Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford said repeatedly over the past few weeks he’s no expert on the NBA draft. He’s too busy during the season with his own team to watch much college or international basketball.
So Clifford will defer to general manager Rich Cho and his scouts Thursday night on how best to use the Nos. 9, 24 and 45 selections. That doesn’t mean, however, that Clifford lacks for opinions on how he’d like the Hornets roster to evolve between the draft and free-agency.
Clifford has been made available to local media after most of the Hornets’ pre-draft workouts. Two themes have emerged from his comments: When it’s a close choice between two players, bigger is better. And given a choice between experience and potential, Clifford leans toward experience.
Clifford mentioned several times that the lesson other teams can draw from this season’s playoffs is size counts for plenty in terms of who advances and ultimately wins the title.
“With (NBA champion) San Antonio, one of the reasons they got back to the top is they knew they needed more size along the perimeter. So they went out and got (6-foot-7 small forward) Kawhi Leonard,” Clifford said recently.
“At the end of the day, (the NBA) is still a match-up league. It’s different from college, which is more five-man basketball. In the playoffs, you’re going to go at matchups. You’ve got to have guys (big enough to) get their own shots and guys to make it hard on those guys.”
This is not a new approach, so much as an amplification of what Clifford said before training camp last fall. At a media luncheon in September Clifford was asked if he’d go small in his lineup much. He joked in reply that going small in the NBA is fine “unless you want to win.”
“The going-small thing will win you a game here or there, but you’re going nowhere,” Clifford said this spring. “If you’re trying to build a team game for the playoffs, why do it?”
From Michigan’s Nik Stauskas to North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston to Syracuse’s Jerami Grant, Clifford made a habit of praising “true NBA size” as a factor in these draft decisions. Grant is a good example: He’s 6-8 and will have a challenge transitioning from college power forward to NBA small forward. But he has a wingspan in excess of 7 feet, which caught Clifford’s attention.
“It shows up on defense in helping with your wingspan,” Clifford said. “You get to (late rounds of the playoffs) and they’re taking away your plays. That’s when size becomes critical – size and quickness.”
With that in mind, consider the Hornets’ size: The Observer studied the average height of the five starting spots among the 30 NBA teams, comparing them to the Hornets’ starters last season.
That study indicates the Hornets were small compared to the average starting lineup and the lineups of teams that advanced deep into the playoffs, but not by a lot.
Point guard Kemba Walker, small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and center Al Jefferson was each about an inch shorter than his average starting peer. Jefferson, at 6-foot-10, was about 2 inches shorter than the average starting center among playoff teams this spring.
But Clifford wasn’t just talking about starter-vs.-starter. Specific to the Spurs, Clifford was talking about the options coach Gregg Popovich had to defend various big men between Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw.
Combine that with the skill level of Duncan and Diaw, and you have a team that dominated the defending-champion Miami Heat.
“Size is always good and shooting is always good,” Clifford said. “You can’t have too much of either.”
The experience-vs.-potential balance is something Clifford mentioned occasionally during the season. At roughly the All-Star break in February, when it became clear Jefferson’s presence was getting the then-Bobcats into playoff contention, Clifford told his players he was done making “developmental” decisions concerning playing time.
That meant no more parsing out minutes just because one player was younger or a former high draft pick. Clifford coached the rest of the season for now, not the future.
“I think you always want guys who have performed, versus guys who have potential,” Clifford said of the experience/youth mix.
Clifford has often said there were just a handful of rookies in his 14 years in the NBA who were ready to truly impact games.
“If you want to go back and look at it, (Dwyane) Wade was a go-to guy right away, Carmelo (Anthony) was, LeBron (James) obviously was, Damian Lillard was,” Clifford said. “But it’s hard to go back in my time and find a lot of (rookies) who come in and make real impact on good teams.”
This is where the natural checks and balances between coach and general manager come into play. Cho has often talked about not bargaining away long-term flexibility for short-term gain. He’s also mentioned the value of always having a portion of your roster on the rookie pay scale; that reduces payroll and keeps a team away from the luxury-tax threshold.
Cho said he’s conscious of Clifford’s priorities and they work well together.
“The front office and coaching staff have to be on the same page. I don’t think they necessary have to be on the same sentence, but they have to be on the same page,” Cho said. “And I think we’re on the same page as far as team needs.”