clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2014-15 Front Office Report Cards: Steve Clifford

Wrapping up a coach's season into one report card is hard to do, but head coach Steve Clifford deserves a fair trial.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It's been over a month since the season ended, so you've likely already formed your opinion on how head coach Steve Clifford performed this year. With the team missing the playoffs and only winning 33 games, your opinion may be pretty negative, and that's o.k.

However, is it really fair to put that record solely on the shoulders of the coach? Is winning the only thing by which a coach should be measured? The answer is no.


It seems fair to measure coach Steve Clifford on benchmarks he set himself. For those unaware, Clifford's general mission for this year's team was to be a strong defensive team that protected the ball, while working an inside-out post-up offense through Al Jefferson. So did the team do what he said it would do? Let's review ORtg (points scored per 100 possessions), DRtg (points allowed per 100 possessions), TOV% (amount of possessions ending in a turnover), and DRB% (estimate of defensive rebounds obtained versus available).
















Stats from Basketball-Reference

The team hit on two of the three benchmarks: defense and protecting the ball (both by limiting turnovers and preventing offensive rebounds). The team has been a top 10 defense during Clifford's tenure and for two years in a row been the best in the league in TOV% and DRB%.

However, the third benchmark has been a complete miss. The team hasn't been able to string a complete season as an efficient inside-out post-up force. The only time it ever clicked for what felt like longer than a quarter was after the All Star break during the 2013-14 season when the team went 20-9, averaged 100.8 points per game, and had the 16th best ORtg over that span.

So if the coach has for the most part done what he said he would do, while showing that his players will commit to his system, shouldn't that be considered a success? Again, it's not that simple.

Clifford's system comes with legitimate consequences. In order to limit turnovers, the team attempts very few risky passes and is heavily reliant on the point guard to do the majority of the ball handling. Kemba Walker was eighth in the league on time of possession per game (per SportsVU tracking).

On the same note, the team commits all five players to rebounding defensively. This may seem like an obvious decision, but doing so limits the team's ability to get out on the fast-break. The Hornets were second to last in fast-break points per game last season at 9.4, which is half as much as the league leading Golden State Warriors averaged (20.4).

Finally, as Zach Lowe conveniently and eloquently said in a great article, the inside-out post-up game is very difficult to run. This is due to the league's new rules which promote guard play by removing hand-check rules and allow defenses to play zone schemes making it very difficult to complete post-entry passes.

Considering the lack of scoring skill on the roster, Clifford actually put together a solid game-plan, which on most nights gave his team a chance to win. However, going forward, one has to wonder if the coach will set new benchmarks that potentially diversify away from the inside-out game that failed this season.

Benchmark performance: Mixed

Another thing to consider, is how prepared the team was to start the season. This was the team's biggest failure and likely cost the team a chance at the postseason. How much pressure was on Clifford to start Lance Stephenson no matter what? If that was the plan, was it best to start the season with a four-out, one-in offense? Not one of those perimeter players had ever shot significantly better than league average from 3-point range for a season.

If the team had started with Kemba Walker, Gerald HendersonMichael Kidd-GilchristCody Zeller, and Al Jefferson as the starting unit, things would have been different. In hindsight, things may have been much better. That unit outscored opponents by 1.9 points per 100 possessions, which is far from an elite performance (for reference, the Warriors starting-five outscored opponents by 19.6 points per 100 possessions).

However, the original starting-five, which replaced Henderson with Stephenson and Zeller with Marvin Williams, performed horribly, being outscored by 25.1 points per 100 possessions. They basically made every starting lineup look like the Warriors. Ouch.

Starting the season off right: Not great Bob.


Considering the team regressed offensively and defensively, it would be easy to say that Clifford showed no growth this season. But injuries really set this team back. For better or worse, Clifford believes in building out the base parts of his scheme to perfection. He's routinely mentioned it's difficult for him to add wrinkles to his schemes throughout the season unless there is adequate practice time to do so.

Can you put some of that on the relatively young players? Is Clifford right to ask less of these guys and let them succeed in his base schemes so they have confidence when he adds assignments? Talk about an impossible question to really answer. However, the fact Clifford was able to put another solid defensive team together with a rotating, constantly injured lineup, shows growth in his ability to bring players and lineups up to speed throughout the season.

In addition to showing little changes schematically, Clifford once again held firm on his belief that players perform best with set rotations. If there's one thing all fans seem to universally hate, it is this decision from the coach. Cody Zeller starts 4-for-4 from the floor and has five rebounds? Doesn't matter. He's coming out for Marvin Williams with 6:00 to play in the first quarter, because that is what he said would happen before the game.

Now there were obviously exceptions to this when players were in foul trouble, but for the first three quarters of every game, a player's playing time was routinely set in stone. Again, a difficult question arises: do the preset rotations negatively affect the players? Or does having a defined role and a time in which to do it enable players to perform to the best of their ability? It's a tough call, and without knowing these players intimately it's really impossible to say one method is objectively better than the other. However, it is fair to say that Clifford did not "grow" in this category.

Going forward, it seems fair to lay the following growth at Clifford's feet:

1. Diversify the offense to help keep Jefferson fresh and prevent team's from keying in on him

2. Be slightly more lenient in all of his principles (for example, what's the difference between first and fifth in turnover percentage? Especially if the team is scoring more and more diversely as a result.)

3. Make sure to start the year with the best lineup to complete the team's mission

Play of the year

Nothing sticks out more than the last second game winner by Lance Stephenson against the Atlanta Hawks in double overtime. For all of his strengths, Clifford isn't known for drawing up great plays out of the timeout. His best out-of-bounds play is probably the Michael Kidd-Gilchrist lob to Gerald Henderson that the team somehow pulls off once every other game.

So this play by Stephenson really sums up the season in a nut-shell. It didn't go how Clifford wanted it to, but there were still a few silver linings.


Coach Clifford wasn't really in the news or on social media much this year. Considering he had some medical issues last season due to stress, it seems no news is good news.


Heading into the third year of his three year contract, Clifford is likely in a "prove it" year and he knows it. This time last year he had this to say:

"You never take being in this league for granted; they're the best players in the world," Clifford said. "If you don't win, they're only going to let you coach so long."

Read more here:

(H/t) Rick Bonnell, Charlotte Observer

Does he need to make the playoffs to keep his job? Maybe. Is that fair? Not really considering everything that goes into a team's success or failure. However, one thing is for certain: Steve Clifford is very good at some things and is by all accounts a solid NBA coach. His only agenda so far has been winning, and although his methods for doing so might not mesh with your perfect dream coach, he's proven he can turn concepts into results.

Still, this is one of the most competitive leagues in the world, so hopefully for the sake of the fans and the front office, Clifford is able to coach a winner and shows plenty of growth in the process.