Steve Clifford considers himself lucky anyone wanted him as an NBA head coach.
“I’m not going to lie,” Clifford said. “I was always going to take the first job I was offered.”
So when the Charlotte Bobcats made an offer last spring, Clifford canceled an interview with the Milwaukee Bucks and gave agent Steve Kauffman express orders: Don’t screw this up.
That speaks to who Clifford is: He isn’t into pretense and his career is about the work, not the perks.
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It’s like center Al Jefferson said in March: “I know one thing about Coach: He says what he does and does what he says.”
That’s worked pretty well. A team that went 28-120 the previous two seasons finished 43-39 to qualify for the playoffs for just the second time in the Bobcats’ 10-year history. The Bobcats resume a best-of-7 playoff series against the Miami Heat Saturday night, trailing 2-0.
Clifford was named Eastern Conference coach of the month for April after the Bobcats went 7-1. He was fourth in media balloting for coach of the year.
“He’s given us something as an organization we needed in a big way – credibility,” said Rod Higgins, the team’s president of basketball operations.
It took a while for the Bobcats to get this coach thing right: Between December of 2010 and June of 2013 they burned through three coaches, firing Larry Brown and Mike Dunlap and not re-signing Paul Silas.
Clifford, under contract the next two seasons, looks like a keeper. The process of hiring Clifford started with a conversation between Higgins and then-Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith.
“Otis told me, ‘One thing about Cliff – every night you play he will have your team prepared to win,’ “ Higgins recalled.
He’s not a complex guy, but what’s important to him is extremely important. He had signs placed all around the team’s practice gym, huge reminders of his “musts,” like “We get back in transition”…“We defend without fouling.”…“We play to our strengths and help our teammates play to their strengths.”
Those slogans are about defining an identity. And his players took heed.
He says he could have been perfectly happy back in his native New England, being a high school coach and special education teacher. But he went into college coaching in 1985 working at, among other schools, Siena, Boston University, Adelphi and East Carolina.
Jeff Van Gundy hired him as an advance scout with the New York Knicks in 2000. He spent 13 seasons as an NBA assistant with the Knicks, Houston Rockets, Magic and Lakers, working closely with Jeff Van Gundy and his brother, Stan.
Most of what Clifford has sold to his players breaks down to preparation, persona and the practical – not his words exactly, but in a recent interview he agreed that kind of sums him up.
Shooting guard Gerald Henderson has played for four head coaches in five NBA seasons. He sees something distinctive in this one.
“The thing that sticks out most about him is he has a hunger to do well,” Henderson said. “He takes that approach every day in his preparation – how precise he is in everything.”
His mentors were meticulous to the extreme. Stan Van Gundy trained Clifford to imagine every eventuality in the off-season, because if you don’t have a comprehensive plan before the season starts, you’re lost.
When Clifford learned the annual head coaches meeting is in Chicago, he built time into that fall trip to shadow Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, another mentor and close friend. Clifford went through all of Thibodeau’s logs to make sure he’d planned out the season from training camp to the playoffs.
Clifford certainly wasn’t a natural to end up an NBA coach. He played Division III college ball at Maine-Farmington and prepared for life as a school teacher. The succession from college assistant to NBA scout to NBA assistant coach was no grand plan.
“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.”
Higgins sees that urgency in every interaction Clifford has with his players.
“He doesn’t screw around,” Higgins described. “There’s no such thing as a loose shootaround, a loose practice, a loose film session.
“There are so many things you can’t impact (as a coach). He makes sure not to waste an opportunity with what he can.”
Clifford, who turns 53 in May, got a sudden reminder of the work/life balance last fall when he felt chest pains and was admitted to an emergency room. Doctors unclogged two arteries, averting an imminent heart attack.
His sister, a nurse in Texas, warned him he had to take better care of himself.
“The biggest thing we talked about was more sleep,” Clifford said. “Now I go to sleep on the plane (returning from road games) and I take naps on game days.”
Clifford is quick to laugh at himself. When someone recently asked how he’s changed as a head coach, he made fun of the heart scare:
“Well, I’ve gained some weight and I have two stents now.”
In an NBA world full of Armani suits and Escalades, Clifford is still habitually working-class. The players needle him constantly about still driving an old Honda. He recently did a pregame television interview in Washington with three coffee stains across the chest of his dress shirt.
“You noticed that!” he tells a reporter with a guffaw. “Happened on the bus to the arena. Couldn’t be fixed.”
The players love his good humor.
“He’s just a great person first of all. Everyone gets along with him,” said point guard Kemba Walker.
Don’t confuse that popularity with Clifford being a pushover. Clifford can rage, swear and scream when the moment calls for it without it getting personal. Owner Michael Jordan said he had to fire Dunlap after one season because the players weren’t responding to his approach. This is different.
“That’s pretty hard to do as a coach. He holds everyone accountable, but at the same time we have our respect for him,” Walker said.
“We know him as both a person and as a coach. If he has to get into you, then you know you did something wrong. He’s been in this league for a long time, seen a lot.”
Clifford is a very visual teacher. There’s a story he tells about his early interaction with Walker, when they were discussing how to make him more effective in the pick-and-roll.
Clifford showed Walker a video montage of plays from the previous season without comment. Walker had an epiphany, shouting out, “I never pass the ball!”
Precisely the message Clifford was sending.
“It’s an ‘I know it when I see it’ thing,” Clifford said. “If you just tell someone something, it can come off as vague. If you show three clips, it’s a lot easier to make a point.”
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was asked in December how the Bobcats are different under Clifford. Spoelstra replied they always played hard, but now they’re “organized.”
That organization is a function of simplicity. The defense doesn’t have a lot of gimmicks. But there are a few foundations – always get back in transition, don’t give up points at the rim, guard without excessive fouls – that Clifford labeled non-negotiable from the day he arrived in Charlotte.
Henderson likes that directness:
“He’ll say, ‘This is the player I need you to be’ or ‘This is the player we can’t have,’ “ Henderson said.
“You get on a losing team, you get losing habits. Those habits add up to losing more if enough guys behave that way. You’ve got to change that culture and he did it right off the bat.”
There’s been a lot of drama attached to the Bobcats’ recent coaches. Brown would openly second-guess the front office. Silas had a physical confrontation with then-Bobcat Tyrus Thomas. Dunlap got furious when then-Bobcat Ben Gordon dropped a ball during a pregame walk-through.
Clifford is a no-drama guy. Henderson appreciates that.
“On certain things like getting back on defense (he’s a stickler). He’s worried about the game and playing,” Henderson said. “There’s a whole bunch of other B.S. you can be consumed by. Not him. If you’re late for the bus, you get fined. He’s not going to talk about it.”
Clifford often quotes something Jeff Van Gundy told him – that enforcing discipline is easy, playing with discipline is hard.
“They’re pro players. We pay them a lot of money. You’ve got to give them their due,” Clifford said.
Clifford said this first season has been simpler because of a veteran coaching staff: Associate coach Patrick Ewing and assistants Bob Beyer, Mark Price, Stephen Silas and Bob Weiss. They have the authority to address issues that never reach Clifford’s desk.
Other than guard Gary Neal sitting out a game for a team violation (it’s never become public what happened), it’s been a drama-free season.
This team might not have much margin for error, but it was consistent in performance. The only rough patch was in late December/early January, when they lost seven of eight. At no other time did they lose more than three in a row.
Now they’re being tested in a playoff series by the NBA champions. They’re down 2-0and at times the Heat has taken them out of their identity. The Bobcats finished the regular season having committed the fewest turnovers and fouls in the NBA. The two playoff losses have been full of turnovers and fouls.
Clifford keeps reminding players this team doesn’t have the offensive weapons to survive sloppy play. But he’s also not panicked over two losses to a greatly talented and well-coached team.
That might speak to what power forward Josh McRoberts likes best about Clifford – his patience. McRoberts says he’s innately impatient, so he respects that quality in the head coach. Here’s why:
“When you’re winning in the NBA, you think you’ll never lose. And when you’re losing you fear you’ll never win,” McRoberts said.
“No matter what was happening, he always kept us on-point and on even keel. That matters.”