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The move comes following a disappointing 2017-18 season in which the Hornets finished 10th in the Eastern Conference at 36-46. Clifford went 196-214 with two playoff appearances during his tenure.
Adding to the team’s problems last season, Clifford missed a little over a month for health reasons.
Clifford told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski he had been suffering from headaches that doctors believed resulted from sleep deprivation. He began feeling better over time after getting about seven hours of sleep nightly and eventually felt good enough to return to coaching.
“I never, ever want to go through that again, feel that way again, and I don’t believe I’ll ever have to,” Clifford said. “What doctors have done for me is not only given me a plan to help me feel better physically, but they’ve educated me on how headaches work. In my case, it’s not just how I did the coaching thing, it’s how I lived.”
While Clifford’s break helped resolve his health issues, little changed for the Hornets when he returned.
Defense was the team’s hallmark when it overachieved and reached the playoffs in 2013-14. Charlotte ranked sixth in defensive rating (101.2) that season, according to NBA.com. The Hornets were also ninth (101.8) when they clinched a postseason berth in 2015-16.
In different circumstances, a league-average defense might not be a big problem. However, the Hornets came in at 25th in effective field-goal percentage (.508), per NBA.com, and connected on 10.0 three-pointers per game (tied for 19th).
Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale made the case in December for firing Clifford, arguing a coaching change was the team’s easiest way to shake things up without completely remaking the roster:
“Scapegoating Clifford for these various breakdowns isn’t ideal. But the Hornets won’t have much choice if they keep tumbling down the Eastern Conference ladder. They’re locked into this core with more than $ 115 million in guaranteed money committed to next year’s roster.
“Authoring a full-scale teardown has its merits with [Kemba] Walker’s trade value at an all-time high. But the Hornets have traveled great lengths to remain in the middle. Deviating from the unofficial party line would qualify as a seismic shock.”
There’s also the fact that the Hornets went through a regime change, firing general manager Rich Cho and hiring Mitch Kupchak. Generally, a new GM will want to hire his own head coach.
Couple that with how little Kupchak can do to actually strengthen the team.
The Hornets have no financial flexibility in the offseason. They’re set to be a little more than $ 18.5 million over the salary cap in 2018-19, per Spotrac. It’s doubtful Kupchak can do much to alleviate the team’s financial burden, either, without giving up a valuable asset.
Nicolas Batum is owed $ 39.5 million over the next two years before he has a $ 27.1 million player option in 2020-21. Cody Zeller, meanwhile, will make $ 43.3 million over the remainder of his contract before it expires in 2021. Even Dwight Howard may not have much trade value as an expiring contract, since he’s on the books for $ 23.8 million in 2018-19.
Unless Kupchak is prepared to completely rebuild, the Hornets are basically stuck with the roster they have. With that in mind, a head coach with a different approach may be able to get more out of the squad than Clifford could.
When Clifford replaced Mike Dunlap as head coach, he inherited a team that went 21-61 in 2012-13. A year later, Charlotte had 43 wins with what was largely the same team; Al Jefferson was a difference-maker in 2013-14, but he wasn’t solely responsible for a 22-win improvement.
Now, the Hornets will hope Clifford’s replacement can have a similar effect.