I ran an impromptu poll on Twitter last week asking fans and writers where they'd rank Charlotte Hornets head coach Clifford among NBA coaches. The vast majority of the responses I received said Clifford is somewhere between top-5 and top-10. In 2015, it's no secret that Clifford is one of the better coaches in the league right now.
Our own Austin Peters took it a step further and pondered if Clifford is deserving of Coach of the Year if the season ended tomorrow. The results were essentially split down the middle.
None of this should be surprising. In Clifford's first season as head coach of the Hornets, the team finished with a 43-39 record and made the playoffs. The following year, the team struggled with injuries. Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Al Jefferson all missed significant time, and Clifford's team limped to a 33-49 record and missed the playoffs. This season — Clifford's third season with the team — the Hornets are playing some of the best basketball fans have seen in over a decade. A knock on Clifford was that his offensive sets were unimaginative, but he spent considerable time revamping his system in the offseason and now, the Hornets have a top-10 offense as well as a top-10 defense. It's impressive to say the least.
So is Clifford deserving of Coach of the Year if the season ends tomorrow? At The Hive's staff gave it some thought.
Clifford is probably the hands-down favorite to win Coach of the Year right now. No other coach has exceeded expectations while also leading a top team in the same way he has this season.
When thinking about awards, you have to think about the pool of guys you could see winning it. Luke Walton can't win the award according to the NBA. The Spurs were expected to be good, so Greg Poppovich is probably out. Same with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The only other coaches that I can think of that would merit consideration would be Dwayne Casey, Brad Stevens, and Erik Spoelstra, but all those coaches had teams going into the year that were going to have talented, competitive teams.
After Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got hurt, nobody thought the Hornets could even sniff the playoffs. Not only do they look like a playoff lock with the way they're playing, but they are tops in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Coach Clifford not only deserved his extension, but he deserves Coach of the Year as well.
I'd lean no. Steve Clifford's best chance as of now to win coach of the year was his first season with the team. Even though Charlotte is exceeding expectations and playing a completely different style from years past, most voters still notice wins and losses more than anything else. At the end of the day, unless Charlotte finds itself with 50 plus wins at the end of the year, voters are going to lean towards coaches with wins before they start looking into the areas such as play style, and expectations, which would give Clifford a chance at it.
Also, it's hard for me to go against Gregg Popovich right now who has the Spurs playing the same kind of basketball we've always known them to have, but are one of the league leaders in midrange shots, and one of the slowest paced teams in the NBA. Now that's a change I wasn't expecting to see this year.
Yes, actually. Initially, I would have gone with Frank Vogel, Eric Spoelstra, Brad Stevens, or Luke Walton (but he doesn't count, according to league rules). All these aforementioned coaches have done a great job this year, but none have dealt with as many new changes as Clifford. Seven new players are on this season's roster, and Clifford re-did his entire offensive system to utilize their strengths, along with the returning players from last season. As a result, we're seeing numerous Hornets having career best starts -- Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller to name a few. Other players, such as, Jeremy Lin, and Spencer Hawes -- are finding success after being in bad situations last season.
Charlotte ranks in the top-5 in offensive efficiency, and the defense is starting to catch up as well. That last bit is remarkable given the season ending injury to MKG. Even with the improved offense, Charlotte's staple remains it's defense. It's defense that has caused them to build leads and beat teams by 20 points or more (by the way, they rank 3rd in the league in most wins by 20 points or more), and they are doing this without one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, or a single rim protector.
One thing he's still figuring out is his rotations, and how he uses players. The fluctuating rotation of playing the guys who are having good nights has worked in most cases this season, but he seems to still be trying to figure out how best to use players. Lin is more productive as a point guard, but he's played a lot of shooting guard when in the game with Walker. Recent games have seen Clifford play Lin more at the point, so it's possible we'll see more of this moving forward.
Despite this, Clifford deserves a lot of credit, and naming him COTY right now wouldn't be outrageous. The Hornets are currently 4th in the East. If the playoffs started tonight, they'd have home court advantage. Even with a healthy MKG, few could have predicted them to be so high up in the standings through 23 games.
Let us know what you think in the comments.