Report: Steve Clifford heading to Charlotte, leaving Kelvin Sampson and Larry Drew as finalists for Bucks' job

USA TODAY Sports

Clifford has been expected back for a final round interview in Milwaukee on Tuesday, but a preemptive bid from the Bobcats proved too good to pass up for the former Lakers, Magic and Rockets assistant.

And so three have apparently become two.

Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Lakers assistant Steve Clifford will accept a three-year, $6 million deal (third year team option) to become the new head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, eliminating one of the Bucks' reported three head coaching finalists. It's a definite blow for Milwaukee, which had been planning for a second set of interviews with Clifford, Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson and Hawks head coach Larry Drew on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Wojnarowski reported on Sunday that Clifford's strong defensive reputation and endorsements from Tom Thibodeau and Jeff and Stan Van Gundy had made a strong impression on Bucks GM John Hammond, but the Bobcats (or Hornets?) appear to have beaten the Bucks to the punch. That would be a tough blow for a Bucks franchise desperate to regain some credibility, though it's interesting to note that the Bobcats didn't exactly break the bank to sign Clifford either (see that team option year). Still, Clifford apparently didn't think enough of either his chances at the Bucks job or the attractiveness of the gig to begin with (ouch!) in order to turn down a preemptive offer from Michael Jordan and company.

Clifford was the most popular candidate in our coaching poll yesterday, and the rationale would appear to be quite simple. The only way teams without superstar talents are winning is by building great defenses (see this year's Memphis, Indiana and Chicago teams), and Clifford's endorsements as a defensive wizard are quite strong. You might guess that Memphis' elimination could put the out-of-contract Lionel Hollins back into the conversation as well, though he would have no shortage of bigger name suitors should he leave Memphis. As for the Bucks, "sources" seem to be focusing on the aforementioned trio rather than additional outside candidates. As for other guys like Brian Shaw (still in the playoffs with the Pacers) and Mike Malone of the Warriors, there's been little talk of the Bucks making a move for either, though there may be a good reason for that as well. It's probably not a coincidence that Shaw has been mostly linked to the Clippers and Nets jobs rather than the less desirable jobs in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Charlotte, etc.

Taking Clifford off the list bumps former Bucks assistant Sampson to the top of the fan favorites' list, especially given Drew's perception among Bucks fans as an uninspiring retread. That might not be entirely fair, but at the moment perception is reality, and from where I'm standing it sure seems like the hardcore fanbase would only feel further alienated by the hiring of a decidedly middle-of-the-road type like Drew. Meanwhile, Sampson is hardly a proven commodity himself, but his hiring would at least allow the Bucks a chance at generating some vague fan optimism heading into the draft and free agency. How much does that matter to the Bucks' braintrust? It sounds like we'll find out soon enough.

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