Is Clifford the Best Defensive Head Coach in NBA?

Stats show Clifford may very well be the league's best defensive coach
by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - The finalists for this season’s NBA Coach of the Year Award are Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, Denver’s Michael Malone and the L.A. Clippers’ Doc Rivers. They are all deserving candidates, unquestionably.

Another coach who deserves praise, even if he wasn’t named a finalist for the award, is Orlando’s Steve Clifford, who helped the Magic win an NBA season-best 17 more games than the prior year. It was the second best year-to-year win improvement in franchise history.

A head coach in the NBA for six seasons now, Clifford has actually been one of the league’s best coaches during this time. In his first year with the Hornets, then known as the Bobcats, the native of Island Falls, Maine helped Charlotte win 22 more games than the previous year. A couple seasons later, Clifford’s Hornets won 48 games, 15 more than the prior year.

When taking a closer look at what Clifford has accomplished so far since 2013 when he first took the Hornets job, it’s quite remarkable how disciplined, organized and tough his teams have been, particularly on the defensive side of the court.

Clifford’s teams ranked in the top 10 in opponent points off turnovers and opponent second chance points all six seasons. In five of those years, they ranked in the top 10 in opponent points in the paint. Meanwhile, they were in the top 10 in opponent fast break points four times.

That means all together Clifford’s squads ranked in the top 10 in these categories 87.5 percent of the time (21 out of 24).

The Magic and Bucks were the only two teams in 2018-19 who ranked in the top 10 in each of those miscellaneous categories. It was the third time Clifford has been the head coach of a team who achieved this. It's only been done 13 times since 2013-14.

Below is a table that shows where Clifford’s teams ranked in the NBA in each of those areas the past six seasons.

Season
Opp. Pts Off TO
Opp. 2nd Chance Pts
Opp. Fast Break Pts
Opp. Pts in Paint
2013-14
1
7
1
4
2014-15
1
9
3
3
2015-16
2
5
13
3
2016-17
2
3
13
5
2017-18
3
1
6
17
2018-19
3
1
9
8

The job Clifford did this past season with the Magic, who advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, was tremendous. After Jan. 30, Orlando logged the league’s best defensive rating and ranked No. 1 in both defensive rebounding percentage and opponent 3-point percentage.

Especially with all the young and talented defenders currently on the roster, the Magic are expected to remain one of the best defensive teams next season and beyond. With Clifford and his coaching staff guiding them, Orlando's players are confident what they accomplished in 2018-19 was no fluke.

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