CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Last summer, as Charlotte Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins was making phone calls to get intel on his nine head-coaching candidates, something resonated in one of his conversations about longtime NBA assistant Steve Clifford.
Former Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith told Higgins, "The one thing about Cliff is whomever he has in that locker room, he's going to have your team prepared on that given day to win a basketball game."
That intrigued Higgins and helped elevate Clifford to front-runner status in the interview process. Eventually, the Bobcats hired him, and it has paid off: The team reached a milestone last week with its 22nd victory—one more than it won all of last season.
"It sounds simple, but when you've been around as long as I've been around, preparation is really important because sometimes that's not always the case," Higgins, who's been with the Bobcats since 2007, said in an interview with Bleacher Report at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte. "That stood out. I know, for me, we're a team that has a lot of young guys that needed to continue their growth, their development. So Cliff talked about when he came in developing, competing and basically preparing these guys to be ready on any given night."
For Clifford, that game-planning starts on the defensive end. Coming off last season, Higgins knew the team needed a better coach for making stops—they had been second-worst in points per game allowed and fourth-worst in 2011-12—and a certain consistency stood out with Clifford on that end of the court: He had learned from Tom Thibodeau and brothers Jeff and Stan Van Gundy in New York and Orlando.
"You could almost look at the way we play defense and you could see some of them," Higgins said. "Before them (in New York), it was Pat Riley, so you knew defensively what it was going to look like—you knew if it was a lock-and-trail, you're going to have a guy showing, and you knew in screen-and-rolls, you're going to be really hard showing or double-teaming.
"Thibodeau has different kinds of players (in Chicago) than we do, but defensively the schemes are all the same. It's almost like a mirrored situation, so you kind of knew going in what Coach Clifford was going to be about defensively. There were no surprises there."
Clifford's "defensive musts" and phrases—one posted on the wall inside the team's practice center is "think defense first; set a tone and wear on them"—have been key to establishing the Bobcats as the fourth-best team in fewest points per game allowed (97.1) this season. That stat outdoes three of the top teams in the league: the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
Clifford has the luxury of having assistant coach Patrick Ewing by his side—they both come from the Knicks' hard-knock defensive culture.
As Higgins said, "Patrick is a tough, tough bird. He doesn't take any crap from any of those guys. He also works extremely hard and he's extremely prepared, so the respect that he has is pretty phenomenal."
Along with Ewing and assistants Bob Weiss and former Cleveland Cavalier Mark Price, Clifford guides the players through these defensive drills in practice: shell, close-out, transition, pick-and-roll, individual post-up and team post-up. Each one is designed to develop fundamental playing habits.
"I’ve been impressed with several aspects of his coaching," Bobcats owner Michael Jordan told Bleacher Report. "First of all, Steve has come in and quickly established an identity and a style of play for our team—hard-working, defensive-minded, playing inside-out basketball.
"I’ve been very impressed with his ability to communicate. He understands the NBA player. When you are around him, you immediately can tell that he has learned from some of the best and has been in the NBA for a long time. Steve lets each player know what he expects and what they need to do to help us win.
"His ability to put our players in a position to succeed and get the most out of each player’s ability is a big reason of our success."
On defense, Jordan said, the players have bought into Clifford's philosophy. Fueling that motivation, as starting point guard Kemba Walker noted, is the guys feeling inspired by Clifford and not wanting to be at the bottom of the league any more. "We're tired of it," Walker said. "We're just a team who wants to take on his challenge and just be better."
"(Clifford) has them understanding that everyone must contribute on that end of the floor," Jordan said. "We cannot rely on one or two guys on defense to win games. He has his principles—limiting fast-break points, second-chance points and opponents' free-throw attempts—and he sticks to them."
Can the Bobcats make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, when another dynamic defensive coach, Larry Brown, led them to a 44-38 record and the best opponents' points per game (93.8)? Entering Saturday's play, they were eighth in the Eastern Conference.
Higgins noted that the team could use a three-point shooter with the Feb. 20 trade deadline approaching. Perhaps with some added scoring—the Bobcats' points per game mark (94.5) is fourth-worst in the league—the team could've won some of the 11 games it lost by five or fewer points (a mark tied for third-highest). While Higgins is looking ahead to this year's prestigious draft class for reinforcements, he said the team's focus is not one of tanking.
"Our guys have had that mindset from the start of trying to be a competitive team," he said.
During an exclusive interview in his office at the arena, Clifford detailed the team's franchise-changing defensive adjustments and what's behind his coaching tendencies. Below are 10 takeaways.
1. It all starts with transition defense (the team's 10.1 fast-break points per game allowed tops the league).
"If you look at the stats that matter the most, the best teams don't give up fast-break baskets. It's every year. If you look at the teams that go deep in the playoffs, they don't give up fast-break baskets. So we commit to it.
"First of all, we're a low-turnover team (make that a league-best 12.8 turnovers per game), which helps prevent fast-break baskets. Then with our perimeter players, the only guy that we allow to offensive rebound is (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). I mean, if they see a lane where they can absolutely get a ball, they can go. But other than that, they're back. Offensive rebounding is rarely an important stat versus getting back.
"It starts really with floor balance, your rules in transition and then a lot of it also is just communication. When you get your defense set, then you have a lot better chance, particularly against the good teams, to make it hard on them."
2. The toughest challenge in today's game is taking away the three.
"We've done a good job with defending the first two—layups and twos—and then the three-point one is the one that ultimately will come with multiple effort and learning help situations. What happens sometimes is you've got to shut down the paint first, so you don't foul and you don't give up layups.
"But now we're getting into more where you've got to read help, like sometimes there's a drive where you don't need to help that much because (your teammate) has got him under control, (so you) don't need to help and (you can) start to cheat out more (to the three-point line). That's when your three-point defense can become better too."
3. A big benefit is having natural competitors and multiple-effort players to spark your defense.
"The one thing that I found out early is we have guys who can make the defense work. Like Kemba is quick, fast, tough, smart. He's small, but he's becoming a really good defender, but it's really because he has the makeup and the right attitude.
"Gilchrist is an elite defender, but that's nothing we've done—maybe we've helped him with his technique a little bit and stuff like that. Gerald Henderson is a very good defender. Then there's (Josh) McRoberts, who gets not nearly enough credit.
"In this league, your bigs have to be able to make multiple efforts and he naturally can do that, as can (Cody) Zeller. They can go from pick-and-roll, ball moves, sprint off, make a play, help, get back—and you can't teach that.
"And to be honest with you, Al (Jefferson) has been a much better defender. Everybody said he was a poor defender, but if you watch him play, his instincts are so good. We have good defensive personnel."
4. You need to build your players' trust and have confidence in your game plan.
"For me, it starts with my relationship with each one of them. Whether they like it or not, I will say this: Of all the other things, they all know how I think they need to play. That's No. 1, and they can disagree with (my approach). I'll tell them all the time it's a man's league. But if they're going to play, that's the part where I have to be stubborn or otherwise there's no direction.
"I (talk to them) one-on-one in my office, I'll watch film with them a lot, as do the other guys on the staff. ... In this league, particularly if you didn't play, your knowledge and your preparation is your credibility. It's nothing else. Especially if you didn't play in this league, they have to trust that I know our team game and what it takes to be successful for our team, and then what it takes to win in the league. If you don't have that, you're done."
5. Keep your friends close, your friends who know defense closer.
"Jeff and Stan watch a ton of our games and I talk to them all the time, and then Tom.
"In September, I took a day and just flew to Chicago early in the morning and (Tom and I) spent the day together, and I talked to him about a lot of defense. I took the first flight in and the last flight home, so we sat there for eight, 10 hours, and he just let me rattle questions. I had a bunch of questions—stuff I had never done before when you do this leadership-type thing.
"He was the one who really reemphasized to me—Stan said the same thing—don't mess with your defense the first year. Get the base in, get the foundation in. In year two, then you can start to mess around, but make sure they're comfortable with what you're doing first.
"All three of them are elite coaches and they know this league, and they know what it takes to win. Plus, they're three of my closest friends, so when you're talking to them, they want what's best for you."
6. Inspiration also comes from reading books from great leaders.
"I read different kinds of books: The Smart Take from the Strong: The Basketball Philosophy of Pete Carril and The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership, by Bill Walsh. Also, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Jim Collins.
"I remember Brendan Malone, who I worked with—when I was in college, I used to work his camp up in Maine—and he had a quote, 'The type of person you become is greatly influenced by the people you spend time with and the books that you read.'
"Through every phase of your life, that changes, but it's really true if you look at the times: a lot of it is the people you're working with, people you're spending time with. Those are the people that you end up debating with."
7. Think last-second plays are designed on the fly? Guess again.
"That's the thing people don't realize: the stuff that happens in the game, those decisions are all made before. Like if there's three seconds on the shot clock, that's the stuff that we all sat down here in August and we said, 'These are the eight plays we'll run in this situation.'
"I also have plays on defense to surprise the other team and take away a key advantage. In Bill Walsh's book he said, 'The most stressful decisions should be made when there's less stress,' so you do it in August before you start. ... Then it's just a question of which one are we going to run, and then how will we execute it. But you don't want to be where the ball gets tipped out of bounds with 3.1 seconds left, tied score and say, 'Oh s---.'"
8. Managing substitutions is an underrated part of coaching.
"What you'd rather do is play one less guy, so the guys that play get more minutes. I just think it's hard to play well getting 14 minutes a night. I mean, if you really want to play well, guys have to be on the floor and they've got to know for the most part when they're going in, who they're going to play with and what plays are going to be run for them. Most guys are like that.
"Then you also have to know how many minutes guys can handle—not only for the game, but in one period of time. Like we have guys on our team, for instance, that when they get going, I let them stay on the floor because they can handle it. But we have other guys that are more definitive about their minutes, because otherwise what I've found is we get to the fourth quarter and they're shot, and we need them."
9. Even with advanced number crunching, without the basics of breaking down game film, you might as well pack up your office.
"These are my things about the analytics: one, I enjoy it and it's helped me a lot. It's part of the study. Number two, they tell you part of the story, particularly at the defensive end of the floor. There are a lot of things that you have to be careful of because there's a team trust that goes into doing it that can't be measured.
"Like we have McRoberts, and the things that he does for his teammates, a lot of them don't show up at all. He makes a lot of passes that lead to the pass. That's not going to be measured, and he's the same way defensively. He's a guy that's always early to help—his teammates appreciate that. That gives them a confidence level and there's no stat for that.
"I always write down my impressions of the game when it first ended, and rarely do I really know why we won or lost until we watch the film."
10. At the end of the day, being a successful coach is not about being a defensive specialist—it's about being good at everything.
"If you look at the teams that win it, which is the only way you're going to get a lot of credit, they're good at offense and defense, and they rebound. If you even look at last year, all the guys that coached in the quarterfinals were excellent coaches. But if you want to look at it statistically, the two teams that end up playing in the championship are both top 10 in offense and defense.
"So I don't think you can have a real weakness if you want to have a career like (Gregg) Popovich or somebody like that. You're going to have to be able to coach everything. For us, we can't start worrying about the playoffs. I just think it's way too early for us. I will be most pleased with my team in the second half of the season if we consistently play better."