5 Adjustments Steve Clifford Must Make for the Charlotte Hornets Next Season
The NBA coaching business is very much a "what have you done for me lately" industry. No one exemplifies that more than Steve Clifford. His rejuvenation of the 2013-14 Charlotte Bobcats was short-lived, as he now has to pick up the pieces left behind by a brutal 33-49 season with the rebranded Hornets.
To say Charlotte fell short of expectations would be an understatement. The buzz of the rebranding was only amplified by the big offseason, where the Hornets signed Lance Stephenson and drafted big-name rookies Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston. Then, the season started, and Charlotte never eclipsed the .500 mark after winning on opening night.
Now, Clifford's defensive acumen is being overshadowed by possible ineptitude when it comes to offense and player development. He has a shopping list full of problems to fix for this franchise in order to save his job.
Where do we even begin? One bad year can mostly be chalked up to poor roster performance, but another season of no hope will leave this fanbase restless once again. It is Clifford's job to make sure that doesn't happen by implementing these five main adjustments.
Play the Young Guys
At the time in 2014, Charlotte had what was believed to be among the best drafts according to Zach Harper of CBS Sports. It capitalized on two big names who fell to them at Nos. 9 and 26 in Indiana big man Noah Vonleh and troubled North Carolina/D-League shooting guard P.J. Hairston.
At no point did either rookie become a key member of the rotation for the Hornets. Even with the season up in flames and starters Al Jefferson and Cody Zeller hurt, Vonleh saw just 10.4 minutes of action a night in 25 games. Hairston didn't fare much better despite Lance Stephenson landing in the doghouse.
Vonleh did exhibit some eye-opening ability once his number was finally called over the last few games of the year. He posted a double-double with 16 points and 12 boards against the Detroit Pistons in mid-April. Clifford had some encouraging comments regarding his young big man after the season, according to Sam Perley of Hornets.com:
If he can’t get to be good with those traits, I’ll be disappointed. Obviously he's a young kid, he’s got a lot to learn. I thought he did some good things. The biggest thing that came out of it for me is he can rebound. He has a strength and NBA skill right now that he can use to play well. He can build his game around that.
Those skills mean little if Clifford doesn't unleash him in some capacity. A 33-49 record is unacceptable, especially if it doesn't feature any youth development. For Clifford to win the approval of the fans once again, Vonleh, Hairston and Charlotte's No. 9 pick in the 2015 draft have to be part of the rotation.
Space the Floor
As good as Al Jefferson is, he is no longer a franchise player. Charlotte's offensive game plan needs a huge overhaul to succeed with the talented veteran manning the paint.
Jefferson's 16.6 points per game represented his lowest output since 2006-07, while his 8.4 rebounds were his worst since 2005-06. He is not to blame for all of Charlotte's offensive woes, but it is worth mentioning because this is the well that Clifford incessantly goes to. Those are not numbers of a guy who is capable of spearheading a drastic turnaround.
Charlotte's league-worst 31.8 percent shooting from long range is rock bottom for a franchise that hasn't been good at threes for a long time. Part of it is the personnel—no one on the roster shot over 36 percent—but Clifford does it no favors by calling Jefferson's number too often.
This is a boring, outdated offense that needs an overhaul, and it starts with spacing the floor. Look at what the Atlanta Hawks did turning a mediocre roster into a 60-win team. All they did was move the ball and pick up the pace.
Charlotte needs to follow suit and actually play with some buzz.
Run, Run, Run
Not only was Charlotte the worst three-point shooting team in the NBA, but it was also the second-worst squad in fast-break points. It scored just 9.2 points per game in the open floor.
It's absolutely inexcusable for a team this athletic to play so slow.
The Hornets have spent draft pick after draft pick on young athletes and now are saddled with a confusing roster that isn't being used to its maximum potential. What sounds better: Kemba Walker rolling the ball into Al Jefferson every time, or Walker and Lance Stephenson leading a break and being flanked by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and maybe Willie Cauley-Stein?
One way Charlotte could ignite more fast breaks is to be more aggressive defensively. Charlotte's stout play on that end of the floor wavered this past year after being so dominant in 2013-14. It is likely that season was an outlier, so the Hornets have to create more turnovers and turn them into easy buckets. They were last in the league in steals.
This team should be on SportsCenter's Top 10 every night. All it will take is Clifford loosening the handcuffs.
Move the Rock
Want some more stats that indicate Charlotte's odd style of play? It was third-worst in assists at just 20.2 per game, which coincides with a league-best number of only 6.1 steals allowed.
The Hornets also led the league in fewest turnovers. Put all that together, and what do you get?
The result is an unaggressive team that dribbles too much. Fans everywhere are tired of watching Kemba Walker dribble aimlessly for 22 seconds before launching a contested 20-footer.
At this point in his career, we know what Walker is. He is an average passer and a bad outside shooter, but he can get to the rack. The UConn product must give up distribution duties more often and instead play a little more like Tony Parker.
Next to him is a great passer in Lance Stephenson and a now-confident Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Cody Zeller is also a capable passer at power forward. Quick passes and backdoor cuts should be happening left and right, but instead we must watch the guards dribble idly all year.
This one is entirely on Clifford. He has to stress ball movement and understand that the top 12 teams in terms of assists this past year all made the postseason. Ball movement is almost a guaranteed outlet to success in 2015-16.
There are no fancy metrics or new-age analytics to explain this one. Charlotte stopped having fun in 2014-15.
The buzz was supposed to reinvigorate the entire city but instead fizzled out as soon as the Hornets face-planted into a 10-game losing streak two weeks into the season.
Who were the final four teams left in the NBA playoffs? Were they not the four most fun-to-watch from beginning to end all season? There is nothing exciting about mid-range jumpers and unaggressive defense.
Stephenson and Walker should be this league's most dynamic backcourt. Both are capable of destroying opponents off the dribble and collapsing the paint. Players don't just forget how to play the game before age 25. Both of these guys have immense talent that was never on display in 2014-15. Clifford needs to restore their confidence and generate more excitement from his young, dynamic guards.
Hairston and Vonleh off the bench both have jaw-dropping ability. MKG's confidence is getting higher and higher, as is that of Zeller. The No. 9 pick will only add to the excitement. However, all of these things disappear when Charlotte steps on the court.
Whatever Clifford has to do to get that buzz back has to be done. The Hornets will win 33 games again if they aren't fun to watch.