NBA head coach-turned television analyst Jeff Van Gundy knows new Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford well.
So when Van Gundy compared Clifford to now-Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, that carried plenty of weight.
"Steve Clifford is a no-brainer just like Thibs was" Van Gundy said a while back. "Clifford has been overlooked. It’s just like Thibs, who took forever to get noticed.
"But I’ve always said: Some GM is going to make a lot of money off Clifford because he is going to get the maximum level output from his team, and the organization will benefit greatly from that."
Clifford, an NBA assistant coach the past 13 years, has been hired as the Bobcats’ sixth coach, a source close to Clifford confirmed Monday. Clifford will be the Bobcats’ third coach in as many seasons, replacing Mike Dunlap, who was fired in April.
Clifford is expected to sign a three-year contract, the third year at the Bobcats’ option. He was one of at least six candidates for the job. Former Suns coach (and Shelby native) Alvin Gentry was among those interviewed.
Like Dunlap, Clifford has never been an NBA head coach before the Bobcats hired him. But their resumes do diverge: Dunlap spent most of his career as a Division II college coach, serving just two seasons on an NBA bench in Denver. Clifford has spent most of the past 10 years working for veteran head coaches Jeff and Stan Van Gundy. Most recently he was lead assistant on the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench, working for Mike Brown and then Mike D’Antoni.
Clifford, 50, has a strong defensive background. Like Thibodeau, whose Bulls have won two of three Central Division titles since he arrived in Chicago, Clifford has a long resume with some of the best coaches in the league.
He worked for Jeff Van Gundy in Houston from 2003 through 2007, then joined Stan Van Gundy’s staff with the Orlando Magic from 2007 through the end of last season.
When the Magic let go Stan Van Gundy, then-Lakers coach Mike Brown hired Clifford, essentially to be that team’s defensive coordinator. When D’Antoni replaced Brown, he kept Clifford as lead assistant.
The teams Clifford worked with in Houston, Orlando and Los Angeles reached the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons, including the Magic’s Eastern Conference championship in 2009.
During that span in Orlando he worked closely with then-Magic assistant Patrick Ewing, once a top NBA center. Ewing interviewed for the Bobcats’ head-coaching job when Dunlap got it last spring. Ewing also has close ties to Bobcats owner Michael Jordan. So it’s conceivable Ewing could end up on Clifford’s staff.
Clifford also has ties to current Bobcats assistant Stephen Silas, who still has time left on his contract with the team. A strong playcaller, Silas could end up the offensive specialist on the staff.
Clifford worked with Thibodeau on Jeff Van Gundy’s Rockets staff before Thibodeau moved on to work with Doc Rivers in Boston. When Jeff Van Gundy was asked what would make Clifford a qualified NBA head coach, he responded this way:
"He just had this way of being able to teach, prod and console, and combine that to reach these challenging players," Van Gundy said. "When you work with a guy for a while, you just know when he has "it," and this guy has ‘it.’ When he gets his opportunity, he’ll knock it out of the park."
The Bobcats have churned through head coaches over much of their 10-year existence. Clifford becomes the Bobcats’ fifth head coach since 2007. None of those five lasted a full three seasons. Dunlap and Sam Vincent had no previous NBA head-coaching experience and both were fired after a single season.
The Bobcats had the worst record in the NBA over the past two seasons, at 28-120. Though the Bobcats improved from seven victories in 2011-12 to 21 in 2012-13, their statistics still make them one of the NBA’s worst teams at both ends of the floor. The Bobcats allowed 102.7 points last season, giving up 47 percent shooting. They scored 93.2 points per game off 42 percent shooting.
However, the tools for improvement are there: The Bobcats will have the No. 4 overall pick in June’s draft and could have three first-round picks in 2014 (their own, plus picks owed to them by the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers). Also, the Bobcats could make as much as $21 million available under the salary cap to sign free agents or facilitate trades.