Coming off another horrible season that saw the franchise finish with a 21-61 record, the Bobcats front office needed to make the correct choice when hiring a new coach in the summer of 2013. The list of potential candidates ranged from former Portland Trailblazers and Seattle Supersonics (BRING BACK THE SONICS!) coach Nate McMillan to former Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry. It seemed that the Bobcats front office wanted a coach who had previous NBA head coaching experience. Every sports analyst and blogger had their own opinion on the topic but few individuals saw the outcome that eventually transpired. On May 29, 2013, Michael Jordan and the Charlotte front office tabbed Steve Clifford as the 6th head coach in the history of the Charlotte franchise (specifically since the Bobcats returned in 2004).
This came as a head-scratcher to many Bobcats fans, including myself. Who was this bald-headed guy from the Los Angeles Lakers, and how was he supposed to be the answer to the Bobcats’ problems? How is a head coach with no previous NBA head coaching experience supposed to turn around the worst team in the NBA? A brief recap of Clifford’s coaching experience begins to shed light on why he was an excellent choice to be the Bobcats’ new coach.
Clifford was born in Maine and played college basketball at a small D-III school in his home state. He was a team captain for two seasons and won the team’s Best Defensive Player award. This defensive mindset would be critical for Clifford’s success in the future. He bounced around as an assistant coach before becaming a head coach for the first time in 1995 with Adelphi University. In four seasons under Clifford, Adelphi amassed an 86-36 record and made the NCAA D-II Tournament each season. Clifford showed an ability to reach his players and, even though it was a smaller division, tasted success as a head coach at the college level for the first time. Soon, Clifford saw an opportunity and made the important leap into the NBA ranks.
He became an assistant with the New York Knicks under head coach Jeff Van Gundy. The Knicks were a good, not great, defensive team that was relying on an aging Patrick Ewing to anchor their defense. After a few seasons, Clifford followed Van Gundy to the Houston Rockets. Led by Yao Ming, the Rockets never finished lower than 5th in the NBA in defensive PPG allowed. Clifford fiannly began to get noticed for his defensive background and was becoming a fast-rising NBA assistant.
Following his stint in Houston, Clifford joined Jeff’s brother Stan Van Gundy and the Orlando Magic. The Magic had two seasons with a top five defense in Clifford’s five seasons with the team. In 2009, Van Gundy, Clifford, Dwight Howard, and the Magic reached the NBA Finals. They lost the series in five games, but the big game spotlight was exactly what Clifford needed to further his resume and shorten his journey to the NBA head coaching bench.
When the Magic fired Van Gundy after the 2012 season, Clifford found a spot on the Los Angeles Lakers bench as an assistant coach. Although the team’s defense was subpar, Clifford picked up valuable offensive knowledge from coach Mike D’Antoni. The Lakers finished the season with the 6th best offense based of PPG, and Clifford was ready to take over in Charlotte.
The Bobcats were a young team that needed to be molded into a winning franchise. Clifford, coming from a humble background of D-II and D-III basketball in college, brought hard work and toughness to Charlotte. Everyone agreed that the Bobcats were not the most talented team in the NBA, but hustle and effort go a long way in creating a winning attitude.
Based on his background with defense, Bobcats fans should have known that Clifford was going to bring a defensive-based strategy to Charlotte. He preached rebounding and defense and even hired former player/assistant coach Patrick Ewing as an associate head coach. Ewing and Clifford combined to help Charlotte instantly become a top ten defense based on opponent PPG and opponent FG%. The free agent signing of Al Jefferson solidified Charlotte’s front court and provided them with a respectable inside-out based offensive attack.
This new attitude that Clifford preached immediately paid off for Charlotte. The Bobcats made the playoffs for only the second time in team history in Clifford’s first season. However, center Al Jefferson injured his foot in Game 1 of the 1st round series against the Miami Heat, and the Bobcats lost in four games.
A complete brand makeover (Hello, Hornets!) and another positive offseason have the hopes high in Charlotte. The team is swarming with good, young defensive talent. Forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Noah Vonleh, and guard Lance Stephenson are all known for their defensive abilities. They should all continue to improve with the help of Clifford and the Hornets’ coaching staff.
Clifford seems to be the perfect combination of hard work and basketball intelligence that make a good NBA coach. His coaching resume with the Van Gundy’s and his work with former NBA post players are great signs that Clifford is not going to be a one-hit wonder with the Charlotte Hornets. For a franchise that has not tasted sustained success in more than a decade, Steve Clifford seems to the perfect coach and he came at just the right time.