Head coach Steve Clifford working to put sting back in Hornets


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – At the end of the hiring process for a young assistant coach, Jeff Van Gundy walked Steve Clifford into the office of New York Knicks president Dave Checketts. As it turned out, Checketts didn’t keep the coaches long, but did dispatch Clifford with marching orders that would long nourish his professional basketball life.

Checketts told Clifford that he couldn’t be sure that Van Gundy was one of the best 30 head coaches in the world, nor that Checketts himself was one of the 30 most qualified to run an organization. Checketts trusted Van Gundy’s judgment, but he had no idea if Clifford was one of the best 100-plus assistant coaching candidates available to an NBA franchise.

“The only thing we know for sure is that these are the best players,” Checketts said, and if you want to have value in the NBA – staying power – learn how to make the players better.

Clifford had elevated himself through the hardscrabble path of the profession, coaching high school ball in Maine and then several small colleges until securing an advanced scouting job for the Knicks. Just another balding, white guy who never played at a high level. They come and go in the NBA, and yet understand: The moment Clifford walked into that first training camp, he knew he never wanted to leave.

Nearly 15 years later, Clifford is sitting at a table inside The Capital Grille and those words have never stopped resonating with him. This has been the essence of the coach’s story, and so much of the reason the Hornets can survive the loss of cornerstone player Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and still compete for a second Eastern Conference playoff appearance in three years under Clifford.

Charlotte couldn’t withstand the injuries to Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson a year ago, the free-agent loss of Josh McRoberts and the failed experiment of Lance Stephenson.

As the Hornets meet Miami to start the season on Wednesday, Clifford promises to be one of the intriguing coaching figures to study in the NBA this season, largely because of the way that he has so impressed front-office executives in the league. Some top executives are watching his contract status closely, they’ve told Yahoo Sports, curious about Clifford’s availability should a contract extension fail to materialize with Charlotte.

After years of flailing, owner Michael Jordan seems to have found his keeper of a coach. Jordan has publicly and privately praised him, although Clifford enters the final season of a three-year contract. After so much coaching and roster instability, Clifford has transformed the Hornets’ work environment, turning a wayward operation into competence. The Hornets have an identity – defense, rebounding and relentless player development amid a challenged roster.

“Almost every aspect of coaching at this level is great, but you can’t embrace all the good parts of it and not accept the tougher parts of it,” Clifford says. “And that’s one of the tougher parts of the job. If you’re looking for affirmation or security, being an NBA coach is not the way to go.”

Across two years, Jordan has been an immense ally for Clifford. When Jordan shows up, everything changes. “The intensity jumps up as soon as he walks into the gym,” Clifford says. “He makes it easier for us.”

Two years ago, Jordan asked Clifford’s permission to come work on some elements of footwork with three of the Hornets’ young players. Permission? Clifford loved it. “What coach wouldn’t?” he says now. Jordan met the coaching staff early that day, showed the coaches precisely what he wanted to introduce and proceeded to take the young players onto the floor.

A season ago, Clifford appreciated a call from Jordan after getting drilled in Atlanta. He told Clifford that the team was getting better, that he appreciated the progress he was seeing with a beat-up, undermanned roster.

Clifford had his most talented and deepest roster in three seasons – until Kidd-Gilchrist tore the labrum in his right shoulder and needed season-ending surgery. Kidd-Gilchrist embodied Clifford’s tough, disciplined defensive style. Nevertheless, this is the NBA, and you find a way. “We have enough,” Clifford flatly says.

Jefferson, a center entering his 12th season, calls Clifford the best teacher he’s ever had in the NBA, praising his ability to have “almost tricked me into becoming a better defensive player, making it simple for me.” All along, Clifford’s appeal with management and players has been clear: He can drive home a message without screaming, be stern without humiliating.

Walker goes back to get up shots at the Hornets’ practice facility and there’s Clifford “walking around in his flip-flops, watching film,” Walker says. “He never stops.” Jefferson loves to see that haggard Clifford early in the morning, teasing his center that he has stayed up late trying to find new ways to enter the ball in the post to Jefferson. Only, Jefferson knows it’s true.

“When [Clifford] comes and talks to me about something I am not doing right, I don’t feel less than a man walking away,” Jefferson says. “I walk away more motivated. Sometimes the coach who did play in the NBA, they don’t understand what we’re going through. They played – and sometimes they still don’t get it. How we need rest, for example. Cliff gets it.

“He may get under my skin sometimes, but what he’s saying is the truth. You’ve got to be able to look yourself in the mirror and not fool yourself. You know he’s watched the film. You know he’s put in the work. You know he’s made you better.”

Once Clifford deemed the Stephenson experiment a failure – that the Hornets weren’t doing anything well with him – players say that they had to endure a few locker-room tantrums. Clifford let Stephenson blow off steam, responding the next day with a detailed video session to show the young guard all the reasons that led to his benching.

“To me, in the NBA, the challenge is that our players are often being tugged so many ways,” Clifford says. “A lot of times people are well meaning. Most issues, or as Jeff [Van Gundy] would say, most losses come from within. Most bad nights start internally.

“It’s friends, it’s family. Sometimes it’s agents. It isn’t that they don’t mean well, but they’re looking at what’s best for the player – not always what’s best for the team. That’s where the conflict is. To me, the challenge is to develop the right kind of coach-player relationship so they know our intent is to get them better, and get the team better.

“Unless you’re there every day, watch every practice and go to every shootaround, there’s no way that you can have a true idea of what’s going on with a team. I’m in the NBA. Tom [Thibodeau] was here for two days, and we were talking about [the Bulls] last year. … Just things I wouldn’t have thought.

“He’s one of my closest friends, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow.’ But that’s the thing: You can’t possibly know unless you’re there.

“I tell the players that: The guy who can help our players are our coaches. You see them every day. Unless you have the right kind of communication in this league, it will get sideways on you.”

In the preseason, where the Hornets won seven of eight games, the league has seen a different offensive team, with different spacing and a commitment to shooting the 3-pointer. After two years devoid of legitimate perimeter threats, Clifford has the ability to evolve the franchise closer to the modern offensive game. From Nic Batum to Spencer Hawes and Frank Kaminsky, there are new shooters on the floor, talent that can balance the court.

Out of the Van Gundy coaching tree – stops on staffs with Jeff and Stan – Clifford marches into the most important coaching season of his life. He’s 54 years old, survived a heart scare his first week as an NBA head coach two years ago and wants badly for his future to be here.

“I hope it works out,” Clifford says. “I really like this place. Michael has been great to me. I like the people here. And I love the players. I remember when I first got into the league with the Knicks, seeing the fan-base here. It’s terrific. If we become a consistent contending team, or a playoff team, we can get those fans back and have that same type of environment.”

Here or elsewhere, Steve Clifford walked out of Dave Checketts’ office in New York and honored those marching orders. This is a great life for an old Maine high school coach and Division III guard.

“Listen, I love the NBA,” Clifford says. “For instance, Stan loves the NBA, but he could go back to Florida and coach high school and I think he would be equally as happy. I could go back to high school or college and I’d enjoy it, but I wouldn’t enjoy it like I do this league.

“I don’t know why that is, but from the first day that’s been true for me. I remember my first practice with the Knicks and walking back in Charleston [S.C.] and thinking, ‘This is incredible.’ I’ve been fortunate to be around some great players, great coaches. My hope is that I’m able to stay in this league until I’m ready to retire.”

For now, Steve Clifford tries to get the Hornets back to the playoffs, get Michael Jordan to keep him for the long run. As the Charlotte Hornets coach says with a laugh, though: If you want affirmation and security, the NBA coaching life probably isn’t for you.