CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Feeling frustrated at times would have been natural for Steve Clifford. Thirteen years after first becoming an assistant coach in the NBA, and five head coaches later, he still hadn’t gotten an opportunity to lead his own team. He’d ridden in the Ferrari but was never handed the keys.
Clifford finally got that opportunity Wednesday, sitting to the left of Bobcats president Rod Higgins and general manager Rich Cho as the two announced that they had come to the point where they’d found “the right coach for the right time for our team.”
Ironically, the driver seat was always a dream but never the vision for Clifford. It wasn’t that Clifford didn’t have a desire to be there or wasn’t dedicated enough to get there — he just simply enjoyed the ride and felt too blessed to ever worry about what he didn’t have or what could be in the future. His old boss, Jeff Van Gundy, even used to tell him that he wasn’t as ambitious as he should be for someone with his talents and dedication.
“I’m going to say this: I don’t know of anyone that’s been more fulfilled in their coaching career than I have before I got to the NBA and after I got to the NBA,” Clifford said. “What do they say? ‘I’m living the dream.’ I love coaching these guys. It’s not anything you can ever take for granted, so to be honest I’ve never lost a lot of sleep about it. I’ve just always wanted a job. I wanted to be working.”
He’ll have plenty of work in front of him in Charlotte.
The very first question proposed to him held back no punches: Clifford was asked how he felt he was going to make a change in an organization that had just dismissed a coach with no prior head coaching experience when he himself arrives without any experience in the lead chair as well. As he was able to do throughout the press conference, though, Clifford was prepared, citing the opportunity to learn under Don Cheney, Jeff Van Gundy, Stan Van Gundy, Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni and how what he’s learned from each has formed and molded his philosophy.
“I think any good coach has a clear and definitive vision of how they want their team to play, how they want their team to practice, how they want their team to work. I’ve seen what the right amount of work with the right amount of communication can do for a group of players,” Clifford said. “That’s the head coach’s job to set a path, set a vision for the rest of the team and I think I can do that.”
According to Higgins and Cho, everyone they talked to throughout the process agreed he could as well. That’s why they decided to move so quickly after interviewing Clifford last week, choosing not to even bring him in a second time in hopes of beating Milwaukee to the punch — a place he had already interviewed as well.
“Any time you make the tough decision to change, you want to if at all possible address some of the things you possibly didn’t get from the previous hire in this case,” Higgins said. “We felt very good in making the change and bringing in Steve to adhere to some of the issues that we might have had, whether it’s on the court, in the locker room, or just trying to compete every night.”
Higgins refused to answer how many coaches they interviewed, but it’s little coincidence that player relations came up so quickly in his answer of what they were looking for.
It was player relations, or a lack thereof, that essentially drove his predecessor Mike Dunlap out of town.
“I think that’s where obviously, even as an assistant, credibility is everything. I think you want to have the right kind of relationship. I think everything’s built around them knowing that you can help them play better,” Clifford said. “That’s where everything starts because at the end of the day they’re professional players.”
He was mum about who would join him on the bench to cultivate a better locker room and culture around the arena and said it was way too early to discuss individuals when asked specifically about speculation that Patrick Ewing might be an addition to his staff.
What Clifford would delve into was the roster.
He said his two main priorities when evaluating a roster are “competitiveness and skill level, specifically shooting.” What he’s seen so far in his evaluations are that the “younger core guys have above-average competitiveness.” That won’t lead to wins immediately, he acknowledged, but he thinks it’s critical in establishing the foundation of a winning culture, which he’s seen first hand in Los Angeles, New York, Orlando and Houston.
How long that takes or how long until the Bobcats are back in the playoffs isn’t something Clifford was willing to or can answer.
“I’m not going to run away from that question, but I’m glad you said that because to me I think it’s critical right now for our players to not be thinking [about the playoffs either]. You can’t skip steps in the season and the process,” Clifford said. “From now until the first week of October, I think the sole mindset of me, our staff, and our players has to be that they get their games together individually.
“I don’t want to look ahead yet. I think it’s critical that you always know what’s ahead for the players, but again it’s a step-by-step process.”
That’s not coach speak. That’s just the method that for 13 years led to fulfillment and ultimately to his special day Wednesday.