Steve Clifford Out-Coaches Everyone, Regardless Of Style

The Charlotte Hornets are one of the NBA’s biggest surprises, and they’re doing it with an exciting new style of play.

BY MIKA HONKASALO, THE CAULDRON

Coaching is one of the most difficult skills to gauge in the NBA. Because NBA head coaches are given so much control, the evaluation process often ignores the things they have no control over — talent level, personnel decisions, injuries, etc.

There is a long list of Coach of the Year recipients, including Avery Johnson and George Karl, who were fired within two years of winning the award.

In Charlotte, the first two seasons of Steve Clifford’s head coaching career underscored how quickly everyone is to overreact and judge coaches’ performances; and how poor they are at it.

The Charlotte Bobcats finished the 2012–13 season with the second worst record in the NBA at 21–61. Their marquee offseason signing that summer was Al Jefferson, the star incumbent Kemba Walker. Cody Zeller was a rookie, Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour rotation mainstays. Defensive ace Bismack Biyombo was limited to 14 minutes a night behind Jefferson at center.

And yet, somehow, Clifford was able to fashion a top six defensive rating — allowing a stingy 101.2 points per 100 possessions — around the talents of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a conservative scheme.

Deservedly, Clifford received buzz for the Coach of the Year-award, finishing fourth in voting. The Bobcats were one of the biggest surprises for the season, and for all the criticism Michael Jordan had received as an owner, the franchise was clearly moving in the right direction.

During the summer of 2014, now as the Hornets, the team added Lance Stephenson in a move that was generally considered bold and risky, but the right play for a team hoping to jump closer to the top of the Eastern Conference.

Almost immediately, everything fell apart. Stephenson couldn’t fit in, the Hornets started the season 6–19, and didn’t finish much better, with a disappointing 33–49 record. Everything that was gained the year before seemed lost — Al Jefferson had a player option and was a threat to leave during the summer. The stories around Kidd-Gilchrist began to focus on his inability to shoot, and for the third time in four years, Walker failed to reach 40 percent shooting from the field.

Like most inexperienced, non-first year coaches whose team failed to meet expectations, Clifford’s name emerged on the list of candidates to be fired. Whatever he’d accomplished the year before was seemingly dismissed.

Today, the Hornets are 11–8, outscoring opponents by 3.7 points per 100 possessions, which is good for the seventh best net rating in the NBA. More impressive is how quickly this team has emerged after completely changing their style of play.

Even when they were relatively good two seasons ago, you really had to be a huge NBA fan to get through some of their games. The team choked off opposing offenses by driving the pace down, and scrounging up just enough offense from Jefferson and Walker’s streaky shooting.

Last season, two of the Hornets most played lineups featured combinations of Biyombo, Zeller, and Jefferson on the front line, mixed in with wing combinations of Kidd-Gilchrist, Stephenson, and Henderson. Shooting was nowhere to be found, Jefferson had no space to operate, and the team looked like the antithesis of the modern spacing and ball movement.

In a player’s league, the first tenet of coaching is to do no harm. Most coaches fail to stretch their abilities beyond that first rule, allowing the talent level to dictate the team’s success. Sometimes, when the roster fits their system, they’re afforded an even higher level of success. But in an ever-changing league, this is always fleeting.

The elite coaches in the league have an ability to adapt to their roster and everything else around them, making a difference in the margins. Clifford has proven that he’s one of the best in the NBA because his alterations to the team’s style makes a tangible difference on the court.

This season’s Hornets are secretly one of the most fun to watch League Pass teams. Over the summer, the team added more shooting (Nicolas Batum, Frank Kaminsky, Spencer Hawes, Jeremy Lamb, a bounce back year from Marvin Williams) and another point guard (Jeremy Lin) who thrives in the spread pick-and-roll.

The Hornets don’t have the most versatile playbook, though Clifford runs some pretty cool stuff to take advantage of four shooters spacing the floor. Mainly, it’s just spread pick-and-roll with players making quick decisions when they catch the ball on the perimeter.

 

But that’s the most important thing isn’t it? The Spurs have taught us that the best way to put pressure on the defense is to do something, just as long as it’s not stupid and you do it quickly. Whether it be to drive, pass or shoot, the Hornets players have committed to making quick decisions and making plays with effort and precision. The offense isn’t complex and intricate, but it’s a quick-decision offense, and that’s a recipe for success.

The Hornets are always looking for quick-hitters in transition to take advantage of a scrambling defense, keeping the ball moving so the other team never has an opportunity to set its defensive rotations.

 

Batum, in particular, has been an important part of the new offense. His ability to work as something relatively close to a primary ball-handler in an extended role from his days with the Portland Trail Blazers has changed the Hornets offense for the better. After ranking 27th last season, the Hornets are currently fourth in offensive efficiency, scoring 103.9 points per 100 possessions.

The Hornets are one of only five teams in the top-10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, and they rank ninth in points allowed per 100 possessions at 100.2 — an amazing feat given they’d lost Kidd-Gilchrist, their defensive anchor, to injury in the preseason.

So much of modern NBA defense is derived from Tom Thibodeau’s defensive philosophies, which emphasized “multiple efforts.”

Multiple efforts is a very good description to what the Hornets do — requiring every player to work on a string. This is vital for small lineups, that are often forced to help in the post and then recover to the perimeter, force baseline and cut off the driving lane and then contest the shot.

When you see Jeremy Lamb making these multiple effort plays with great effort and, just as importantly, precision, you know the team is buying in and Clifford is doing something special with the team.

In his first three seasons, Clifford has already done what so many coaches are never able to—get a team to succeed by playing different ways. So many coaches fall to factors out of their control, and too few show a willingness to incorporate those things into their work, adapting and thriving.

Clifford may not have the resume of many of the top coaches yet, but there’s no reason for him not to be mentioned in the same breath with the Rick Carlisle’s of the world.

 

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