THE HORNETS ARE RIGHT WHERE THEY SHOULD BE

BY PAUL FLANNERY, SB NATION

BOSTON -- Steve Clifford, the affable but understated coach of the Charlotte Hornets, didn’t want to hear about the frigid temperatures surrounding the Garden or winds whipping down from the north. "I’m from Vermont," he said as he walked out to the court for a morning shootaround. "This is when we would go to the lake."

There is no artifice to Clifford. Even when delivering a stern message about his team’s lack of toughness in a loss to Washington earlier this week, he was even-handed and precise. It’s hard to argue when you know he’s right. The Hornets had been getting shredded, giving up 115 points per 100 possessions during a three-game losing streak that he later called the worst stretch since he’s been in Charlotte.

When Clifford took over, the team was still known as the Bobcats and just one year removed from its disastrous 7-59 season. They were a faceless entity with little foundation. Now in his fourth season, the Hornets have an identity and it’s one that’s crafted in Clifford’s steady image.

An assistant coach for 13 years before getting the top job, Clifford worked for both Van Gundys, starting with Jeff in New York and Houston before joining Stan in Orlando. He may have been an anonymous dude in a suit to most NBA fans, but those who knew raved about his teaching methods. Clifford long ago paid his dues, yet he still works like the lowest man on the ladder, spending long hours immersed in video. He’s not a huge personality, but his direct manner is appreciated by his players.

 

"He’s the best. He’s the absolute best," veteran forward Marvin Williams told me. "He’s the most fair coach I’ve ever been around. He’s the most fun coach I’ve ever been around. He’s not really into coming in and practicing two, three hours a day, every day. He just wants you to really focus on what you’re doing when you’re in the gym. That’s not a lot to ask from any coach. Players enjoy playing for him. I know that’s why Nic (Batum) came back. That’s why I came back. Coach Clifford was a huge reason why I wanted to stay in Charlotte."

Clifford may be the draw, but it’s not that the Hornets lack for talent. Point guard Kemba Walker has elevated his game from really good to near-elite status. He’s scoring more efficiently at the basket and knocking down over 41 percent of his shots from behind the arc. The Hornets believe that Walker would have been an All-Star last season if their record had been better. There’s no question he’s in the mix this year.

Beyond Walker, they have an emerging big man in Cody Zeller who can score, rebound, and set screens. In Williams, they have a versatile defender who has been a reliable stretch four to space the court. Batum is an underrated wing who can handle the ball and shoot from deep, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the best end-to-end defenders in the league. It’s not the most exciting core, but it’s been an effective one.

What they lack in star power they make up for with preparation and rock-solid defense. They are stingy with the ball and smart on offense. They are connected on defense and strong on the boards. Those are the hallmarks of Clifford’s teams, which makes it all the more jarring when things start to slip.

The trouble began with a five-game road trip that opened with a LeBron blitzkrieg in Cleveland and continued with a blowout in Indiana. Wednesday’s game against the Wizards offered a chance at redemption, but the Hornets played one of their worst games of the season and Clifford lamented his team’s lack of physicality. Playing without Walker on Friday, they blew a second-half lead against the Celtics and were outscored 15-0 to open the fourth quarter.

 

Before the week, the Hornets had been playing quite well. They had won six of eight and were climbing back into the upper tier of the Eastern Conference standings. This has become a routine occurrence for the Hornets this season. They’ve had good runs followed by bad ones and then they go through the whole cycle again looking for equilibrium.

"We’ve been up and down with our play to this point," Clifford said. "We’ve had, even within games, really good stretches and then we haven’t sustained the play we need to be a good team. The other night (against Washington) it was just mistakes. Frankly it was embarrassing defensively. Let’s put it this way: If we’re going to be a team that can make the playoffs and then be factor in the playoffs, we need to be a top-five, top-six defensive team."

By the numbers, the Hornets are not far from that goal. According to basketball-reference, they ranked seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions coming into the weekend’s slate of games. There is nothing fancy about their approach. They get back on defense, defend without fouling, and control the defensive boards. Unless they don’t, and that’s when the problems start.

"It’s the defense," Williams said. "No question. When our defense is on point we win games. When our defense is not there we never even give ourselves a chance to win games. We just have to defend more consistently."

Defense has been a staple of Clifford’s tenure in Charlotte, beginning in the 2013-14 season when he transformed an unremarkable collection of players into a top-five unit that made the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. After taking a step back the following season, their offense finally caught up and helped produce a 48-win team.

It’s that offense that has taken a sharp turn this season, plunging from a solid ninth to a mediocre 15th. Some of that can be pinned on the loss of valuable role players like Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson, and Courtney Lee. That was the cost of retaining Williams and Batum, who enjoyed career seasons just as they hit free agency. Yet, the offensive issues don’t concern Clifford too much.

 

"I believe we can be good offensively," Clifford said. "We’re not going to be top five in offense. We just don’t have the points in our lineup. We can be good. We can be hard to guard. Last year we were ninth in offense. We have to get back to a similar place. I think we can as the year goes on, but we’re not right now. If we’re not real good defensively, we just won’t have enough offense to be that good."

As it stands, the Hornets take up residence in the most nebulous space in the league, that being the middle of the Eastern Conference. As of Friday night, exactly one game separated teams from third to ninth. It’s not the worst place to be: six of those teams will make the playoffs and it would be a major jolt if the Hornets are not among them.

"I think we’re OK," Williams said Friday morning. "Coach doesn’t necessary gripe on the wins and losses. He cares about how we’re playing."

Right on cue, Clifford praised his team’s effort against the Celtics. It was a loss but one they could accept. With Walker back in the lineup the next night, the Hornets gutted out a win in Atlanta and salvaged the final game of their trip in signature style. They’re not flashy or otherworldly. They’re just good. Like their coach.

THE LISTCONSUMABLE NBA THOUGHTS

We have the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement and it didn’t even take a lockout to get a deal done. While the full CBA details have yet to materialize and the documents itself if not yet ratified, we do have a decent grasp of the fundamentals. Here are five takeaways.

The Banana Boat Rule is a tradeoff for keeping the max: Numerous studies indicate that superstars are worth way more than their assigned max contract slot. That’s essentially a hard cap on the best players the league has to offer. With superstars replacing journeymen on the union negotiating team, CBA-watchers wondered if they would use their collective might to abolish the max entirely. They didn’t, but they did get something tangible that should benefit players in the long run by raising the allowable age for max deals from 36 to 38. Yes, Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony will likely cash in with one more gigantic payday thanks to the provision. You can consider it back-pay for services rendered or you can see it as a gift for future generations.

There’s something in there for the trusty vets too: One of the odd casualties of the revenue spike were free agents looking for a mid-level exception last summer. Those types of deals had long been one of the great union gains for the rank-and-file and a staple of free agency expenditures. Because exceptions were not tied to the cap, the salary slot stayed where it was last summer. That will change under the new CBA, meaning that as revenue rises, so does the value of a mid-level deal. That also holds true other exceptions like the bi-annual and the veteran minimum. All salaries are expected to rise by 45 percent and all players will receive a benefit under this deal.

Getting serious about the D-League: In its decade and a half of existence, the D-League has neither been a true minor league nor a viable financial alternative for non-NBA players. Yet, the D-League has made tremendous advances over the last few years, producing its share of late-blooming gems and creating a system where the vast majority of franchises have a stake in their own teams. There’s tremendous untapped potential here and the new CBA addresses it. On the development front, two-way contracts (two per team) will create opportunities for second round picks and undrafted free agents. Financially, D-League salaries will also rise making the league a more viable destination for non-NBA veterans. Both should improve the quality of play, which should also aid development. Again, the money is being spread around to all corners.

The Designated Player Rule is a landmine: The league has a long history of reacting to player independence with additional rules to incentivize them to stay in one place throughout their career. This CBA allows teams to sign certain players that meet star-level criteria to longer extensions and for more money. It also forces the player’s hand earlier in the process. They’d have to really want out to turn down the extension. It’s an anti Super Team measure, but short of abolishing free agency entirely, there is no CBA mechanism that can counter a player’s willful desire for independence. Additionally, the criteria will reflect awards that are voted on by the media, meaning the press has a gigantic conflict of interest. We saw it happen with Anthony Davis last spring and we will undoubtedly see it again.

Zero-and-two is an interesting idea: Just as in the last CBA negotiations, both sides agreed to table the requirements for college-eligible players to a later date. That means one-and-done remains intact. That’s unfortunate because no one likes one-and-done. Without knowing the full details, the zero-and-two proposal advanced by the union sounds like it would mirror baseball’s system. Essentially, players could be eligible for the draft out of high school, but if they go to college they would need to stay for two years before entering the draft. The details matter greatly. Would prep prospects lose their NCAA eligibility if they declared and went undrafted? Could prospects retain the right to decide after the draft, as in baseball where players can elect to go to college regardless of whether they’re drafted? Let’s hope both sides return to this issue. The status quo isn’t untenable but it’s wildly unpopular.