Michael Jordan turned some heads with his surprising hiring of Steve Clifford as the newest head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats prior to this season. It was met with much criticism, (not unlike most of his moves while running the team), but the early returns on this investment are mostly positive.
It's not saying much, but the Bobcats have quietly placed themselves in the thick of the playoff race in the laughably horrible Eastern Conference. Making the playoffs in the East this year is not much more respectable than third-grade participation medals.
Come on! After the recent dismal seasons Charlotte has gone through, they could use some optimism, right?
Clifford's impact cannot be overlooked. We are going to take a basic yet in-depth look at the job he has done so far and make an accurate assessment on what he has done well and what he could stand to improve upon, from a fan's perspective.
One quick glance at this roster is all it takes to notice their dearth of scoring ability.
Steve Clifford is still working out ways to play the hand he has been dealt. He has certainly not inherited a royal flush in terms of offensive firepower.
What he has done is milk every ounce of scoring he can out of guys like Gerald Henderson, Jeffrey Taylor and Josh McRoberts. Charlotte is sitting tied for dead last in the league in scoring at just 90.8 points per game. However, there is reason to believe this will improve.
Kemba Walker's shot was putrid throughout the month of November. He converted just 36.5 percent of his shots while only averaging 3.9 assists. To be blunt, he was awful.
His 23 points and 6.5 assists per game in the month have elevated the play of the team in general. If Charlotte is to hold on to their playoff spot, it starts and ends with Kemba. Clifford has shown no hesitation in letting his young point guard play through his slump. Despite Ramon Sessions playing well as his backup, Clifford has shown unwavering faith in Walker. After weathering the storm, it looks to be time to start reaping some of the benefits.
One guy who has not pulled his weight is Cody Zeller. Once again, Clifford has shown faith in his guys. He knows how much Jordan invested into Zeller and has continued to run him out there. He does not have a ton of options at his disposal, but Clifford is showing early on how much of a player's coach he is. He knows this is not a championship team and that the only way they will have success is if their most talented players gain experience being on the court together.
As Al Jefferson continues to get antiquated with the offense, he will start posting some more of his typical numbers as well. He continues to be one of the elite low-post scorers in all of basketball, and it will do his young teammates some good once they learn to play off of him.
The one glaring weakness Charlotte has right now is their putrid three-point shooting. They are last in the league at 29 percent with little hope of improving.
The one guy who can spearhead a turnaround in that department is foiling away on the bench. He goes by the name of Ben Gordon, and he remains one of the best instant-offense guys across basketball. The fact that there is a career 40 percent three-point shooter sitting on Clifford's bench logging just 11 minutes a night is highly questionable.
For Clifford to get more scoring out of his limited bunch, he has to get his young guys to pick up the pace. Charlotte averages just 95.4 possessions per game, which is odd when you consider the youth and athleticism all across the roster.
Additionally, using Jefferson to free up shooters on the outside will help this team immensely. Clifford is doing a great job with what he has, but he can get more out of these guys.
Bad teams become good teams when they are truly able to take on the identity of their coach. Clifford comes from the same Jeff Van Gundy coaching tree that also included Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, and if there is one thing those guys know how to do it is play lock-down defense.
The Bobcats are holding down the fort in the playoff picture by giving up a measly 92.4 points per game, good for second in all of basketball. Clifford has gotten his young players to buy into his scheme on the defensive end, something that is extremely difficult to do.
Look no further than the video above of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist harassing Paul George for 48 minutes. The young Bobcats have realized quickly that this is how they are going to win basketball games, at least until the offense comes around.
Even more impressive is that they are doing it without any dominant shot-blockers or post presences. Al Jefferson is an average defender who can block a few shots, and Bismack Biyombo has shown little progression at all.
Clifford has gotten his young and athletic wings to command the game on the defensive end of the floor by pressuring the ball and communicating. He has them playing like a cohesive unit for the first time in years.
The new man in charge has turned a bottom-five team from a year ago in terms of opponent field-goal percentage into a top-five team. He also has them playing smart by not committing fouls. Al Jefferson has come in and helped a lot in the rebounding department, but Clifford has picked up Mike Dunlap's scraps and turned them into a surprising defensive powerhouse.
There is not much to say in this aspect besides Clifford has done a remarkable job getting such a young team to buy into his defensive schemes so quickly. Adversity has hit in the form of a broken hand for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, so they will have to find a way to adapt. Regardless, all things are positive on defense for Clifford and company.
Any thoughts of throwing another season away in hopes of landing Andrew Wiggins have been immediately put on hold. Steve Clifford has his young Bobcats playing spirited basketball with a ridiculous tenacity on the defensive end.
Some of their early problems were to be expected, namely their poor outside shooting and inability to share the basketball. These are things that should come with experience, and as long as they can keep up their ferocious defense, once they hit their stride on offense, this team can win a whole lot of games in the weak East.
Clifford already has his guys buying into him much more than previous coaches were able to do in Charlotte. His next task is getting them to keep it up. As you may remember, Charlotte started off last season well also. They were 7-5 at one point, and then they blinked and were 13-50.
The main reason Charlotte was unable to keep up their hot start last year was because they don't play defense. This team does and is much more capable of sustaining this level of play than last year's bunch.
The bottom line is that Steve Clifford looks to be the right man to lead this ship. It took Jordan a while, but he seems to have finally locked down the right guy.
Overall Grade: A-