Former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy was Steve Clifford’s boss for six years. He praises the Charlotte Bobcats’ next coach in all the predictable ways:
Organized, detail-oriented, tactically innovative …
Then you ask Van Gundy what is distinctive about Clifford’s profile.
“What sets him apart is he can walk the line,” Van Gundy told the Observer Tuesday. “He’s a demanding guy, but he’s very, very good with people. He has an engaging personality.”
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The Bobcats are expected to formally announce Clifford as their sixth head coach Wednesday. People skills would be valuable to coaching any of the NBA’s 30 teams, but perhaps especially so to the roster Clifford will inherit.
His predecessor, Mike Dunlap, was fired after a single season in the job. For all of Dunlap’s technical skill, his approach to personalities doomed him. His coarse personality often alienated some of his players.
Clifford has to strike a balance between fixing a team with numerous deficiencies and tending to the morale of players who’ve gone 28-120 the past two seasons, worst in the NBA.
Van Gundy, who worked with him from 2007 through 2012, says Clifford can pull that off.
“Steve was assigned individual work with our forwards. Hedo Turkoglu is a very talented guy who can get lazy,” Van Gundy said. “Steve was great at showing him (what he was doing wrong) with just a few clips” of video.
That’s one of Clifford’s favorite teaching tools: Video doesn’t lie. He’ll edit 50 plays a particular player made down to a snippet – no fewer than three, but never more than five. He’ll walk his laptop over to the player for a quiet moment, show visual evidence of the wrong and right way to do something, and move on.
It’s called economy of communication and it’s essential in the NBA where a team might be playing four games in five nights. Often during the season a coach can’t efficiently work his players for more than 45 minutes on the practice court. Van Gundy said Clifford has a knack for distilling everything he’s seen into a couple of crucial corrections.
“He doesn’t overwhelm people,” Van Gundy said. “NBA coaching is so much about deciding priorities – what goes the furthest in making you better.
“The other thing about Steve is he knows when to push hard and when just to crack a joke. … He’s very even-keeled. When we lost five in a row or won five in a row, he was the same guy. Not ‘We stink!’ or ‘We’re great!’ ”
Lots of stops
Certainly he’s had plenty of practice adapting his personality to different situations. Since playing point guard at the University of Maine at Farmington – a small teacher’s college in the Western region of the state – Clifford has been a high school coach, an assistant at five colleges, a Division II head coach (Adelphi on Long Island, where he went 86-36 in four seasons), an NBA scout and an assistant with three NBA teams.
Farmington isn’t a place you’d find budding NBA talent. It was NAIA ball at the time (NCAA Division III now). About half the school’s 2,000 or so students train to be teachers; Clifford was a special education major.
The gym holds at most 600 fans and the school’s sports information director found Clifford’s statistics inside an old scorebook. Over his last three college seasons, Clifford averaged about three points and four assists per game. He shot 48 percent from the field, but since he scored just 250 points over three seasons, it’s clear shooting wasn’t his job.
After coaching a couple of seasons of high school ball in New England, Clifford worked a series of college jobs, networking at various summer camps. That’s when he met another Division II assistant, Bill Herrion, who would be Clifford’s last boss in college basketball.
Herrion was coaching East Carolina in 1999 when he hired Carroll as an assistant – the only time previous to now that Clifford has worked in North Carolina. Clifford was there a single season, but Herrion was particularly impressed with his doggedness as a recruiter.
Clifford had some connections in Argentina who told him about a forward good enough to start in the Colonial Athletic Association and at least be a rotation player in Conference USA, where the Pirates were headed.
“He went down there on his own to see a tryout of this guy, Gabriel Mikulas,” said Herrion, now coach at New Hampshire. “I’d never seen him play. He comes up here for a visit wearing jeans in 95-degree weather. I asked Steve, ‘Is this guy really a player?’ ”
Yes, Clifford implored, and his instincts were dead-on: Mikulas averaged 15 points his first season and was named Colonial Freshman of the Year.
Later in the school year, Herrion got a call from Jeff Van Gundy, then coach of the New York Knicks, apologetically saying he’d like to hire Clifford away to be an advance scout. That was the first big step in Clifford’s ascent to today’s news conference at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Defense-yes, but not exclusively
Jeff Van Gundy made Clifford an assistant with the Houston Rockets in 2003. Then when Jeff left Houston, brother Stan Van Gundy hired Clifford with the Magic in 2007. In Orlando, Clifford was reunited with assistant Brendan Malone, who knew him since he was a high school coach in the early ’80s.
Malone said Clifford’s team will be “defense-first,” but he cautioned against defining Clifford as a defensive specialist.
“We’re not football coaches. We know how to coach at both ends of the floor,” Malone said, adding that Clifford’s approach to defense won’t be gimmicky.
“On the first day he will introduce some very basic principles: Shrink the floor, close up the lane, close out (on jump shooters) and rebound,” Malone said. “He values getting back right at the release (of an errant shot).
“That sounds like pretty basic stuff, but these aren’t things he’ll just talk about. Defense is about repetition – rep, rep, rep in practice. He’s good at sending the message these aren’t things to have to think about it, they have to happen automatically. And he’ll work on them, not just in training camp, but throughout the season.”
Like Van Gundy and Herrion, Malone says Clifford has the people skills to make all that work not drudgery for the players.
“He has a great sense of humor, he’s upbeat. As far as player relations, he’s the best,” Malone said.
“He’s a coach who doesn’t have a tremendous ego, so he’s no self-promoter. But this opportunity was overdue.”