POSTED: Aug 7, 2013 11:09 AM ET
Steve Clifford was a longtime assistant with the Lakers, Magic, Rockets and Knicks.
Editor's note: This is the latest in a series on first-time coaches in the NBA for the 2013-14 season. Tomorrow: Brian Shaw of the Denver Nuggets.
Kemba Walker read the rave reviews from the so-called experts, but in the end, he had to do his own homework on Steve Clifford.
Especially after the one-season experiment that was the Mike Dunlap era for the Charlotte Bobcats.
Steve Clifford Interview
So while Clifford was getting adjusted in his move from an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers to the new coach of the Bobcats, Walker was busy playing detective.
"If I've learned anything the past two years," Walker said, "it's that things can change, with a quickness, and not always for the better. We went from Coach [Paul] Silas to [Mike] Dunlap and this third time ... well, you want it to be the charm. So yeah, I absolutely did my homework on Coach Clifford. I talked to guys around the league that I knew he worked with and it was all good. All good. I just wanted to make sure. I understood what it is he'll expect from me as his point guard and what guys who have played for him before think of him and know of him, because if we're going to turn a corner and become the team we want to be, we've got to have a coach that's ready to take us to that next level."
Clifford, 51, hopes to be that guy. Unlike Dunlap, who was a stunning pick for the job, Clifford comes to the Bobcats as one of the most sought after assistant coaches in the league. His 13-year run as an assistant included stints with the Lakers, Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets and New York Knicks. Clifford got his NBA start under Jeff Van Gundy in New York and worked for him again in Houston, alongside now Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau in both stops.
Stan Van Gundy saw Clifford come into his own as a NBA coach during their time together in Orlando, which included a trip to The Finals in 2009.
"He has got it all," Stan Van Gundy said after Clifford was hired by the Bobcats. "He's a great Xs and Os guy and he has got a great ability to teach and he has great relationships with players. He's very much into preparation. He won't take any shortcuts. Steve will put a great emphasis on developing players. Not just skill development, but using film, talking to guys individually, spending time with them. And on the court he will emphasize defense, ball movement and guys playing together. He will be a fabulous head coach."
Clifford certainly has a well-developed philosophy. He's going to be demanding, without being a screamer. And he's going to demand his team defend, rebound and run at the highest levels without any exceptions. Accountability is a staple, for all involved. And the development of the entire group, not just the youngsters, is of the utmost importance.
The Bobcats will have an interesting mix of seasoned and emerging talent. Al Jefferson will anchor things in the low post alongside Brendan Haywood, Bismack Biyombo, rookie Cody Zeller and second-year swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Walker, Gerald Henderson, Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions and Jeff Taylor highlight the perimeter and backcourt.
They'll have to establish an identity under Clifford that has otherwise been missing under his predecessors.
"We'll play the quickest tempo we can play effectively," Clifford said. "We need to play fast with this team. You have to utilize the strength of your players. Kemba is strong in the open court, so is MKG. Henderson is fast. And Bismack is a runner."
Clifford said the thing he noticed about the Bobcats young core is that they are above average competitors. Walker, Henderson, Biyombo and Kidd-Gilchrist in particular, embody the sort of ambitious -- and, to an extent, fearless -- young talent needed to change the culture of a team that has gone a paltry 28-120 the past two seasons.
"[Former NFL] Coach [Bill] Parcells once said he wanted guys who are competitive on their own without the aid of coaches," Clifford said. "And in this league, when you're playing four and five nights a week, there aren't many times you can address the group and have some magic word to get them to play hard. You either have the right kind of guys or you don't. When you have young guys who are naturally competitive you have the opportunity to build the kind of culture that you want."
The Bobcats have had six coaches in their 10-year history. They are expected to give Clifford the chance to create the sort of environment that lends itself to winning in the NBA, to cultivate the sort of culture that nurtures young and seasoned talent alike.
Bobcats Introduce Steve Clifford
"I think every coach and every person involved in basketball,you have your own priorities in terms of judging players," Clifford said. "For me, it starts with competitiveness and skill-level, particularly shooting. I watch Kemba Walker, MKG, Bismack Biyombo and Gerald Henderson and I see guys who are above average competitors. Any good coach has a clear and definitive vision of how they want their team to play, how they want their team to practice and how they want their team to work. And I have that. I have seen what the right amount of work, with the right amount of communication, can do for a group of players. That's a head coach's job, to set a path, to set a vision for the rest of the team. Everything is built around them knowing that you can help them play better. That's where the whole thing starts."
And that's where Walker's investigation began. He solicited information from his college coach, Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, and any contacts he had in the coaching world that might know of Clifford and his pedigree. Walker had no idea that Clifford had coached at the college level (he led Division II Adelphi University to four 20-win seasons before embarking on his NBA journey). He was unaware of the Van Gundy connections and the Thibodeau comparisons until he dug in and started asking questions.
He discussed his findings with Kidd-Gilchrist, Taylor and others during Summer League and USA Basketball's mini-camp in Las Vegas. He made a point of engaging Clifford during that time, watching how he worked in Summer League practices, doing whatever he could to glean some insight into his new coach's psyche.
"We all got a good vibe from him right away," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "It was obvious from the start that he had studied up on us and knew our strengths and weaknesses and was ready to go to work."
Walker knew from his findings that Clifford was the right fit.
"With Big Al on board and the core group we had coming back, we felt like all we needed was right person to lead the way for us," Walker said. "And I'm serious when I say this, we've got a chance to turn this thing around with him running the show. I definitely think he is that guy."
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