quickly gathered on his candidacy to return, sources said.
The Hornets also strongly considered Mike D’Antoni, who interviewed with Jordan recently, sources said.
Long considered one of the NBA’s top defensive coaches, Clifford will be tasked with improving that end of the court for a Charlotte team that has finished among the bottom 10 teams in the NBA in defensive rating three of the past four seasons — including ranking 23rd in 2021-22.
In his five seasons with the Hornets, Charlotte’s defense ranked inside the top 10 three times. His defenses finished eighth and 11th in two of his three seasons as coach of the Magic.
Charlotte finished last season with the NBA’s eighth-ranked offense, and has plenty of firepower at that end of the court between All-Star guard LaMelo Ball, restricted free agent forward Miles Bridges, guard Terry Rozier and forward Gordon Hayward, among others.
“This is an exciting young team with a lot of talented pieces,” Clifford said. “Charlotte is a great city and I know first-hand the passion that Hornets fans have for this franchise. I can’t wait to get back to town and start working with our players.”
The reunion between Clifford and the Hornets comes after the team initially agreed to a deal with Atkinson to replace James Borrego, who was fired in April after four seasons.
Clifford, 60, went 196-214 across five seasons during his first stint with the franchise, which saw him lead the Hornets to their best record since they returned to the NBA in 2004 as an expansion team when they went 48-34 in 2016. The Hornets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Miami Heat in seven games that year.
He led Charlotte to two of its three playoff appearances in the 18 seasons since it returned to the league. Clifford’s 196 wins are second in franchise history behind Allan Bristow, who coached the team in the early- and mid-1990s. Clifford is tied with Bristow for the most games coached in franchise history.
After Clifford was fired by Charlotte in 2018, he was hired a few weeks later by the Magic, whom he coached for three years — including back-to-back playoff appearances in his first two seasons — before both sides agreed to part ways after a 21-61 campaign in 2020-21. He spent this past season in a consulting role for Steve Nash with the Brooklyn Nets.
Clifford began his career working as a coach at various colleges in the Northeast, then served as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Magic and Los Angeles Lakers before being hired by the Hornets in 2013 for his first head-coaching job .
Clifford agreeing to coach the Hornets leaves one team — the Utah Jazz — without a head coach for next season, after longtime coach Quin Snyder decided to step away from the team earlier this month.
ESPN’s Tim Bontemps contributed to this report.