Former Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford sat down with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on the Woj Pod to talk old school recruiting, the Hornets, coaching in the NBA, and other stuff. You can listen to it here on Stitcher, or you can find on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever you usually listen to your podcasts.
Here’s a quick summary of the show:
On being in his old recruiting grounds and what it was like to recruit as an assistant coach back in the day
Clifford told stories about the typical day in the life of a college basketball assistant coach in the 1980s and 1990s. It included day trips to watch almost every game of the school’s top potential recruits and lots of visits to pay phones.
On the hiring of Mitch Kupchak and whether or not he was surprised to be let go (3:18)
Clifford said he wasn’t surprised he was let go.
The reality is the team missed the playoffs two years in a row.
This year I was disappointed in the results that we had. I thought we had a better team than we played.
He did sound appreciative for the Hornets for giving him a shot as a head coach and called it a great experience in which he learned a lot and grew as a coach. He also understands that the lack of job security is how the NBA works and he’s ready for his next challenge.
On whether the team’s injuries and his own health issues disrupted the continuity of the season (4:57)
Clifford said he believes the various health issues surrounding the team did hurt the continuity but stressed that inconsistency was main problem that brought the team down.
We never developed a way to play.
He pointed out that he felt his teams were able to develop a way to play in each of his first four seasons in Charlotte, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t happen this season. He also said he believes that despite the team’s 33-49 record, the 2014-15 season was his staff’s best coaching job, pointing to the offensive limitations of the roster.
On why the defense struggled this season (7:08)
Clifford said that going into the season that he thought this group would be his best defensive team and had the potential to be a top 5 defense. He called the defensive production very disappointing, but he never really gave any theories or reasons to why that happened.
On why Dwight Howard didn’t seem to impact the team’s defense and if Clifford expected more out of him as a defensive anchor (8:14)
Clifford made a point to compliment Howard’s defensive rebounding prowess and its importance to defense. He went on to say that in a perfect world, you want your 5 to be able to defend and also let you to play five out, but there aren’t many guys that can do that. The other thing you want in a 5 is someone who can defend and also be a dominant force in the pick and roll. He believes that too many guys focus on expanding their game offensively once they get into the league and neglect improving their defense to an extent. He ended by saying that centers need to be able to defend on the perimeter.
The implication there seems to be that coach Cliff thought Howard’s inability or unwillingness to guard the outside in the increasingly perimeter oriented NBA was the reason his presence did not improve the defense.
On coaching Kemba Walker (10:45)
Clifford had nothing but glowing things to say about the Hornets captain. He considers his time coaching Walker one of the things he’ll cherish the most about his coaching career. He recalled a story where Kemba reached out to him so he could join the young guys at Summer League. Instead of only taking part in the late day scrimmages like most veterans do, Kemba insisted on taking part in all the drills with the Summer League invitees.
Clifford went onto describe how Walker always puts winning above all else, holds himself accountable, and works hard. Having a player of his caliber demonstrating those traits makes coaching easier and makes everything more fun.
On if there are as many guys committed to winning now as there were in his early days as an NBA assistant (15:30)
Clifford posited that it’s harder to find good fundamentals, team players, and hard workers in young guys. It can also be tougher to manage them since they have a bigger circle of people they listen to compared to days past. He did share this quote from former Hornets assistant Bob Weiss:
It’s easy to sit here and say because of AAU [players] aren’t as fundamentally sound. They play better now.
Players are more individually talented than they were in the 1990s, but the big issue is figuring out how to get them to play well as a team.
On if he feels the need to be in contact with players every day to avoid getting drowned out by voices outside the organization (19:27)
The most important relationship with every player if you want a chance to max out your team has to be with the coach.
He said as a coach, you have to get a feel for who they’re listening to and lay out your personal expectations for them as their coach. He learned a lot of his leadership skills from Jeff Van Gundy, including what he considers his most important mantra:
If you ask the guys in Charlotte about Steve Clifford, I would want them to say ‘he wants me to do well.’
He also pointed out that coaching is different than skill development. As a head coach, his job is to define roles for each player that they can play their best in.
On the coaching in the modern era and how there can’t be a good cop/bad cop kind of deal with assistants and a lack of regular engagement from the coaching staff like there used to be (23:44)
Clifford recounted a story of when he took over as a varsity basketball coach at age 22 and the authoritarian stance he took then and how that wouldn’t fly today.
On whether or not he refers back to old experiences with other coaches for ideas/advice (25:13)
Clifford said he always looks to old experiences from all different phases of his coaching career, not just the NBA guys. He also learned a lot from assistants he worked with like Tom Thibodeau and Bernie Bickerstaff.
On what the hardest decisions are to make as a coach (29:57)
According to Clifford, in the NBA, the most difficult thing is always “time and touches.” Also, in the NBA, you aren’t the first coach at this level of play that your players have listened to. There are other coaches at this level that may do things differently, so it takes more to get buy in from players. As a coach, you have to be prepared and know what you’re talking about.
On his reputation for not yelling at players and instead being more of a constructive instructor (31:54)
He called practice a time for developing the right habits and there’s no time to argue during it. The film study is the time to go over where coach and player aren’t on the same page. He went on to say that there are a lot of guys that can get numbers in this league, but they don’t always help teams win.
On whether he feels he has to fight for practice time as the league trends towards more rest (34:12)
Clifford said he never had to worry about it during his time with the Hornets because he was surrounded by guys like Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing that never really saw the need for rest. He did however point out that coaches have to be careful of practice times because that kind of stuff matters to potential free agent targets, so time management is crucial.
On whether the amount of practice time vs. rest time affecting free agent desirability is a new trend and where that information comes from (38:15)
He said that comes from the assistant coaches. He told a story from when the Hornets went over to China for part of training camp before the 2015-16 season. With all of the travel and other obligations the players were getting worn out, so Clifford cut practice time down to 45 minutes but still implored his team to give great effort and ran them through a tough practice. A new player, which he didn’t name, asked assistant Steve Hetzel “Is he serious? Is that how we’ll practice all year?” Apparently that would have been the toughest practice of the season at his previous stops over the past five seasons.
If you want to speculate, that player was likely one of Jeremy Lin, Spencer Hawes, or Nicolas Batum.
On what Yao Ming’s career would’ve been like had he not been injured (40:44)
Cliff said he was gifted player that worked tremendously hard and told some stories of his days coaching Yao.
Go on over and click the link to the show if you want to hear more of the finer details of what Clifford had to say. At the very least give it a click out of respect since I ended up laying most of it out right here.