Steve Clifford is approaching transition from role as Hornets coach to team consultant

Steve Clifford still hasn’t changed, not even with the end in sight.

Being so close to the finish line of a disappointing season, and hours from calling it a coaching career following two decades in the NBA, could easily aid in a final-day-of-school vibe around the Charlotte Hornets. But Clifford won’t swallow his whistle and put away his clipboard just yet, insisting he’s in it until the very end.

And the curtain doesn’t officially fall until Sunday afternoon in Cleveland.

“The one thing that we’ve tried really hard to do — we just played eight in a row at home against really good teams, and I thought our guys were good,” Clifford said. “We are out of it. They are meaningful games for everybody except for Portland … and we were competitive in every game. And I’ve just really been so locked in.

“We have young, good guys that can continue to grow. And in terms of not coaching, I have it in my mind because I’m at that age, unfortunately, where I have a lot of friends who have retired in the last couple of years in a different field. The one thing I do know is you have to move on. And I’m not going to dwell on things.”

That’s not easy to do considering how the turbulent times the Hornets have dealt with during Clifford’s tenure, which inched one step closer to conclusion following Friday night’s 131-98 loss to Boston at TD Garden — an outing where both teams mostly rested their key players.

In all, the Hornets only had their expected main rotation together for less than 15 game minutes this season. Paired with their injury-riddled 2023-24 campaign, it made it awfully tough on Clifford to put together any semblance of an effective game plan nightly, given he almost never knew who was going to be available.

<a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Boston Celtics;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Boston Celtics</a> guard <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Derrick White;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Derrick White</a> (9) with former teammate Charlotte Hornets forward <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Grant Williams;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Grant Williams</a> (2) after the game at TD Garden. David Butler II/USA TODAY NETWORK

LaMelo Ball logged action in only 58 of a possible 164 games. Cody Martin and Mark Williams also missed significant chunks of time. Same goes for Gordon Hayward before he got traded to Oklahoma City.

Overcoming all that proved to be quite the challenge,

“Three years ago, I didn’t know if I’d get another chance,” Clifford said. “When I got this one, I thought this is finally my chance with a roster where, you know what, we can be a top-four or five team. I’ve never really coached a team like that before. And the injuries, we were 29th in injuries last year and we are 29th this year.

“And it’s kind of taken that away, and yet I’ve loved it. I’m glad I coached these guys and I’m looking forward to this next part. So, what I’m telling myself now is, I’m just going to look forward. When we get home Sunday night, if I put three limes on the table … my plan is … just know that I’m going to move on.”

Which is into an unspecified role as an organizational consultant under the guidance of Jeff Peterson, the Hornets’ new vice president of basketball operations. And although there’s still no definitive job description for Clifford, he seems enthused by the chance to be immersed in high-level conversations he’s typically not completely privy to.

“This kind of happened quick, but I’m interested to learn,” Clifford said. “I have a relationship with Jeff Peterson from when I did the consultant thing in Brooklyn. Jeff’s great and we got along well then and I can learn a lot from him. So, I’m kind of interested in just being at the draft meetings, being at the free-agent meetings and seeing how things work. And maybe I’ll like it. But we’ll see.”

Just don’t expect him to be an invisible panacea. Even he understands that’s an unlikely scenario and isn’t realistic.

“The consulting thing is tricky,’ Clifford said, “because I did it one year, and I believe if you do it the wrong way it can be a negative, and if you do it the right way you can be very much a positive. Consulting in our league, you have to be careful. Everybody has really good coaches, the players are the best in the world.

“And to think that anybody is going to come in and all of the sudden be more of an expert on the players that you are working with or the team things that you’ve been doing than the coaches that are already there is crazy to me. So, you have to pick your spots and figure out what areas you can most help in.”