Grading Steve Clifford's Season for the Charlotte Bobcats so Far
Steve Clifford has been the biggest reason for the Charlotte Bobcats' unexpected turnaround in the 2013-14 NBA season. Al Jefferson may have been the big free agent pickup, but Clifford has brought a tenacity and a consistently positive mindset that was otherwise missing from the organization for years.
Charlotte's 27-33 record has them slotted as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. During other years, the Bobcats might have found themselves tanking, but not in this year's disastrous east.
With 22 games left, the Bobcats are just one win shy of their total for the previous two seasons combined. Clifford has had a positive impact on this team in a number of ways, some of which we cannot exactly measure.
We will be grading Clifford in five main areas: game management, motivation of the team, overall organization, rotation and his demeanor with the media.
Steve Clifford has walked a thin line this season of finding a way to continue the development of his younger players without hurting the team. It takes diligence and a ton of patience to change a losing culture that was tattooed on this team since its inception in the league.
He has also done a fantastic job calling plays and winning close games. The Bobcats have every excuse to blow close leads down the stretch, but Clifford finds ways to get the ball into the hands of Jefferson and Kemba Walker to close things out.
Clifford is also the type of old-school coach that believes everything should be earned. He did not hand Ben Gordon any minutes simply because of his track record. Gordon did not want to be in Charlotte and it was abundantly clear, so Clifford relegated him to the bench.
No. 4-pick Cody Zeller also has not had anything given to him. Many believed another year in the cellar would do the Bobcats some good and land them the star wing player that they need in the 2014 draft, but Clifford is not one of those people.
Zeller has seen minutes when he has been playing well, but has been far too inconsistent, and Clifford has shown no hesitation to pull him. Fellow top-10 pick Bismack Biyombo has suffered a similar fate.
One area that could stand to improve a bit is the offense. Clifford knows who his two best players are and he uses them well. He also milks whatever he can out of his role players, but the offense is stagnant far too often. This young athletic bunch should be playing with more firepower on that end.
Motivation of Team
Motivation may be Clifford's strong suit.
The Bobcats are far from the most talented team in basketball, but opposing clubs can be certain that they will get Charlotte's best effort on any given night. If there is one thing a basketball team can control, it is effort, something that Clifford will never let his Bobcats forget.
Charlotte has never been known for defensive prowess. Not a single player on the roster outside of maybe Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would ever have been mentioned as even an average defender prior to this season. Most of them have been notoriously subpar, yet Clifford turned them into the fourth-best team in the country in fewest points per game allowed, holding teams to just 97 points a night.
The defense has been the calling card for Charlotte and is the reason they have been successful.
MKG has been the main hero in that department as the team feeds off his energy. Jefferson has continued to improve and Walker has done a much better job keeping his man in front of him. Jefferson's sheer presence as a respectable big man has also helped the perimeter defenders, but Clifford takes the credit in that department.
Charlotte has had a handful of injuries as well. They began the season without Jefferson, lost Jeffrey Taylor for the year while MKG was simultaneously out as well, leaving them thin on the perimeter. Walker has missed spots of time as well, all situations which would have spelled the end for past Bobcats teams.
Charlotte could have easily folded its hand in the midst of these injuries or during the multiple lulls and losing streaks they have had, but they always fight back.
The Bobcats head coaching gig has been a revolving door with no end in sight for the length of the team's existence. Clifford has already instilled more confidence in the entire organization during his short tenure than any previous coach ever has.
Michael Jordan made the right move when he realized Mike Dunlap was the wrong man for the job after one season and boldly replaced him with Clifford, a relative unknown.
Teams become great when they are able to take on the identity of their coach. Clifford has flown under the radar as an assistant for a number of years with the Orlando Magic, New York Knicks and most recently the Los Angeles Lakers. Few eyebrows were raised when Charlotte selected him to lead its young team back from the abyss.
Patrick Ewing has also done a fine job with Charlotte's stable of big men alongside Clifford. It is a safe bet that Clifford will have a good hold on this team for years to come, which is exactly what this erratic organization needed.
Clifford has not been shy about playing the hot hand. Everything is earned on this team, and if a player is not pulling his weight on defense or putting in enough work on that end, he hits the bench.
Clifford has done a good job playing matchups and keeping opposing teams guessing.
He does not show inexplicable loyalty to any player and will not leave guys in too long to play through slumps. Clifford also knows when to rely more on his big-name guys and will shorten the bench drastically when he has to.
The way Charlotte mixes in starters with bench guys is a quality blueprint for developing chemistry and avoiding offensive dry spells. Instead of playing two separate groups of five players, Clifford mixes it up and injects the game with who he believes will get things done instead of having set lineups.
It is not like Clifford has many weapons at his disposal, but he does sacrifice offense for defense a bit too often. In recent weeks, Charlotte has stepped it up on the offensive end, but the shooters off the bench could use a few more minutes, especially when they're putting points on the board.
Gary Neal will hopefully amend this issue as the newest part of the rotation, which appears to be going smoothly after his first two games.
Clifford has his team over-performing for a reason. He has a good feel for his guys even in his first year, and it is very rare that one of his decisions costs Charlotte in games.
Demeanor with Media
Clifford's relationship with the media is a positive one. There have been no controversies whatsoever surrounding Charlotte, and any possible issues have been solved in-house. He speaks candidly and with brutal honesty.
Clifford is stern and will not go viral with any outlandish or crazy quotes or rants of any sort. He has good control of his roster and keeps a level head at all times, preaching positive reinforcement and hard-nosed play.
His demeanor is exactly as one would expect when watching him coach or watching his team play. He is not exuberant and is a true player's coach who does not do anything to take the attention away from his team.
Not much needs to be said about Clifford when it comes to the media because his straightforward approach leaves little to be desired. He gives the information that is needed and keeps the locker room in line adequately.
Steve Clifford has done a fantastic job in his first season at the helm. Charlotte has overplayed their hand this year and he is a huge reason why.
A quick look up and down the roster will tell you just how valuable he is. Just about every player is having a career year of sorts, which shows that they simply love to play for him. His defensive schemes and overall intensity have fit like a glove.
It would be nitpicking to ask for much more from Clifford in his first year with a perennial losing team.
Changing the culture of a locker room is one of the most difficult things for a coach to do, and Clifford has been able to do it almost immediately. Charlotte has weathered every storm they have faced this season from slumps to injuries and come out the other side unscathed.
This team is heading towards its second playoff appearance ever, and it would be surprising to see them be as easy of an out as they were last time when they got decimated by Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic.
Defense reigns supreme, even in the modern NBA. It is unlikely they get out of the first round, but Clifford has the lowly Bobcats back on the national radar.
Overall Grade: A-