On May 28th, 2013, the Bobcats hired their third coach in as many seasons in Steve Clifford. Clifford knew he had a tall task ahead of him, as the Bobcats had only won 28 games in the past two seasons combined. Most writers around the league did not view this as a great hire, as Clifford possessed no NBA head-coaching experience before this season, although he had formerly been an assistant coach with the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, and Los Angeles Lakers.
The changes started in late September at the Bobcats’ annual training camp in Ashville, NC. Typically in the NBA, some of the older veteran players get to come in later than the younger players. However, Clifford asked that the whole team report to Asheville at the same time in order for the players to get more familiar with each other. As most of you know, Steve Clifford is a huge defensive enthusiast, which is likely why he made that request. Any good defensive team has good chemistry. Whatever Clifford taught his players in Asheville clearly worked well, as he turned a defense that was last in the league in points allowed a year before, to a team that is top five in that category this season.
Another thing Clifford cemented early in the year was a solid group of assistants. The most notable assistants he acquired were former stars Patrick Ewing and Mark Price. Each of these coaches brought something different to the table. Ewing was a very successful post player, while Price used his smooth shooting stroke to make a living as a perimeter player. To me, both of these coaches have made a big impact to the organization. An experienced guy like Ewing is all that Al Jefferson needed to become an all-pro type of player, which he has exhibited this year. Where I think Price has helped the most is the development of starting shooting guard Gerald Henderson. You can still see that Henderson’s set shot is not where it needs to be, but he has certainly improved drastically this year. Even though Henderson’s overall field goal percentage has dropped, he seems to be a more confident player from beyond the arc this year, which is likely due to Price’s assistance.
One of Clifford’s biggest changes this season was turning Al Jefferson into a better defender. We knew from day one what kind of scorer Jefferson was, and he has certainly done more than any of us expected on the offensive end thus far. The same can be said on the defensive end. The biggest knock on Jefferson over the years has been his poor defense. He has drastically improved his defense this year and is no longer a liability for Clifford and his staff. What makes Big Al so effective is he’s a smart defender. By that I mean he knows what he’s paid to do, and he’s not going to get a bunch of fouls every night simply because he knows how valuable he is to Charlotte’s offense. I don’t think anyone around the league thought Al Jefferson would ever be a starting center on a top five defense in the NBA, but that’s what he is in Charlotte thanks in large part to Steve Clifford.
Perhaps one of my favorite things about Clifford is how he manages his players’ minutes. Clifford doesn’t pick favorites, as he simply goes with what’s working no matter who it is. That’s how you have to coach in this league: you have to ride people while they are hot, and sit them when they’re not.
Steve Clifford has impressed us all this year, as he has led Charlotte to only its second winning season in the history of the franchise. No one saw this coming, but Clifford was able to get this group of guys to buy into his defensive first mentality, and it has worked to perfection. How could we give Clifford and his staff anything less than an A? After one year, Clifford has already been named a top ten coach in the NBA by ESPN.com’s basketball panel, which is truly astonishing. Clifford is also in contention for NBA Coach of The Year. After all those years of losing, the soon to be Hornets have finally cemented a foundation, and it all started with Steve Clifford.
Lead Hornets Writer: Jonathon Hoppe