Charlotte Hornets: An Honest Critique of Steve Clifford

Feb 11, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford reacts to call in the second half against the LA Clippers at Spectrum Center. The Clippers defeated the Hornets 107-102. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 11, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford reacts to call in the second half against the LA Clippers at Spectrum Center. The Clippers defeated the Hornets 107-102. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports /

While many others get blamed for the Charlotte Hornets’ struggles, Steve Clifford deserves at least some critique despite being a great coach.

As fans, we criticize players when they deserve it. We criticize Rich Cho when we think he makes questionable moves. We criticize ownership when we think they make bad decisions. That being said, Steve Clifford seems to be relatively immune to blame whenever the Charlotte Hornets go through rough stretches. Why is this?

One would have to believe that it is because he is BY FAR the best coach that Charlotte has had since the expansion franchise returned (Sorry Dunlap, Silas, Brown, Vincent & Bickerstaff). In his first three years his teams have made the playoffs twice, and the year they didn´t they were plagued with injuries. Clifford has slowly established himself as a top-10 coach in the NBA and really has taken some teams with very little talent quite far.

That being said, like most coaches in the NBA, he isn’t perfect. Every coach has some flaws or weaknesses that could be improved on. Clearly, Clifford knows more basketball than I can ever hope to know, but here are some areas that I personally think could be improved upon.

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Every coach has their rotation. Five starters and typically four or five players off the bench. The biggest problem that many fans seem to have with these rotations are the unwillingness to insert a different player when someone is underperforming. Game to game it can be tricky. You don’t want to take some players out in the second half just because they didn’t have a great first.

It can throw off the chemistry and just because someone has a mediocre first half doesn’t mean someone can´t bounce back and have a good second half. Clifford does do a good job at the end of games playing the hot players, and if someone like Frank Kaminsky is playing better than Marvin Williams, Frank will play in crunch time.

The best example of maybe staying too loyal to the set rotation is Brian Roberts. Roberts has obviously struggled in his time in the rotation since Ramon Sessions‘ meniscus tear, but Clifford has stuck with him instead of putting the younger, higher ceiling player in Ray McCallum in his spot. Now I think a big part of this has to do with trust.

Roberts has spent years with Clifford that McCallum hasn´t, but you know what you get with Brian Roberts. Ray has more potential so when the team signs him to a 10-day contract, how do you know what you have if he gets no playing time? It is at least worth giving him a shot, and if it doesn´t workout, then you go back to Roberts if needed. The supreme loyalty to set rotations is something that can definitely use some work.

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Offensive Creativity

It is no secret that the Hornets are a heavy pick and roll team. That is fine, but at a certain point it is used almost too much and becomes easier to guard. The Hornets could absolutely use some more creativity when it comes to offensive sets. More off ball screens to get shooters open. More post ups with cutters. Even teams like the Golden State Warriors used Andrew Bogut last year out of the post, even though he wasn´t much of a threat to score.

You can run off ball screens to get shooters open out of the post along with things like dribble handoffs. Clifford always preaches that you have to play inside-out basketball and the Hornets offense is better when the ball touches the paint. Post ups would really help a lot with things because Charlotte isn’t filled with athletes who can just blow by their defenders to get to the paint.

Having more offensive creativity is also important when you have someone like Cody Zeller injured. Cody specializes as the screener in the pick and roll, and when a less effective screener like Frank Kaminsky replaces him in the lineup, that can really jumble the offense. This would be like the Panthers running the same amount of QB draws and option plays with Derek Anderson as they do with Cam Newton. You have to be able to adjust your gameplan to suit your personnel.

Late Game Execution

Similar to the last point, the Hornets are very vanilla when it comes to late game offense. In last shot situations, put your money on a Kemba Walker/Cody pick and roll or a Kemba isolation. This doesn’t fly in the NBA where you have elite defenders that you can assign to guard Kemba if you know what is coming.

Along with that, the Hornets always seem to have trouble doing little things like inbounding the ball and getting players open off inbounds plays. These are little things that make the difference in crunch time between winning and losing. The last month or so Coach Clifford has beat the drum about fourth quarter defense being a major problem as well. He is right. When you have an offense that can be as hot and cold as the Hornets, you have to be able to play consistent defense at a high level to win games.

All of this being said, it is hard to argue that Steve Clifford isn’t a very good coach. His teams always are good-elite defensively, are in the bottom of the NBA in turnovers, and his players respect him. Players always say that he is honest with them and won´t BS them when it comes to their role on the team.

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The biggest problem with the Hornets as currently constructed is the lack of talent on the floor, and at a certain point, this is extremely difficult to overcome even with the most elite coaches. Clifford deserves the benefit of the doubt even when the team appears to be in a giant tailspin as they seem to be headed towards now. Heading into the All-Star break, I´m sure Coach Clifford won´t be on a break at all and will be spending his time trying to figure out how to right the ship for the rest of the season.