Steve Clifford, never before an NBA head coach, is on the clock to fix the Charlotte Bobcats.
He’ll run his first training camp at UNC Asheville starting Oct. 1. There’s some uncertainty, with the players new to him and some of them new to each other. But the roster has been improved, particularly with the additions of center Al Jefferson and rookie forward Cody Zeller.
Clifford says Jefferson instantly becomes the Bobcats’ best offensive weapon, a scoring big man teams will have no choice but to double-team in the post. The Bobcats haven’t had that type and quality of scorer before, and it’s Clifford’s job to find efficient ways to get him the ball. It’s also the coach’s charge to teach the other Bobcats how best to play off Jefferson, to punish defenses for helping on Jefferson.
Clifford is excited both by Jefferson’s track record and Zeller’s potential. And he sees a breakthrough season for second-year pro Jeff Taylor.
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But Clifford also sees challenges, specifically how to improve the team’s rebounding and 3-point shooting.
Clifford sat down to field questions on the upcoming season:
Q: What would you describe as this roster’s greatest strength?
A: “We have a premier low-post scorer (in free agent Al Jefferson), which not many teams have. And we have depth – those would be the two things that stick out to me.”
Q: How will Jefferson help?
A: “Basketball is a game that starts at the top of your roster. Whoever has the best single player on the floor has a decided advantage. He immediately becomes our best offensive player, with the ability to attract a second defender and make the play to get another player a good shot.
“The challenge for our team is the post-up (scorer) is a dependent position. He depends on others to get him the ball. Him getting the ball where he wants it and when he wants it will be critical. That means our spacing and our ability to play out of his double-teams become critical areas, too.”
Q: How will teammates best play off Jefferson?
A: “You have to have ways for him to catch the ball deep (in the lane). We’ll work on that right away. And then you have to have counters for when they make it hard for him to get the ball. Whether it’s fronting him or whatever, you have to counteract those plays.”
Q: Describe the role you envision for Cody Zeller:
A: “He has a lot of physical ability, his basketball IQ is through the roof, he has great intangibles and he’s young. I don’t want to limit him in any way, but I want him to progress at his own rate. I don’t want to put demands on him, because he’s so team-oriented he’d feel undue pressure. I’m going to watch him, let him be comfortable and see how he goes. For us to be good, he’s got to be a really big part of it. But he’s a young guy and I don’t think he needs undue demands.”
Q: You’ve expressed a lot of faith in Jeff Taylor. Describe why.
A: “To me he has the physical attributes and the skill level to play well at both ends of the floor. That’s what wins in this league. He can guard his man and be a good team defender. He can make the 3 and drive the ball. He’s improved his in-between, pull-up game this summer.
“He’s been in (the practice facility) non-stop. There’s no reason why he can’t be – right now, today – an effective rotation player. When a guy is bright, hard-working and committed, it’s easy to believe in him.”
Q: Your assessment of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?
A “Since summer league he’s been terrific. He came back to Charlotte disappointed in the way he played (in Las Vegas) and I think he’s worked hard at his skills and his conditioning level. He’s been in the weight room. And it’s paying off for him.”
Q: Improving Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot has fallen on assistant coach Mark Price. How has that gone?
A: “Very well. One, he’s helped with the basic mechanics of the shot, which he knows a lot about. And, two, Mark knows what it takes to be a good player in this league. Mike is young. Some of those variables – 82 games (in a season), four games in five nights, he had to learn to get through.
“He can be such a good individual defender. He has to be more disciplined, which he knows, and play more consistently, which he knows. But there aren’t many people with the defensive instincts, plus the strength and quickness, that he possesses.”
Q: What, on a basketball court, is non-negotiable?
A: “Transition defense. There are numerous areas we have to improve if we want a better record. But the thing about transition defense is all it takes is effort and organization. It’s not a talent area. You run back every time because it puts you in a better position to defend, or you don’t. It’s as simple as that. That’s something we have to take pride in.”
Q: Anything else of particularly high priority?
A: “I’m spending a lot of time looking at our rebounding game. Rebounding translates from level to level more than any stat. Guys who rebound well in college tend to rebound well in the NBA. If you look at our roster we have one guy (Kidd-Gilchrist) who is an exceptional rebounder by (position). The bottom line is we can improve offensively and improve defensively, but if we don’t improve in team rebounding, it may not matter.”
Q: What are your biggest concerns?
A: “One we talked about – rebounding. The other is shooting. You need to spread defenses out. Your shooting is your spacing. If you look at the good teams, they play guys who can make 3s. They’re only going to guard you to where you can shoot. We have to create more quality 3s and we have to shoot a better percentage.”
Q: What are your thoughts on Gerald Henderson?
A: “He’ll be a priority scorer, someone we’ll go to. I think he has room for another big jump (in performance). He’s a bright guy. It’s important to him he plays better and equally important that we do better.
Q: Your assessment of Kemba Walker?
A “He had experiences this summer that allowed him to grow a lot. USA Basketball was great for him. He’s worked on things individually. Those three guys – Al, Gerald and Kemba – will be the primary scorers in our projected starting group.”
Q: And what would you say is your projected starting group, entering camp?
A: “Kemba, Gerald, MKG (Kidd-Gilchrist), Al. And then the (power forward) becomes who fits in best.”
Q: What does Bismack Biyombo need to do to improve?
A: “The biggest thing is he has to develop a phase of the game he can play consistently well every night. To me that’s defense overall, where he can take advantage of his quickness and athleticism. They all have to have an every-night strength.”