Seeking identity, Bobcats hire Clifford as new coach

The Bobcats are hiring Steve Clifford as their new coach. Nick Parker says it feels like a smart move.

A member of the Los Angeles Lakers coaching staff has a new job -- and it’s not Mike D’Antoni. 

Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski was the first to report that the Charlotte Bobcats had hired away Lakers assistant coach Steve Clifford to be their next head coach, agreeing to a three-year deal worth $6 million with the last year being a team option.

Fans may not immediately recognize Clifford, but at least his resume doesn’t make them go, ‘Huh?’ This time the Bobcats got someone who looks the part of a legitimate NBA coaching hire only a season after the franchise hired Mike Dunlap. Dunlap arrived as an assistant coach for St. Johns in the most perplexing and/or surprising hire in recent memory and never fit from the start. His rotations wildly fluctuated, his practice times were exorbitant by NBA standards and his relationship with the majority of his players was cordial at best.

This hire could look perplexing on the surface, too, because Clifford comes from a staff that just endured one of the more disappointing seasons in recent memory relative to expectations. But Clifford is not a D’Antoni guy. He was only there for a year and was hired by Mike Brown prior to the 2012-2013 season.

Clifford arrived in L.A. as a limb off of the Van Gundy brothers’ coaching tree, having previously worked for Jeff in Houston and New York and Stan in Orlando. He was under heavy consideration for head coaching jobs this offseason, interviewing in both Phoenix and Milwaukee as well.

What Clifford’s hiring could mean is a farewell to Dwight Howard in Los Angeles. Clifford was very close with Howard and the Lakers already decided not to retain Chuck Person, whom Howard liked a great deal as well. That's a minor factor, but one that matters when a superstar doesn't have a great relationship with his head coach and is deciding whether to stay with a roster and style that doesn't really fit his game.

While this shouldn’t give Bobcats fans any delusions of Howard landing in Charlotte, it should tell you that Clifford is a player’s coach. If you can get along with Howard, the player who essentially got Clifford’s boss ousted in Orlando, you can get along with anyone. That’s a player’s coach and that’s exactly what this franchise needs after the icy relationship players endured for a year with Dunlap.

Clifford has 12 years experience as an assistant coach in the NBA. He knows how to deal with veterans and shouldn’t have an instantaneous credibility problem like arriving from a college assistant coaching gig.

What will be interesting to see going forward is what philosophical approach Clifford brings. He’s known throughout the league for his defensive mind and he learned from one of the league’s best in Stan Van Gundy, who employs a defend-the-3-point-line-at-all-costs mentality. That fits perfectly in Charlotte, where he inherits the NBA’s second-worst scoring defense on a roster that actually does have a rim protector in Bismack Biyombo.

But what offensive approach comes with that? Does he run D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll-based, run-and-gun offense? Or does he go with Stan Van Gundy's four-out, one-in system that he ran in Orlando, a style predicated on aggressively firing from beyond the arc and fanatically defending it?

The Bobcats’ roster doesn’t really have an offensive identity. There’s not really that one player to build around or mold your system for. 

Kemba Walker thrives getting up and down the floor and using his speed to attack off pick and rolls, but outside of that Clifford will be able to build this offense however he sees fit. He won’t be pigeon-holed into building around one guy, but the perimeter-oriented attack he coached with in Orlando just doesn’t look likely with Walker, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist all below average 3-point shooters for their respective positions and no real stretch four on the roster.

The Bobcats' roster almost has the opposite problem Orlando had at the time, a bunch of guys who excel off the bounce attacking the basket, but no one to stretch the floor and make defenses pay for packing it in.
Regardless of the direction Clifford takes, it should be a far cry from the motion offense used under Dunlap in which the Bobcats ran as few set plays as any team in the league.

The Bobcats will still have to rely heavily on ball movement, spacing and the pick-and-roll, but over $20 million in offseason cap space and the No. 4 pick should help them add some scorers and start to forge an offensive identity.

With a brand change also comes a rebuilding, and Clifford is just the start of what should be a summer full of changes with this team. It must start to build an identity and a culture.

Clifford looks like a solid start in that process. 

His track record lends itself to an NBA head coaching hire, and if he can get along with Howard, surely he can get along with these Bobcats.

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