CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The sign hangs above Steve Clifford’s desk in an office he’s called home for less than five months.
He first heard the slogan last year while working with Eddie Jordan for the Lakers. It stuck with him and seemed especially pertinent once he was appointed to his first NBA head coaching gig. The placard quotes former Princeton coach Pete Carril:
“Go slow, so they can learn fast.”
Clifford’s staff had to remind him of that throughout the preseason. So far, so good. He’s been pleased with not only his own personal patience, but also the successful installation of the bigger-action items.
“If you look back at what I had planned a month ago and what I thought we would have in by now offensively and defensively, I was way, way off,” Clifford said. “But again, I like what we’ve done. We have a long way to go but I believe we’ve made good progress in the time we’ve been together.”
There are things like two-for-one situations and additional sets that Clifford has yet to install, but he’s been able to call timeouts at times during preseason games to alert his teams of what they like to do in certain situations so they’ll already be aware when it’s time for installation.
There’s time left, too. The Bobcats will have three more practices for installation after Friday night’s game at the Knicks before Wednesday’s season opener against the Rockets, but by and large the foundations have already been laid.
“I think we’re practicing well. I like the way they come in for shoot around; I like the way they pay attention in film session. I like their attitude towards work when we’re practicing,” Clifford said. “And I like our intensity — they have a natural intensity throughout the group. We’re going to try hard I believe to defend, which will hopefully lead to consistent play. And we’re naturally unselfish.”
It’s hard to argue with Clifford’s work on the defensive end at this point. Sure, it’s preseason — the effort is spotty, the games meaningless and the starters don’t play starters minutes. But when the league’s second-worst defense a season ago is holding opponents to 84 points per game (NBA’s best preseason mark) and 40 percent from the field, you have to take note.
“We have just different concepts than what we did last year that for right now are working better for us. We have to carry it over to the regular season,” guard Gerald Henderson said. “But I think everyone’s on the same page, is really just taking to it, so it’s just something we have to continue to do when the regular season starts.”
The Bobcats’ defense is now more predicated on protecting the paint and giving up long jumpers than it’s been in the past, and that’s changed their concepts for defending pick-and-rolls and bringing help.
But there’s also the minor changes that come with a new coach altering schemes, like how a coach perceives the best way to defend certain players or opposing schemes.
“We have some lapses still, we have a lot of things we need to get better at, but I think overall we have a lot of guys that really want to play hard on defense,” forward Jeff Taylor said. “We know that’s the way to win, so I think we’re doing a lot better.”
That’s the building blocks Clifford’s tried to install — a full buy-in from everyone — and as much as the tactical changes have helped, the players also credit more synergy and cohesiveness as a unit as key to the defensive turnaround so far.
“You have to trust that the guy beside you and behind you is going to do their job so you can worry about your job. Sometimes that may entail leaving your guy for a second so you can stunt to slow down the ball for a second, but you have to know the guy behind you is doing their job,” Clifford said. “If there’s not a trust there that everybody knows and is trying to do the right thing, it’ll never work out.”
That type of cohesion has to come on the offensive end, too, and they haven’t gotten to do as much of that as they would like this preseason with Al Jefferson sidelined for two weeks with a sprained ankle. Jefferson says he’ll be ready to go for the season opener, but coach Steve Clifford talked before the season about how important it was for the perimeter players to learn to play with Jefferson and vice-versa and they haven’t gotten to do enough of that.
“It’s going to hurt us, no question about it. That’s just the way this league is,” Clifford said. “He’s doing a lot better but he’s not near ready to play five-on-five.”
The schedule makes the integration even tougher. The Bobcats play 17 games in the first 30 days, so there won’t be many practices in between and the ones they do have will largely be limited contact.
“It’s going to be hard for him. We’re not talking about a guy who’s missed a week here. He played a game and a quarter, so for him to get his rhythm and everything, it’s going to take some time,” Clifford said.
Jefferson’s a veteran, so he doesn’t need an inordinate amount of time for individual development, but he will need the floor time with a new team. The offense has a whole different identity when he’s in there. When he’s in, the ball works inside-out. The rest of the Bobcats’ post players are more screen-and-roll, pick-and-pop guys, so when Jefferson’s absent, Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist become the best threats to score with their back to the basket.
“Coming into the season, you anticipate just working with him, and we started but it was an abrupt stop quickly,” Henderson said. “It’s something that when he comes back we’re just going to have to get accustomed to. We’ve run some different plays because he hasn’t been here but I think guys still know what we want to get to when he’s in the game.”
The offense — ranked 27th in the NBA at 90 points per game during the preseason — will surely improve when Jefferson returns. Whether the defense, an admitted weakness for Jefferson, continues to improve upon his return is yet to be determined.