Steve Clifford isn’t going to win the NBA’s Coach of the Year award, but he deserves some recognition for the wonderful job he’s done turning around the Charlotte Bobcats. If the season were to end today, they’d be the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. This is after an abysmal 7-59 record in 2011-12 and a 21-61 record in 2012-13.
At 28-33, they’re almost guaranteed to post their best record since their last (and only playoff appearance), back in 2009-10, when they went 44-38. They’ve even got a puncher’s chance to finish with a winning record for just the second time in franchise history.
So why doesn’t Clifford get more love? Jeff Hornacek is doing the same kind of job with the Phoenix Suns, Terry Stotts is doing the same kind of job with a lot more talent for the Portland Trail Blazers, yet they get the lion’s share of the press.
What has Clifford accomplished in his first year as Bobcats coach? He’s vastly improved the defense, for one. After being the league’s worst rated team for two consecutive seasons, the Bobcats are a staggering sixth in the NBA (104.0). They’re allowing just 97.3 points per game, which is No. 5 in the association. That’s a major turnaround.
Who did Charlotte obtain this summer to encourage such a massive turnaround? They signed Al Jefferson, who is an awesome offensive player in the paint, but to say he’s been a proficient defensive player up until this year would be false. They signed Anthony Tolliver, who is solid but unspectacular, and they drafted Cody Zeller, who’s been quite unremarkable up until his last six games. Zeller is averaging 10.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.0 steals in 18.1 minutes per game.
Why would something like that happen? Do rookies just suddenly “get it?” Is this a team filled with veterans that have shown Zeller the way? Oh I don’t know….maybe it’s…(I’m picturing the Church Lady from SNL)…..CLIFFORD?!?!?!
Kemba Walker is one of the more underrated point guards in the league, but he’s probably going to be a fringe All-Star at best. Gerald Henderson has shown he can score at times but has been inconsistent as well. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist still has the “project” label, but he’s coming along. The point is, Clifford doesn’t have a ton of talent, but he’s putting everyone in the right spots to succeed.
Would it surprise you to learn the Bobcats take care of the ball better than anyone in basketball? They’ve turned the ball over 51 times less than the No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies. Part of that is pace and style, as even the New York Knicks are No. 3 there, but it’s also a testament to coaching. When you’ve got the less talented team on a nightly basis, you’ve got to play near-perfect games to succeed.
The Bobcats still have a lot of offensive woes to deal with, but they’ve improved by leaps and bounds defensively. Give this group another year under Clifford and they might even ::gasp:: host a playoff series sooner rather than later.