Steve Clifford is Coach of the Year

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Greg Popovic is an all-time great. Tom Thibodeau is a genius. Jeff Hornacek has done a masterful job. But Steve Clifford is NBA Coach of the Year.

I went back the 1988-89 Season – the first year of the NBA’s late-century expansion boom (Hornets, Heat, T-Wolves, Magic, Raps, Grizz) – looking for a very simple set of criteria:

  1. LONG TERM TURRIBLE-NESS.  A team that had won less than 25 games for at least two consecutive seasons…
  2. REVERSAL OF FORTUNE. Then finished .500 or better in the following season.

The ’95-’96 Spurs won 59 games, bottomed out for a year, won the Duncan Lottery and won 56 games in ’97-’98. Not exactly a lame duck franchise. The ’05-’06 Celtics won 33 games, 24 games in ’06-’07 then traded for Hall of Famer Garnett and won the title a year later. Big turnaround but 57 wins over the previous two seasons hardly made them a bottom feeder. My goal was to find a putrid, stinking embarrassment of a team – that somehow managed to make the leap to respectability overnight.

Short answer: Outside of Steve Clifford’s Bobcats, it’s only happened one other time in the past 26 NBA seasons. A few others have come close.

The Runners Up:

’93-’96 Washington Bullets
Three Season Win Totals:
24, 21, 39
Notes: Webber, ‘Sheed and Juwan made them respectable but couldn’t quite get the Washington Professional Basketball Franchise over the .500 hump.

’97-’00 Toronto Raptors
Three Season Win Totals: 16, 23*, 45
Notes: Nearly had it but the Vinsanity-led squad are disqualified due to the 50-game strike shortened ’98-’99 season. Raps went 23-27 in Year Two, nearly .500. Hardly a bad team.

’00-’03 Golden State Warriors
Three Season Win Totals: 
17, 21, 38
Notes: Much like the ’95-’96 Bullets, the Jamison, J-RICH and Arenas led Dubs couldn’t quite get Golden State above .500.

’10-’13 New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets
Three Season Win Totals: 24, 22*, 49
Three Season SRS: -6.28, -6.37, +1.25
Notes: I’m including the Simple Rating System (point differential) here because of how close the Nets came to qualifying. While a 7.62 SRS swing is a hell of an improvement year on year, the strike shortened 66 game season in Year Two has the Nets 22 win total equivalent to a little over 27 wins in a normal season. The Nets were bad but not quite bad enough.

The Biggest Franchise Turnarounds of the Past 26 Years

’07-’10 Seattle Supersonics/OKC Thunder
Three Season Win Totals: 20, 23, 50
Three Season SRS: -8.04, -6.03, +3.55 SRS
Notes: Doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out. Thunder management went on a Draft frenzy that nabbed the franchise Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka. By the time Serge and The Beard arrived, the other two were ready to win. The organization saw a 27 game improvement in the standings and a 9.58 swing in SRS. And you wonder why “the Thunder model” has taken the league by storm.

’11-’14 Charlotte Bobcats
Three Season Win Totals: 7, 21, 41**?
Three Season SRS: -13.96, -9.29, -.3**
Notes:  The Bobcats improved 20+ games in the standings and achieved a near nine point SRS swing (9.02 as of today). Oddly enough they achieved this with much the same roster that finished the previous 21 win season and with not a single superstar or even All-Star on the roster.

Tremendous Challenge, Tremendous Results

Yes, the bottom of the East has been weak. And yes, Al Jefferson was a key difference maker and should’ve been an All-Star but the team’s other four starters, Kemba Walker, MKG, Gerald Henderson and Josh McRoberts, were starting for Mike Dunlap’s 21 win team a season ago. Gary Neal certainly isn’t adding double digit wins on his own. And while the youngsters have improved, you’d be hard-pressed to find those improvements reflected in places like individual PER or old-school stat columns.

The key difference here is Steve Clifford. His defensive strategy has been fantastic. His professionalism and attention to detail has been fantastic. Given where this team has been for most of their ten years of existence – an absolute laughingstock – Clifford had the steepest mountain to climb, the league’s most difficult challenge. Not only did he succeed, his success produced one of the greatest NBA turnarounds of the past quarter century.

If you have a Coach of the Year ballot, vote Steve Clifford.

 -ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

**Charlotte has three games remaining and we’ll continue to update the team’s win/SRS numbers until the end of the season. 

Bobcats Season 10 – Week 8 Review

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The Charlotte Bobcats finish a tremendously disappointing week 1-3, a span that saw the team:

  • Barely eke out an overtime win at home against the miserable Bucks, 111-110.
  • Lose a nailbiter to an elite OKC Thunder team at the TWC, 85-89.
  • Have their hopes massacred by a Macedonian in an overtime loss in Atlanta, 116-118.
  • Show up in Salt Lake with minimal effort and urgency in a loss to the Western Conference doormat Jazz, 80-83.

Who Are These Guys?

The Bobcats’ last four games have been decided by a combined ten points. Two of those games were against the worst teams in their respective Conferences (Milwaukee, Utah), one to an above average team on the road (Atlanta) and one against the second best team in the league (OKC). In fact, Charlotte played three elite teams in December (Thunder, Heat, Pacers), losing by a total of ten points – which would be promising if not for the fact that they also dropped two games to the terrible Jazz in the same month.

As it stands today, the Cats are four games under .500 with back to back road dates against the Clips and Blazers on the horizon (a combined 25-6 at home). There’s a great chance Charlotte enters the weekend a depressing 14-20 and out of the Eastern Conference’s top eight. While the Cats’ point differential is a semi-decent -1.3 (6th in the East), the NBA doesn’t hand out Playoff spots to teams who lose lots of games respectably.

With just nine games to go before the half-season mark, the Bobcats must figure out which direction this ship is heading soon or risk both missing the Playoffs AND losing their Top 10 protected pick to the Bulls. Ugh.

Antic Happens

Pero Antic is a 31 year old rookie center from Macedonia who plainly has a thing for Carlos Boozer’s style. That much we know. We also know that he’s taken a total of 68 shots in his short NBA career, one of which was a fallaway three pointer at the buzzer to send his Hawks into overtime against the instantly despondent Bobcats. It was one of the crazier buzzer beaters you’ll ever have the pleasure of witnessing: 6’10” Al Jefferson has a long arm in Antic’s face, Pero’s shooting foot is facing the opposite basket on launch, he falls away into the Bobcats’ bench and… he NAILS IT from perhaps the toughest spot on the floor – between the corner and extended elbow. Just unbelievable.

It was the sort of WTF-once-in-a-season shot that can suck the energy right out of a franchise. While it’s impossible to pin the loss two nights later on a Macedonian center playing thousands of miles away, you have to believe Antic’s dagger wound was at the heart of Charlotte’s lackluster effort in Utah. Let’s hope that the Bobcats can recover soon.

The Upper Limits

Allow me to go Oprah for a moment.

After the Cats two point loss against the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder, Steve Clifford ripped into the team for not executing when it mattered. He singled out individual defense and rebounding in particular and then went on to drop this bomb: “We have to get past the point where everybody is happy the Bobcats don’t get beaten every night. We’re better than that.”

In “The Big Leap” author Gay Hendricks defines a phenomenon he calls the “upper limit” – the highest point on our personal thermostats that we believe we can achieve. Hendrick writes:

“Unfortunately, our thermostat setting usually gets programmed in early childhood, before we can think for ourselves. Once programmed, our Upper Limit thermostat setting holds us back from enjoying all the love, financial abundance, and creativity that’s rightfully ours.”

As evidence, he cites that within two years of winning the lottery, more than 60 percent return to the same net worth prior to their win.

Part of what Coach Clifford is trying to do, perhaps the most difficult challenge he faces, is to transform a perpetually moribound organization’s expectations of itself; to change its identity. One major hurdle in getting to that point is convincing young NBA players who’ve only known losing that their internal thermostats are off. Although long a league-wide punchline, the “Charlotte Bobcats” are not inherently dismal. Just because a player might’ve been involved in a seven win season, does not mean they cannot be a part of a contender in the future…but you must raise the limit. To further Clifford’s point, if being better than terrible is the team’s upper limit, it is not enough. 14-18 is “not bad for the Bobcats” but it’s not good enough.

The reprogramming will take time and will likely need an infusion of sucessful veterans in or around their primes to help break through the glass ceiling. In the meantime, let’s celebrate Steve Clifford’s buzzworthy desire and ambition beacause it’s the only way to truly leave the “Bobcats” legacy behind.

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

Bobcats Season 10 – Week 3 Review

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Another week, another .500 split for the league’s (fourth) best Defensive team. A heckuva stretch that saw the Bobcats:

  • Storm back for a win in Cleveland after scoring just 12 points in the first quarter, 86-80.
  • Play three solid quarters against the world champion Miami Heat at home, only to fold in the 4th, 81-97.
  • Battle the title contending Bulls down to the final buzzer in Chi-town, 81-86.
  • Beat up Brooklyn’s aging All-Stars in a big win at the TWC, 95-91.

Defense is Forever

You have to hand it to Steve Clifford. In the past week, his Bobcats have played full-throttle, basketballs to the wall defense for nearly every possession. At 92.8 points allowed on the season, Charlotte has entered an elite group that includes Indiana, Chicago and San Antonio. Remember that last year’s squad averaged a whopping 102.7ppg against – good for 29th overall. That’s a ten point swing that’s been accomplished with a nearly identical roster.

Clifford’s secret sauce isn’t much of a secret strategy-wise. You can see it just by watching the games: sacrifice the offensive rebound to prevent easy transition buckets, protect the paint area in the half court (even if it frees up a three point shooter) and swallow up as many defensive boards as possible. Meanwhile, let your team’s defensive position of strength (hyper-athletic wings) pester opposing perimeter players for 48 minutes a night.

The Bobcats are communicating, hustling and executing on D like they were the Chicago Bulls – which shouldn’t be that big of surprise considering Clifford and Tom Thibodeau’s shared coaching history. It’s only been twelve games, but if Charlotte can continue as a top 5 defensive team and get their best offensive player (Al Jefferson) healthy for good, we might be looking at a 40+ win squad. As last year’s Derrick Rose-less Bulls proved: You can live by the jumper and die by the jumper but defense is forever.

Kemba Breaks Out

Last week we fretted over Kemba Walker’s post-shoulder contusion shooting slump. The fretting was soon upgraded to full-on Regression Alert after Kemba dropped a 14 for 51 stretch over the next three games, dragging his FG% dangerously close to sub-30% levels. Mercifully, a 12 for 20, 31 point performance against the Nets has us hoping again that the slump was an anomaly brought on by Metta World Peace’s thigh.

To Walker’s credit, he never once lost a gear defensively during the slump – highlighted by an amazing 5 steal performance in the Cleveland comeback. Kemba might not be the prototypical NBA point guard but he’s certainly in possession of a prototypical NBA mentality.

High Ceilings?

At least a few times a week, I get a snark-flavored tweet about how the Bobcats are playing their way out of a superstar in next June’s Draft. I understand the fear. I mean, even if Charlotte surprises everyone and makes the Playoffs, just how high is the team’s ceiling? Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson will both likely make the All-Star team at least once in their careers. MKG is a jump-shot away from being a multiple time All-Star (but that jumper may never come). Jeff Taylor and Cody Zeller are both likely to become very good NBA starters at some point, at least on the level of their teammate Gerald Henderson. That’s it. That’s the “core”. It’s not very sexy but it’s solid, with room to grow.

And next summer, regardless of how the Lottery shakes out, the team will have around $19 million in cap space to bring in another difference maker. Gordon Haywood and Lance Stephenson are game-ready, under-24 restricted free agents who could immediately upgrade the team’s long distance shooting. The mid-first round picks owed by Detroit and Portland could produce a Dario Saric or Andrew Harrison off the bench. That’s a very good NBA team. One that can win a lot of games for quite a while. And winning for a while breeds a winning culture. That’s called Stage One.

The Miami Heat organization experienced this Stage during the Alonzo Mourning/Tim Hardaway/Eddie Jones era of the late ’90s. Were they good enough to win a title? Nope. Not even on paper. But the culture they created eventually led to the franchise drafting Dwayne Wade and knowing HOW to build around him for their first title in 2006. Not a single NBA champion since 1980 has gone directly from perennial doormat to Larry O’Brien in one Stage.

The Charlotte Bobcats are transitioning from terrible to not bad. The Charlotte Hornets will go from not bad to very good soon after. Let them build a winning culture that knows what to do with talent first, then we can talk about tanking for Lottery saviors later.

-ASChin

@BaselineBuzz

Bobcats Season 10 – Week 2 Review

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Charlotte finishes a strange week 2-2, a span that saw the team:

  • Successfully complete the second half of a back to back with a victory against the Raptors at TWC, 92-90.
  • Waste a near sell out home crowd in a (surprisingly) uninspired loss against the Knicks, 97-102.
  • Play exactly one great half and one terrible half against a mediocre Hawks squad in an unnecessary loss at home, 94-103.
  • Regroup to outlast the upstart Celtics in Boston for a Conference road win, 89-83.

A Week of Disruption

Just a day after presiding over Charlotte’s back to back wins against New York and Toronto, head coach Steve Clifford checked himself into the hospital, returning to the bench a few days later with two stents inserted into his heart. With former Panthers and current Broncos head man John Fox and Texans skipper Gary Kubiak missing time with similar ailments, it was a tough week for pro coaches.
Associate head coach Patrick Ewing stepped in as Clifford’s replacement, ironically coaching his first game against the team he starred for fifteen years. The New York media had a field day with the storyline but the ensuing results were less than newsworthy. Ewing’s rotations were off all game and his team lacked any sort of emotion. Ewing’s demeanor on the sidelines is reminiscent of Jeremy Lamb’s perpetual sleepy-time expression. While I think the Bill Self-style histrionics are out of place in the NBA, your head coach needs to at least give the impression that he’s engaged. Fortunately, Clifford missed very little time and all things seem to be business as usual just a week later.

Hello: My Name is Big Al

The Bobcats encountered another form of disruption on Monday night in the form of Al Jefferson. The team’s offense was clearly off balance in the second half against the Hawks, which incidentally was the part of the game that Al’s shots started to fall. In fact, the Atlanta loss felt like a microcosm of this team’s greatest challenge going forward: How to integrate the screen ‘n roll heavy free-wheeling style that the team has had a little success with the more traditional, more mature – and I’d argue – more sustainable inside-out offense Jefferson allows for.
The formula worked a little better in Wednesday night’s road win in Boston but that had more to do with Jefferson’s dominance inside (22 points, 11 rebounds) than an efficient team effort. We’ll surely be keeping an eye on this transition in the weeks ahead.

Kemba’s Struggles

When the Bobcats signed Jefferson during the offseason, they likely fantasized at the pairing of he and the quick penetrating AND suddenly sweet shooting Kemba Walker. While Kemba got off to a fantastic start over the team’s first four games, his shooting has taken a nosedive (29% over the last 5 games) since running shoulder first into Metta World Peace’s thigh last week. And it’s not just the jumper. Kemba has morphed into DJ Augustin around the rim, a spot he excelled in last season. In the Boston win, Kemba finished a disastrous 1-13 (including four misses in the paint) that would have sunk the team pre-Jefferson.
Let’s hope that this is just a temporary setback due to the shoulder contusion and not a full on regression.

Missing Shooters

Talk about clairvoyance. Clifford and the front office should be patting themselves on the back for having the foresight to sign Anthony Tolliver in what was then seen as an offseason afterthought. A 5 year veteran “stretch four”, Tolliver (44% 3PFG) and has been the team’s only consistent spot-up shooter in lieu of Jeffery Taylor’s long distance struggles and Ben Gordon’s demotion to 15th man. Barring a mid-season trade or an off the radar free agent signing, Tolliver is the team’s only consistent long-ball threat – a fact that could undermine the team’s offense for the remainder of the season.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz

Bobcats Season 10 – Week 1 Review

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What’s this?! A Charlotte NBA team fielding an actual competitive NBA roster?! Is that a qualified NBA coach with a real deal playbook and sensible rotations? Are those Bobcat Draft Picks doing things??!! Are the Byron Mullens days really behind us for good???!!!

Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of rough edges to smooth out for this young team but the first week of the FINAL BOBCATS SEASON shows plenty of promise – and promise has been in very short supply over the past few years at the TWC.

Charlotte finishes the week at 2-2 after:

  • Losing the season opener to a loaded Rockets team in Houston, 83-96.
  • Edging the playoff contending Cavs in the home opener, 90-84.
  • Laying an effortless stink bomb in New Orleans, 84-105.
  • Shocking the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, 102-97.

UPON FURTHER EXAMINATION

Clifford’s Impact

We still don’t know what the Cats’ offense is going to look like once Al Jefferson is fully integrated (he’s been nursing an ankle since the opener) but the safe money is on Charlotte continuing with heavy pick and rolls and off-ball screens for their point guards. Gerald Henderson, the team’s lone wing who can create his own offense, has been dreadful from the field (30%) during first four contests, meaning that the Bobcats’ only real chance at opening up good shot opportunities is through out-hustling or confusing opponents via screens.

Here’s how 99% of Bobcats offensive possessions have gone during the past week:
IF PG = “Kemba Walker” THEN:
PASS BALL TO “Josh McRoberts”;
LOSE DEFENDER ON BASELINE SCREENS;
RECEIVE HAND OFF FROM “Josh McRoberts”;
SHOOT.

IF PG = “Ramon Sessions” THEN:
YELL AT “Cody Zeller”;
FIND PICK SET BY “Cody Zeller”;
DRIVE AND GET FOULED.

The “SHOOT” option hasn’t really been working out as the Bobcats rank second worst in the league in FG% at 40%. They’re in the bottom ten worst in every 3PT shooting statistic and second worst in FT%. Coincidentally, Charlotte’s 89.8 points per game is third worst overall.

Now for the positive: The Bobcats have been getting to line like a team full of 2006 D-Wades, averaging 33.0 attempts per game – good for third in the league behind the star-powered Rockets and Clippers.
Take a quick guess at who’s ranked 10th in the NBA in FT attempts, one spot ahead of Lebron James? None other than “Razor” Ramon Sessions at 32 freebies in just 96 minutes played. Dude is averaging a free throw attempt every three minutes; just an insane number to start the year.
Another positive: Clifford’s Bobcats are only allowing opponents 95 points per game – tied for seventh best overall. That’s up from second worst overall (102.7) last season. Let’s hope the small sample size holds up.

The 21 And Under Club

Prospects Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller all had some fine moments during the week but it was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who tapped furthest into his UPSIDE with a defensive master class against Carmelo Anthony in New York. Anthony ended up with 32 points but most of that damage was done with MKG out of the game. After getting his nose busted by Kenyon Martin on a hard foul early in the second half, MKG returned midway through the 4th quarter and went full lock-down on Melo, constantly harassing the superstar on and off the ball. In just 26 minutes, Gilchrist dropped 16 points, grabbed 8 boards and swatted 3 shots, including a Gerald Wallace-esque breakaway block on Carmelo that ended in a coast to coast layup. I’ve publicly questioned MKG’s selection as the 2nd pick overall pick in last year’s Draft but if he can build on this type performance consistently, I’ll be proven absolutely wrong and loving every minute of it. Keep it up, young fella.

“A Ben Wallace Type”

Know this: without perennial NBA castoff Jeff Adrien, the Bobcats would be 0-4. With Jefferson nursing a sore ankle and backup Brendan Haywood out until February, Clifford needed someone to step up and provide size and toughness in the middle. With 24 boards and 4 blocks in the past three games, Adrien has certainly delivered.
Ironic that his teammate Biyombo, a Lottery pick, was projected by experts as “a Ben Wallace type”, when it is Adrien who is the perfect heir apparent to Big Ben. Officially listed at 6’7″, the former UCONN Huskie looks to be no taller than 6’4″ Gerald Henderson in person sans mohawk. Like Wallace, Adrien was undrafted and floated around the league for a couple of seasons before finding a home. Big Ben hit his stride with Detroit at age 26. Adrien seems to be doing the same with Charlotte now at 27.

Kemba Walker

From Rick Bonnell’s excellent Knicks game story:

“Every day I’m around him, I’m more convinced he’ll be the leader of a really good (NBA) team,” Clifford predicted.

Tell us something we already didn’t know, Steve.

-ASChin
@BaselineBuzz