There were no pieces for first-year Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford to pick up.
The only road map in the franchise's collection showed a vicious cycle of ineptitude, broken dreams and, ultimately, an acceptance of fate. Losses and draft lottery balls arrived by the busload, the same one that shipped five different coaches in and out of town over the organization's first nine seasons.
Clifford, a basketball lifer, understood the situation he was walking into. There was no way to mask the stench surrounding a team closer to contraction than competence.
He didn't run from the Bobcats' history but wasted little time shifting the focus from past to present.
"Any good coach has a clear and definitive vision of how they want their team to play and practice—and I have that," he said at his introductory press conference last summer, via ESPN.com.
With 61 games now under his belt, that vision is starting to come into focus. The Bobcats are seeing things they only heard about before: defensive execution, accountability, relevance.
So, who is this miracle man giving hope to the hopeless? More importantly, what else might he have up his sleeve?
Changing a Culture
The stories of Clifford and the Bobcats couldn't be any different.
The son of a high school coach, Clifford started honing his craft stalking the sidelines at Woodland High School in Maine from 1983-85. From there he would traverse the college ranks, stopping at Saint Anselm College, Fairfield University, Boston University, Siena College, Adelphi and East Carolina University over a 15-year period.
Since 2000, he's been wading through the NBA assistant waters.
|2000-01||New York Knicks||Advance Scout|
|2001-03||New York Knicks||Assistant Coach|
|2003-07||Houston Rockets||Assistant Coach|
|2007-12||Orlando Magic||Assistant Coach|
|2012-13||Los Angeles Lakers||Assistant Coach|
This was exactly the type of coach the Bobcats needed.
Charlotte had been operating without a set standard of performance. With a 250-472 record (an average of 28 wins per season) to show for its first nine seasons of existence, the franchise seemed somewhat resigned to its place as bottom-feeders in the game's hierarchy.
After waiting some 30-plus years for his big NBA break, Clifford refused to accept the culture of losing that permeated the Charlotte skies. He's been changing that culture since his first day on the job, setting clear and concise responsibilities for his players to follow in this long overdue period of progression.
"They know their roles and what Clifford does and doesn't like about how they play," Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer noted. "They see him admitting mistakes and learning from them. It's creating an atmosphere in which everyone feels vested in each other's success."
With no bar to raise, the coach has simply installed one himself. He's given his players goals, the tools to reach them and the freedom for them to offer their own input in this collective pursuit.
In 61 games, he's led the Bobcats to as many wins (28) as they had over the past two seasons combined—Charlotte went an abysmal 7-59 during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, although that winning percentage (.106) would only equate to nine wins in an 82-game campaign. Rather than celebrate what they've done, Clifford has challenged his team, his franchise and his new home to aim even higher.
"We have to get past the point where everybody is happy the Bobcats don't get beaten every night," he said earlier this season, via Bonnell. "We're better than that."
It sounds a bit like coach speak, a simple cliched comment that holds no actual value.
That couldn't be further from the truth. Not when Clifford's Bobcats sprint to a 109-87 road win over the league-leading Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night. Not when Charlotte center Al Jefferson, fresh off a 34-point outing, echoes that same sentiment.
"I'm not accepting that we're a team that guys look at on the schedule anymore and say, 'OK, we have the Bobcats (so) we can take the night off,'" Jefferson said, via Steve Reed of The Associated Press.
The Bobcats finally have some belief in themselves under Clifford. That and some badly needed defensive guidance.
Turning a Collection of Sieves into a Stone Wall
As bad as Charlotte was over the last two seasons, its defense was somehow even worse.
The Bobcats ranked 30th in defensive efficiency in 2012-13 (108.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). They were dead last again during their seven-win 2011-12 campaign, allowing 107.8 points per 100 possessions.
Last summer, Charlotte invested $40.5 million in Jefferson, a dominant scoring center with a history of avoiding the defensive end at all cost. The Bobcats used the No. 4 pick of the 2013 draft on Cody Zeller, an athletic power forward with the same offensive slant as Jefferson. Stretch forward Anthony Tolliver came in as a free agent, and scoring swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts arrived in mid-December.
By all accounts, the Bobcats were fortifying their offensive ranks to mask their defensive deficiencies.
Again, Clifford had his own idea—a simplified defensive scheme meant to maximize intensity and lay the groundwork for something better down the line, he explained to CBS Sports' Matt Moore:
We're just playing base defense. We're not doing a lot. For me, to be an elite defense or a unit that can defend in the playoffs, there are things that we need to add. I don't think we're ready for it this year. We may do a few things here and there. Really, my thing is they're buying into it, they're trying hard, and we have guys who are capable of doing it.
He gave guidance to a team that had always been forced to find its own way. He established a pride at the defensive end, and his players have since responded with an unexpected (almost unbelievable) No. 7 defensive ranking (101.5 points allowed per 100 possessions).
The genius in Clifford's defensive teaching is captured in its simplicity. He's looking for full-throttle effort and a limitation on the opposition's transition offense, second-chance points and free-throw attempts.
One scan of the stat sheet shows sound execution of the game plan.
The Bobcats surrender the fewest fast-break points in the league (10.1 per game), via TeamRankings.com. They are tied with the Pacers for the lowest opponent's offensive rebound percentage (22.8) and tied for 12th in second-chance points against (12.9). They have seen the fourth-fewest free-throw attempts against them this season (20.0).
It isn't rocket science, but the right amount of teaching and discipline can have a major impact, as Clifford told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling:
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.
The Bobcats don't hurt themselves.
They cough up just 13.1 turnovers per 100 possessions, easily the fewest in the league. They don't gamble much, either. Their 6.2 steals per game ranks 29th in the category. They'll sacrifice offensive rebounding chances to properly set their defense and stop any counterattacks. Only two teams have a lower offensive rebound percentage than Charlotte's 20.9 mark.
They're little things, yet instrumental in this turnaround when taken as a whole. Clifford has eased his team through this defensive transformation, but he's quick to call out his players if that standard isn't being met:
Barely 3 min into the game, Steve Clifford calls timeout despite being tied at 10. This man cares about his defense!— Amin Elhassan (@AminESPN) February 2, 2014
Clifford is getting something out of these players no other coaches have, but he also might be the first one to make these demands.
Defense isn't easy.
It's an all-guts, no-glory exercise that goes unappreciated by the highlight generation of sports fans. With today's athletes having a brand to sell to those offensive-minded fanatics, it takes a special type of coach to elicit the effort needed to survive on defense with a rule book catered to the offense.
Clifford has already shown the type of talent. What comes next could send even greater shock waves across the basketball world.
Just Getting Started
Consider this season something of a practice run.
There's still plenty of ground to make up to capture the team's first playoff win, though.
Three games back of the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte appears headed for a first-round meeting with either the Pacers or the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. Securing a playoff berth is a step in the right direction, but forgive Bobcats fans if they aren't crazy about serving as a sacrificial lamb.
Where will the Bobcats sit in the Eastern Conference standings at season's end?
The important thing to remember is that this is a process.
Progress is being made for the first time in a long time (or ever?) with this franchise. Clifford hasn't even hit on the advanced portion of his teachings, and already his words have reversed the fortune of the league's old doormat.
The good times feel like great ones for a team that's previously peaked at mediocrity. Imagine how the next step of this process will feel.