It’s now or never for the Charlotte Hornets.
An arms race to collect enough talent to topple the Warriors or Cavaliers has left the Eastern Conference playoff picture wide open. Three of last year’s playoff teams – Indiana, Chicago, and Atlanta – lost their stars, likely pushing them out of the postseason race. Detroit lost two of its top four scorers; Philadelphia is relying on inexperienced, oft-injured players; and it’s unclear if Miami will be more like the team that went 30-11 over the second half of last season, or the one that went 11-30 over the first. Even the more highly-regarded Cavs, Celtics, and Raptors will be facing an adjustment period after losing important players.
Between the uncertainty surrounding their opponents and an impressive offseason, the Hornets are in prime position for a return to the postseason. Charlotte turned backups Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli into Dwight Howard, a former superstar that remains a productive and sometimes-dominant big man. Shortly afterward, Rich Cho picked what may be the steal of the draft in Malik Monk, adding the high-upside Dwayne Bacon in the second round. To finish the summer, the Hornets added former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams on an obscenely cheap one-year deal.
If Charlotte can’t capitalize on that, heads should roll. And head coach Steve Clifford’s should be the first.
Clifford is well-regarded around the league, and his four years with the team have been the franchise’s most successful stretch since returning to Charlotte in 2004. The team has returned to at least a semblance of respectability after being a laughingstock for several years. That’s meaningful, and it was spurred by Clifford. Still, it’s important to remember that under his guidance, the best era in Hornets basketball for 15 years, the team has a losing record and a winning percentage of .488.
Firing a successful coach is a tough pill to swallow, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil. Mark Jackson won 51 games in his final year with the Warriors before getting replaced by Steve Kerr. David Blatt was fired mid-season and replaced by Tyronn Lue despite posting a 30-11 record. Both Kerr and Lue won the Finals in their first year in charge.
Of course, it’s absurd to suggest that the Hornets could replicate that success. But it shows that there is a precedent of a team moving on from a coach that made the team good and taking it to another level under his replacement. Clifford brought the team out of the league’s basement, but it remains to be seen if he can turn them into a real threat in the Eastern Conference. There have been excuses for underperforming in the past, but this time around nothing short of a major injury should keep Clifford from leading his team to a winning record and a playoff berth. Even a trip to the second round shouldn’t be out of the question.
Between a decimated Eastern conference and an improved roster, the stars have aligned. The path to a playoff spot hasn’t been this clear for Charlotte in a long time, and failure to even stumble into the eighth seed would be a disaster and a fireable offense for Steve Clifford.