Is Steve Clifford The Most Undervalued Asset In The NBA?

BY JONNY AUPING, REAL GM

How valuable is Steve Clifford?

He’s probably the most underrated coach in the NBA. At best, he’s currently the third most recognizable basketball coach in the state of North Carolina. And yet, as Clifford quietly builds a seemingly unfailing system in Charlotte, Hornets' fans daydream about a 2017 homecoming of Steph Curry. If their standing in a potential Curry sweepstakes is going to change from punchline to dark horse Clifford will play no small part. 

Is there much of a chance that Curry will part ways with one of the most talented and dangerous teams in NBA history? Probably not. That said, we’ve learned in recent past that when the expectations are revved up to championship or bust, anything less than champagne apparently warrants a consideration for change. If any semblance of a chemistry issue can be scapegoated on a playoff or Finals loss for the Warriors then there will be immediate questions about the future of Kevin Durant and Curry. 

On-court potential is rarely the singular factor in a free agent’s decision. The only reason anyone even considers Charlotte a remote possibility for Curry is because he grew up there and his father has ties to the organization. But if a player is thinking about going somewhere the right basketball environment has to exist before it can become a reality. That’s where Clifford comes in.

Clifford’s defensive systems have lacked the elite individual versatility of a Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, or Kawhi Leonard. He isn’t running out a bunch of defensive scrubs, but his teams have been some of the hardest to score on in the league despite giving heavy minutes to unheralded defensive players like Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. In each of Clifford’s three years as head coach in Charlotte, the Hornets/Bobcats have finished in the top nine in adjusted defensive rating.

System-oriented, smothering defensive systems looked to be dying a slow death in the NBA’s era of offensive revolution. The Hornets might seem like a throwback to those grind-it-out defenses, but Clifford’s replaced lumbering bigs with fleet-footed seven-footers. Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky aren’t exactly Bill Russell and Dikembe Mutombo, but they are very tall basketball players with decent speed, and Clifford understands how to use them to disrupt opposing offensive sets. He maximizes the athleticism of his guards, by bucking NBA norms and telling his big men to simply box out while his perimeter defenders beeline for defensive rebounds. 

Maintaining a stout defense last season without arguably his best defensive player, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, is an indication of not only Clifford’s ability to create a system, but to adjust his defensive tactics based on opponents, which is no easy task in a season with few practice opportunities and players used to settling into specific roles. The Miami Heat blew out the Hornets in the first two games of their first round series, but the Hornets adjusted their defense and forced the series to seven games.

It’s not that Clifford’s system can succeed with any players, it’s just that it can succeed with a wider range of players than most coaches require to execute what they want to do. This season will serve as another test case for Clifford’s ability to win games without top tier talent. The Hornets won 48 games last season, and with the return of Kidd-Gilchrist, it’s not unreasonable that they could win 50 games without an All-Star on their roster. Clifford understands the defensive strengths of his players, and in an era of explosive offensives he is making it difficult for opponents to get easy baskets. If he manages to resurrect Roy Hibbert as a defensive anchor this season then it would be pretty hard for anyone to ignore Clifford’s defensive expertise. 

If Clifford is building a plug-in-and-play system that breeds winning basketball, then a superstar like Curry could reap the benefits of getting in on the ground floor. There are so few guarantees in the NBA. It’s why superstars so often look to play together, because it ensures some level of success. If Clifford can guarantee good defense then he holds his own level of value. He can put a superstar in a position to succeed by putting the greater burden on the opponent. 

The notion that Curry would leave Golden State for what seems to be an enormous talent discrepancy seems tough to fathom. But there’s no denying that Curry makes his teammates better on offense. Klay Thompson’s spot up shooting seemingly made him the standard for how to complement Curry in the backcourt, but the truth is that whatever offensive skills a guard might have, can be made more dangerous by sharing the floor with Curry. Kemba Walker is so relentlessly aggressive that he could feast on a scrambling defense that’s trying to react to Curry’s range. Walker quietly shot more three-pointers than he ever had last season and had the best percentage (.371) of his career. He attacks transition defenses and bigs who switch on pick-and-rolls. He and Curry could both play on or off the ball and be a nightmare to contain.

A lineup of Curry/Walker/Jeremy Lamb/Nic Batum/Kidd-Gilchrist could develop into something of a Death Ball Jr. They would have a ton of shooting and plenty of slashing and cutting to the basket. Clifford encourages quick-reaction offenses, and players love playing for him because he puts them in position to play to their strengths. There would be no rigidness to an offense like that, and their defense would only allow for more transition opportunities. That unit might not seem like much compared to the Warriors, but it could route even good teams with defense, shooting, and transition offense. 

Adaptable coaches breed long term success. Superstars (in any sport) that tie themselves to that kind of reliability do wonders for their career. Joining a coach who can all but guarantee winning defense would be an interesting formula for someone like Curry who drastically improves an offense simply by stepping on the court. 

We often debate about how much the NBA’s greatest coaches owe their success to the superstars they’ve tied themselves to. We’ll never know how to precisely dole out credit. But Clifford is quietly approaching a value that suggests he’s simply waiting for his superstar. 

 

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