Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls and Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Bobcats are considered two of the finest defensive minds in the NBA. According to Basketball-Reference, both are guiding teams ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency: Chicago is second, Charlotte is fifth.
The two men have a history together, both learning the trade as assistants under yet another noted defensive guru, Jeff Van Gundy.
Clifford, who is in his first season as head coach, has learned some valuable lessons from his old pal Thibodeau, the 2011 NBA Coach of the Year, per CSN Chicago's Aggrey Sam:
The big thing he taught me was about being what he called an effective assistant. A lot of guys can play coach. But he spent a lot of time talking to me about learning the NBA animal and trying to learn how to deal with players in a way that they will actually listen to what you’re saying so you can actually coach them instead of passing them the ball and giving them tips on their shot. One of the biggest things he always told me was don’t get into a conversation with an NBA player about a performance of their individual game unless you’ve rehearsed what you want to get accomplished in the conversation.
In the world of Thibodeau, a good coach can make it to the NBA much in the same way a concert violinist can get to Carnegie Hall: practice. The man is so obsessed with preparation that he even rehearses his conversations with players.
The idea of Tom Thibodeau practicing his player critiques in a mirror, play-acting in his gruffest possible manner, is absolutely delightful.
But there is a method to everything the coach does. In the NBA, where big-name, high-salaried veterans reign supreme in many locker rooms, the Bulls have maintained a relatively ego-free atmosphere over Thibodeau's tenure, despite the presence of superstars like Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
The Charlotte locker room may not have the star power of Chicago, but Clifford still has to massage the egos of well-compensated veterans like recent free-agent acquisition Al Jefferson.
But Clifford seems to have won over the Bobcats players, and he has engineered a turnaround that borders on unbelievable.
Per CBS Sports' Matt Moore:
But there's more going on here than wins and losses. It takes more than that to rebuild a franchise like this. Consider that last season, with nearly the exact same roster, the Bobcats finished dead last in points allowed per possession. This season, with their only major addition being on the offensive side in Al Jefferson, the Cats are sixth in points allowed per possession.
Clifford has done what Thibodeau has made a habit of doing in the Windy City: turning each roster under his command into a defensive dynamo. Any coach who wants some pointers on how to build a top-flight defense would do well to heed their advice.