New Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford says he’ll be fair and open with his players. That doesn’t mean Clifford sees his job as making every player happy with his role.
“Whenever coaches say every player has the chance for playing time, they’re lying to you,” Clifford said during a Wednesday luncheon with Charlotte media.
“This can’t be like intramurals (where everyone gets in games) because guys stink when that happens. Some guys are going to have to play well with less minutes.”
This is Clifford’s first season as an NBA head coach. It’s clear he has strong convictions. He and his bosses – front-office executives Rod Higgins and Rich Cho – believe this team’s biggest strength can be its depth. But that creates complications as far as players’ minutes expectations.
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Clifford said his job is to figure out which combinations maximize the chance to win a game. That isn’t the same as playing the most talented players all the time.
“I’m playing guys who it feels right in here,” Clifford said, pointing to his heart. “I told the guys I will play players who give us the best chance to win. Not necessarily the best players, but the players who give us the best chance to win.”
Training camp will open Tuesday at UNC Asheville. Clifford told the Observer last week he has penciled in four players as starters: Point guard Kemba Walker, shooting guard Gerald Henderson, small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and center Al Jefferson.
The power forward spot is up for grabs between rookie Cody Zeller, the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, and veteran Josh McRoberts, re-signed this offseason. Clifford wants to see how Zeller and McRoberts fit with the four starters. But he’s not coy in saying sooner or later Zeller has to excel for this team to reach its potential.
“If we’re going to be really good in the next two to three years, Zeller has to be in the middle of it. He’s more talented,” Clifford said.
McRoberts dramatically improved the Bobcats’ ball movement after a midseason trade from Orlando. As Clifford described, “McRoberts makes people better by the way he plays.”
However, it’s clear Clifford is sold on Zeller’s future: “He’s the most talented rookie in the league. And his intangibles are off the roof.”
Clifford inherits a team that went 28-120 over the past two seasons and is on its thirdcoach in as many seasons. Clifford’s predecessor, Mike Dunlap, did a good job developing young players, particularly Walker. But some of the veterans – shooting guard Ben Gordon and center Brendan Haywood, for instance – seemed to be marginalized.
Clifford said he sent the message they come in with a clean slate.
“There are guys I’m going to like more than the previous” coach, Clifford said, “and guys I’ll like less.
“You need to help Ben Gordon turn back the clock five years (to when he excelled with the Chicago Bulls). And for McRoberts to have a year he hasn’t yet had. We had a good offseason and we upped our talent.”
At times last season, Dunlap went with a small lineup to try to overcome a limited roster. Sometimes that meant playing point guards Walker and Ramon Sessions together. Other times it meant playing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at power forward.
Clifford said going small is not typically a winning formula. He mentioned that nine of the past 10 NBA champions finished among the top 10 in defense.
“To play great defense you must have great size,” he said.
Clifford said hehas developed relationships over the summer with the players so Tuesday in Asheville shouldn’t feel like the first day of school
“Not like they don’t know me and I don’t know what they can do,” Clifford described. “Coaching is about people: Communicating with your players. If they don’t think you have the knowledge, they don’t listen anymore.”