CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Michael Jordan felt he needed a head coach with a little more NBA experience this time around to improve his struggling Charlotte Bobcats.
The former NBA superstar and current owner believes he’s found one in Steve Clifford.
Clifford, a long-time NBA assistant, has been hired away from the Los Angeles Lakers by the Bobcats before the Milwaukee Bucks could make a play for him.
The decision comes after Jordan’s experiment with former St. John’s assistant Mike Dunlap failed miserably this past season. Jordan fired Dunlap in April after one season with a 21-61 record.
Two people familiar with the situation said Monday that Clifford had agreed to a three-year contact. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the announcement has not been made public.
Clifford has worked as an assistant in New York, Houston, Orlando and Los Angeles, but has never been a head coach at the NBA level. He has worked under both Jeff and Stan Van Gundy and will become the sixth coach of the Bobcats since 2006-07.
The Bobcats made the move to hire Clifford one day before he was slated for a second interview with the Bucks for their coaching vacancy.
Clifford came to Los Angeles with Dwight Howard from the Magic and was retained for the 2013-14 season as an assistant coach. However, the Lakers granted him permission to interview with other teams.
Prior to joining the Lakers, Clifford spent five seasons with Orlando, working alongside Stan Van Gundy. During that five-year span, the Magic were 259-135 (.657) and reached the NBA Finals in 2009.
Clifford also spent four seasons as an assistant with the Rockets under Jeff Van Gundy and three years with the Knicks.
Jeff Van Gundy, now an NBA broadcaster, said he’s known Clifford since they coached together at the Jim Boeheim camp in 1985 in Syracuse, N.Y., and called Clifford “a person with impeccable integrity.”
He also thinks he’s going to be a pretty good NBA head coach because of the relationships he builds with players and fellow coaches.
“He’s a brilliant basketball coach who relates to all kinds of people well and I think he will do an absolutely fantastic job with the talent at hand,” Jeff Van Gundy said. “I’m so happy for one of the good guys in the league to get this opportunity.”
Clifford also briefly worked in North Carolina as an assistant coach for one year at East Carolina.
Dunlap struggled with the transition from the college game to the NBA and game management. He often butted heads with his veteran players, which is likely one of the reasons the Bobcats decided to go after an experienced NBA assistant like Clifford.
Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins said in mid-April he and general manager Rich Cho met with the players and Dunlap before approaching Jordan and asking him to make a coaching change.
“The change was allowed,” Higgins said in April.
Higgins said at the time player input was “a part of the process, but not the only indicator.” Higgins was asked in April what he wanted in a new coach.
“We want to hire a great leader, (and) the player development aspect is still vitally important to us because of our youth,” Higgins said. “Obviously you want a fantastic X-and-O coach. Someone who can make our players better, and help us win games.”
The Bobcats seemed to place an emphasis on finding a defensive-minded coach after finishing near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories last season.
Along with the Clifford, the Bobcats interviewed at least five other known candidates. They spoke early on in the process to former Clippers and Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry, Suns assistant Elston Turner, Cleveland Cavaliers assistant Nate Tibbetts and Houston Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson.
The Bobcats again considered former Lakers assistant Quin Snyder, now a head coach of a professional team in Russia. Snyder and former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan were among the three finalists for the job last year that was given to Dunlap.