Steve Clifford proving to be ideal coaching match for Hornets

BY FOX SPORTS

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford is specifically asked about his coaching prowess and the remarkable job he’s done this season in keeping the team together despite all the issues that have circulated, he deflects and gives a non-answer.

That’s why coaching in Charlotte would seem to be the perfect place for Clifford, who is in his second season at the helm of the Hornets. He doesn’t crave attention or the spotlight. He’s perfectly happy dissecting and diagraming basketball plays with such detail that all he craves is positive results. Stardom be damned. To Clifford, it’s about winning, performance and effort, and not necessarily in that order. More times than not, the latter will take care of the first two.

The offense will come and go. There will be nights when shots just don’t fall. However, the one constant in Clifford’s mind should always be effort. Such was the case Thursday night when the Hornets were losing to the Washington Wizards at halftime, before mounting a surge in the second half to secure the divisional and conference win.

"The big adjustment (at halftime) was that we tried harder, to be honest, which usually, that is the way it is," Clifford said. "I have been in a ton of playoff series. (Former New York coach and current NBA analyst) Jeff Van Gundy used to say that usually the big adjustment game-to-game or half-to-half is some guy gets 10 points instead of two. We played harder in the second half, that’s what happened."

Clifford has never been described by any of the players in the locker room as much of a screamer. He’ll occasionally let loose if he thinks the effort and drive isn’t being shown, but he’s far from a Bobby Knight. To a player, the Hornets know in order to make him happy they need to show energy first, results second.

This was never more evident than early in the season when fourth-year starter Gerald Henderson found himself as a reserve getting just over 11 minutes of playing time per game. But to his credit, Henderson didn’t rip into Clifford’s decision to play Lance Stephenson at the shooting guard. Instead, Henderson understood the decision and did what he could during practice and the games to increase his playing time.

He never once blamed Clifford.

"I’ve gotten the minutes I deserve," Henderson said in mid-November. "Coach is always fair with that. He’s probably the most fair that I’ve ever seen. … You have to be prepared for any situation. If I was getting 20 to 25 points a night, I’d be getting 20- to 25-point minutes."

It’s remarks like Henderson’s that give insight into what the players think of their coach. They genuinely like playing for him.

 

As a result, even though it’s not the most talented roster in the NBA or even in the Eastern Conference, the Hornets are on pace to make the playoffs for just the second time since the franchise was awarded to Charlotte in 2004.

Clifford finished fourth in the NBA Coach of the Year balloting as result in his first-ever season as a head coach.

This season, he’s arguably been better.

The Hornets lost core players off of last year’s roster, signed a marquee free agent during the summer that has provided very little help and has been benched, and have gone through a ton of injuries to key starters. There was even a player suspended the first 24 games of the season for domestic violence. Then add to the fact that Charlotte started out 6-19, it wouldn’t have been a surprise had the players just mailed in the rest of the season. The playoffs were an afterthought. At that point, the big question was whether or not the team would get to 20 wins.

However, 24 games later, the Hornets are 22-27 and now sit seventh in the Eastern Conference playoff race after having the second-best record in the East for the month of January.

It truly is rather remarkable how far this team has progressed in such a short time.

But once again, Clifford is about deflecting the credit.

"When you are an assistant in this league, you give the same effort (as the head coach)," he said. "I do feel good about the fact that we are getting better, and to me our goal should be to make the playoffs and to be playing in a manner that we are hard to beat, and I believe we have the talent to do that.

"We are slowly working our way (toward that), but we have to get better on offense. If you have the right kind of guys in your locker room, you can make progress. And I think we do."