NBA coaching market starting to take shape for offseason

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The red swarming Steve Clifford’s eyes betrayed his calm exterior as the Hornets’ 62-year-old head coach explained his decision Wednesday afternoon to step down at season’s end. “This has been going on for weeks as we’ve discussed things,” Clifford told the assembled media at Spectrum Center. “I just don’t see myself in these next few months having the right energy level. I’m just like you. Your best days start when you feel good. Driving in, if you’re feeling not at your best, you’re not going to have a great day. You’ve got to get up. And one thing about this is that you’re dealing with the best players in the world, and the motivation starts with yourself every day.”

Clifford had already gathered his assistants early that morning to reveal the news, league sources told Yahoo Sports, and then needed to collect himself before addressing the players and support staff on hand inside the Hornets’ practice gym shortly thereafter. There are few coaches who live and breathe the teaching element of basketball as much as Clifford, someone who watches tape to the point All-Star guard LaMelo Ball, when healthy, even began adapting Clifford’s postgame cliche of needing to check the film before answering any particular question. But with Clifford, it always rang genuine and pure. Even with the myriad injuries that sidelined Ball and other players throughout these past two seasons in Charlotte, after Kenny Atkinson spurned the Hornets’ job and the franchise returned to its previous head coach, Charlotte staffers have all praised Clifford’s dogged approach and day-to-day investment in his program as well as the people throughout his building.

There was a team option in Clifford’s contract for 2024-25, as first reported by The Charlotte Observer, and it seems the Hornets’ fresh leadership under governors Rick Schnall and Gabe Plotkin, plus newly minted basketball operations chief Jeff Peterson, would have welcomed Clifford to remain on the club’s sideline. Beginning this transition this week, though, enables the Hornets to sync their coaching staff with a still-developing front office structure under Peterson. Clifford will remain with the organization, to be clear, whether in a front office capacity or some advising role to the coaching staff, similar to how Clifford once consulted for Brooklyn back when Peterson was working for the Nets. They would sit and watch practice together, picking each other’s basketball brains. Now, Clifford said he’d be intrigued by that dynamic and “just as interested in learning the draft, learning how to do free agency.”

With six games still to play in this regular season, Charlotte instantly wades into the coaching market that league figures expect will feature quite a bit of turnover this offseason. “That’s one of the things that Cliff and I talked about in terms of timing,” Peterson said Wednesday. “That definitely factored into it. There’s going to be, I think, a handful of teams that are looking to replace their current coach or find a new coach. So us being able to get a little bit of a head start in that space is very important.”

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 31: Head coach Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets looks on during their game against the LA Clippers at Spectrum Center on March 31, 2024 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
Steve Clifford announced Wednesday he would be stepping down as Charlotte's coach at season's end. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Peterson’s former Nets will conduct a search at year’s end after parting ways with Jacque Vaughn midseason. The same goes for Washington after the Wizards elevated former play caller Wes Unseld Jr. into their front office, and interim head coach Brian Keefe is considered to hold a strong candidacy for the full-time position, according to league sources.

Experienced veterans like Mike Budenholzer and James Borrego harbor strong San Antonio connections to a Brooklyn front office that’s rife with former Spurs staffers, starting with general manager Sean Marks — remember, Hawks coach Quin Snyder, another Spurs product, once billed as a strong Nets target in the aftermath of Steve Nash’s firing, as well. There’s a growing sense around the league that Brooklyn will also consider some of the same younger, first-time head coaches as the Wizards and Hornets, in addition to experienced names.

And so, Charlotte has already requested and received permission to interview several candidates who fit that profile, as first reported by ESPN, including Nuggets assistant David Adelman, Kings assistant Jordi Fernandez and Celtics assistant Charles Lee, as well as Suns assistant Kevin Young. Miami assistant Chris Quinn and Utah assistant Lamar Skeeter are two additional names expected to factor into the Hornets’ search process, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Lee was on Budenholzer’s Atlanta staff when Schnall was a member of the Hawks’ ownership group and Peterson served in that front office. Before joining the Celtics this season, where Lee has served an integral role in acclimating former Bucks player Jrue Holiday into Boston, Lee was a finalist for the Pistons job last summer that would go to Monty Williams. His status as a former professional player and his ability to connect up and down the roster, in addition to his connections with Hornets leadership, would seem to position Lee quite strongly in Charlotte’s upcoming process. Quinn left a great impression among Hornets figures when interviewing for the position in 2022, according to league sources, when the job ultimately went to Clifford. Of further note: Sean Sweeney, the well-regarded Mavericks assistant, met with the Hornets then as well, sources said, and remains a rising name in coaching circles.

NBA personnel believe Brooklyn’s search will be wide-ranging, with less of a specific archetype of candidate compared to the strategy in Charlotte or Washington, where the focus will be on finding the right development-minded coaches to enhance a youth movement. The Nets, by all accounts, still hold aspirations of adding to a core that already features a complementary piece in Mikal Bridges. There could be a needle to thread of hiring an assistant that’s been playoff-tested, such as Fernandez or Young. Fernandez’s experience guiding Canada to the bronze medal of this summer’s FIBA World Cup, and his connections to multiple All-Star talents within the national team program, will bring added value for his candidacy. Young has earned the support and respect of Phoenix’s star players, dating back to Chris Paul’s tenure with the Suns. Knicks assistant Johnnie Bryant has been another name presented as a potential first-time head coaching candidate in Brooklyn, sources said.

Coaching rumblings in Detroit and Portland

The coaching market will evolve in different phases. The possibility always exists for several coaches to be dismissed after missing out on the postseason. It could also serve veteran candidates like Budenholzer, Borrego and Atkinson well to wait for potential openings that may come from early playoff casualties. Entering last spring’s postseason, few forecasted both Budenholzer and Williams would be out of Milwaukee and Phoenix, respectively.

For now, at the bottom of the standings, there has been ongoing speculation among rival front offices about a potential change atop Detroit’s organizational chart following the Pistons’ strugglesome campaign. At this juncture, according to one source with knowledge of the situation, there is no expectation that Williams would be open to any buyout of his six-year, $78.5 million contract.

NBA coaching figures have also circled Portland, currently slated for the fifth-best odds in next month’s draft lottery, as a possible coaching situation to monitor because of the Blazers’ position in the standings. However Chauncey Billups, who learned Wednesday he was named to the 2024 Hall of Fame class, answered a question from Yahoo Sports on the same day, indicating he is quite eager for the opportunity to try to lead Portland into the playoff picture in 2024-25, with a healthier roster that’s better constructed to go against the game’s best opponents.

“It’s been a tough couple of years for us, three now. We’ve just had so much influx on our roster and so much bad luck with health and things like that. And I’m just here every day just grinding through it. Helping my guys the best way I can and just hoping that hopefully the next time around, next year, we’re healthy, we’re better, our roster is ready to really, really compete,” Billups said. “Because I just know personally, myself, I’m light years ahead of where I was when I took the job, obviously being a first-time [head] coach. And I’m really ready for that challenge and that pressure to go out and compete with these best teams and stuff. I’m really ready for that. So, I just hope that we can be in that position, that’s all.”