"Steve Clifford is a tremendous coach. He might already be one of the five best coaches in the NBA! Did you see what he did with that roster last year? Imagine what he can do with a roster that has some actual talent! The Hornets are going places as long as Steve Clifford is coaching them."
Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford received tremendous praise this off season for the tremendous job he did with last year's Charlotte team. Clifford as a first year coach was taking over for recently fired coach Mike Dunlap. The then Bobcats were an NBA laughingstock and had only finished over .500 once in franchise history. When NBA teams finished last in both offense and defense it was called pulling a Bobcats, things were that bad.
Despite all of this, fans had reasonable expectations for Clifford. The team was young and they had recently signed big man Al Jefferson. 28 wins was all they were asking for, maybe 33, just something better than 20 or 22 again. What they got was 43 wins, their first playoff berth since 2010, and the fifth best defense in the NBA. Clifford exceeded every expectation in the world. He took relatively the same roster that finished 29th in the NBA in defense the year before and turned them into a top defense after adding Al Jefferson, a player notorious for playing bad defense. He even improved the offense enough to where it wasn't losing the Hornets games. The system he created allowed Jefferson to thrive, which ultimately led to Jefferson being selected to the third All-NBA team. All expectations were shattered and praise was heaped on to Clifford.
This season, things have changed. Josh McRoberts, a huge factor into the Hornets offense the year before, is gone. Lance Stephenson was signed, the Bobcats are now the Hornets, and expectations have increased — not making the playoffs is now a failure and anything less than 45 wins is a disappointment.
Of course, the Hornets started out of the gates slow and 45 wins feels like a pipe dream. There are rumors the team is looking to trade Lance Stephenson, the offense and defense have regressed, and everything is just a mess.
With all of this happening, there's a fair share of blame going around. The cause for the Hornets' struggles needs to be found and must be taken care of. Problems with an NBA team are just one singular thing, and if you remove it, that's how things get better. That's how it works right?
The thing is, that's not how it works. There isn't just one reason. There's the natural regression from a team that everybody acknowledges played a little over their head last year, the handfuls of injuries, new additions to the roster, a ridiculously tough schedule early in the season, and yes, Steve Clifford himself deserves some blame as well. Whether he deserves all of the blame or just some of it is debatable, but to say he's not a factor at all would be ignoring facts.
For instance, the usual starting lineup that Steve Clifford plays, when healthy, has a Net Rating of -19.8. That's a lineup of Al Jefferson, Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Lance Stephenson, and Kemba Walker. This lineup shoots a pitiful True Shooting percentage of 47% and fans of the eye test will say it has never once looked good. So why does Clifford keep going with something clearly broken? It can't be the defense, which is giving up a horrid 110 points per 100 possessions. This is Clifford going with a lineup that has time and time again not worked this season. That's a failure on Clifford's part and something he has earned his criticism for.
Clifford's rotation problems have not just involved the starting lineup this year, either. Cody Zeller has shown all year that he's become a productive player that is more effective than what Williams brings to the starting lineup, but Clifford won't play him with the starting lineup. It would be one thing if Zeller was at least finishing games, but that's also a bit of a rarity.
Clifford also had his strange obsession with playing Jason Maxiell earlier in the year. Even Maxiell himself has said he came to Charlotte expecting a locker room role with the team. Instead, he was the fourth big man off the bench over a younger, faster, and more athletic Bismack Biyombo. While Biyombo is still a very flawed player — especially on offense — the good he does far outweighs the bad Maxiell brings. This isn't a case where veteran savvy out performs youth and athleticism, Maxiell can't play well any more and should not play meaningful minutes at any point this season.
These things have certainly been a factor in the Hornets' struggles, but most questionable was Clifford's handling of late-game minutes and lineups. For starters, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the team's best defender and hasn't been able to find any crunch time minutes. The reason for this used to be that MKG's offense was too much of a liability to play him in late-game situations. That's not a problem anymore, as MKG has a refined jumpshot and an aggression not seen before. MKG has gone from offensive liability to somewhat of an offensive weapon, and yet he continues to not get crunch time minutes.
And only Clifford knows why.
The late game problems don't end there. Clifford's X's and O's this season are atrocious. Whether the lineup has Gary Neal, Gerald Henderson, Lance Stephenson, Cody Zeller, Marvin Williams, or any other Hornet, it doesn't matter. Far too many times, the final play of the game has been giving the ball to Kemba Walker and hoping he creates something, which means he dribbles around and throws up a clanked jump shot. Meanwhile, the team has one of the best offensive centers in the NBA and the most he does in buzzer beater situations is set screen and rolls to the basket where he inevitably won't get the ball. Clifford has never shown to be one of the best X's and O's guys in the NBA, but he was usually a little more creative than having Kemba Walker dribble around and fire up a prayer.
To say Clifford has not been as great a coach as last year would be an understatement. Last year's coach was a coach of the year candidate and this year he is being questioned at every turn. A large part of this is, as previously mentioned, he has much more expected of him. When Clifford made a mistake last year, the expectations were so low nobody cared. Now, every mistake has a magnifying glass put on it and is heavily scrutinized. But should he blamed for all of the Hornets problems this year?
Of course not, that would be insane.
Steve Clifford took a hopeless franchise and made wine out of some sticks and dirt. Then, he was given water and asked to make some more wine, and when he couldn't do it the folks that saw him make the wine last time became very angry. Clifford has earned the benefit of the doubt and is allowed some leeway while the Hornets struggle. It's still December and even if the team doesn't make the playoffs, that should not be grounds for demanding Clifford's head or placing all the blame on him. Has he been part of the problem? Yes. Is it his team that's currently in the bottom 20 of the NBA in both offense and defense? Yes. Can he turn this around and at least salvage something from this miserable start to a season? Of course he can. Clifford was a great coach last year, and we should wait a full season before suggesting it's beginners luck. Steve Clifford deserves a little blame... but not all of it.