After Golden State won the championship, Atkinson had a change of heart and informed the Hornets he would be staying with the Warriors. Atkinson was identified for his track record of developing young players, and seemed to be a good fit for the Hornets as they have one of the youngest rosters in the league.
The Hornets had to scramble and re-open their search, reportedly reaching out to another finalist for the job, Mike D’Antoni. But instead of hiring D’Antoni, they announced that former coach Steve Clifford, who coached the team from 2013-2018, would be returning. Clifford also coached the Orlando Magic for three seasons. He made the playoffs in two of five seasons with Charlotte and two of three with Orlando.
But the chaotic coaching search was far from the biggest problem with Charlotte’s offseason. Just before free agency started, star forward Miles Bridges was arrested and accused of felony domestic violence by his wife. The Hornets released a short statement after his arrest, but have been quiet for more than a week. Bridges, a restricted free agent who was expected to have significant interest and net a massive, near-max contract from Charlotte or another team, has yet to sign. He could face a lengthy suspension depending on how his legal issues are resolved, and there have even been rumors that Charlotte may pull his qualifying offer which would make him an unrestricted free agent.
Clifford is one of the most respected coaches in the league, particularly for his ability to coach defenses. That’ll be a big challenge for this version of the Hornets, as Charlotte was one of the worst defensive teams in the league last season. Here are three questions facing Clifford and the Hornets this season.
LaMelo and who else?: LaMelo Ball won the Rookie of the Year award in 2021 and became the fourth youngest player to ever make the All-Star team in 2022. He’s clearly the centerpiece of Charlotte’s future and already one of the biggest young stars in the league.
But beyond Ball, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, and Kelly Oubre Jr have all been mentioned in trade rumors. Bridges’ future with the team is also now murky. That puts the team under immense pressure to quickly assemble a contending roster around the quickly ascending Ball. As of now, the Hornets title futures odds are +15000, in the bottom ten of the league.
What will the center position look like?: Charlotte was often able to play small and fast because Bridges and PJ Washington have the ability to contest shots against bigger players. The team has long been trying to fill its hole at center, trying out veterans like Mason Plumlee and bringing in young players like last year’s first round pick Kai Jones and this year’s Mark Williams.
For Clifford to succeed in implementing a strong defensive system, the Hornets will need more production at center, particularly from players like Williams and Jones who have rim-protecting potential. That’s even more vital if Bridges and his shot-blocking is no longer a part of the roster.
Will Hayward still be a Hornet?: The Hornets signed Gordon Hayward in 2021 as a free agent. At the time, he was a marquee and surprising signing for a team trying to contend for a playoff spot.
Now, after two injury-plagued seasons, the Hornets would likely love to shed Hayward’s remaining salary. Bridges’ emergence made Hayward’s salary hard to justify since they play similar positions. But now if Bridges isn’t on the roster, the Hornets may change course and realize they need Hayward’s scoring ability.
If the Hornets to move on from him, they will need to figure out a way to replace his shooting, though. Even with his injuries, Hayward is still valuable when he’s able to be on the court. He can play either forward spot if the Hornets go small and he hit 39 percent from three in 49 games last season. Even if Bridges comes back, his inconsistency from the perimeter makes having Hayward as an option to increase their spacing is a nice luxury if the team can find a way to make both salaries work for another season.
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