Observer exclusive: Steve Clifford on connecting with LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges and more

·8 min read
Alex Slitz/alslitz@charlotteobserver.com

Steve Clifford had little problem navigating the inner bowels of the Spectrum Center on Tuesday afternoon and could probably walk to his new office with his eyes blindfolded.

After all, it is his second tour of duty.

Four years after he was let go, Clifford was introduced —again — this time as the 12th head coach in Charlotte Hornets history.

“It’s exciting and the NBA is all about change, right?” Clifford told The Charlotte Observer. “Players get traded. Injuries happen. Coaches get fired and even within that, this was obviously a quick sudden thing and a great break for me. And I’m just thankful for the opportunity and really anxious to get going.”

Clifford has plenty of tasks to quickly tackle, and he already knows his top pressing chore.

“I think the most important thing is the players,” Clifford said. “Basketball is a player’s game at any level, and the only way you can really help players maximize their potential with a lot of talent in a locker room is to have the right type of relationship with them

“And the quicker that I can start to get to know them, start to communicate with them, get a feel for what they’re thinking, how they feel they should play when they are on the floor. Study, study the team and try to come up with a plan that will help us play to our potential, that fits in the league. And that’s really what these next couple of months will be for.”

In an exclusive sitdown following a whirlwind early afternoon, Clifford spoke with The Observer about a variety of topics including connecting with LaMelo Ball, what he’s noticed about Miles Bridges in the game footage he’s reviewed so far, the notion he wants to only play veterans over rookies and more.

Roderick Boone: You mentioned relationships. With LaMelo being the face of the franchise. How important is it for you to connect with him and figure out strengths and weaknesses to get him to the next level?

Steve Clifford: Critical. Usually on most teams, I think consistency of play or the people most accountable of how consistently that a team plays is the head coach and the best players. So being on the same page with the team leaders, who are the best players, is everything on every team. And I had a good conversation with Melo the other day. I just love watching him play. So he has a passion for the game. You can tell he enjoys being on the floor. He’s been here from what I understand working very hard since the end of the season, and I can tell he is really committed to having a great year.

RB: The pace of play was uptempo the past two seasons. How do you make sure the team continues to be one of the top-scoring teams in the league while also becoming a better defensive team?

SC: I think that is what the summer is for — studying. We had a top-10 offense. We want to build on that and maybe even get top-5, top-6. And that is going to start with playing fast but also there were a lot more things than just the pace. The ball hit the paint, they created a lot of quality 3-point shots, they got the ball to the rim well. So the pace is obviously a big part of it, but there are a lot of good things here on offense that we have to continue to study and build on.

RB: If Miles Bridges comes back as expected, what do anticipate from him as that next leap and what have you seen coaching from afar?

SC: Coaching against him, he is a guy that scares you. And one of the things he always looked like to me, was besides his talent, and the different ways that he can score, and his passing, to me he looked like a guy that brings a lot of intangibles to the group. And I think that stands out as I’ve started to watch film. It’s apparent of what a key part of things he is and when your best players are also guys that also bring intangibles, that’s a great place to start.

RB: It seems like there is a perception that you just want to play veterans and not rookies? Does that bother you? And having some young players who could be a part of the rotation this year after not playing last season, how do you envision that going moving forward?

SC: I don’t know where that came from because if you look back when i was here and in Orlando, I’ll just go … MKG (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) started when he was here. Jeffrey Taylor had a big year my first year here. Cody Zeller was in the rotation, played every game I think his rookie year. He was healthy, started his second year. Frank Kaminsky played every game but one. When I went to Orlando, Jonathan Isaac was a starter from Day One when he hadn’t been the year before. Mo Bamba played every game he was healthy playing behind an All-Star starter, yet played every game. Markell Fultz obviously in Orlando.

So to be honest, when you are a coach and you evaluate, self-reflection is so important in anything right? When you look, there’s definitely things that I wish I had done differently. Who you put on the floor is everything. But that one I can’t agree with. I’m just saying, I have played the young guys. So now if you want to say to me … I know I’ve seen this quote from a couple of people, ‘Player development is all about minutes.’ I would disagree with that, I would say player development is all about minutes earned.

I had an agent, a really good agent, tell me two summers ago when talking about a potential free agent of his coming to Orlando, and he told me that the biggest problem he’s had in his career is that a team drafted in the top 10 and made them play him even when he didn’t try, OK? I think that can happen a lot. The second thing about the player development part is I think player development never stops. The best players in our league continue to develop as they get older. Hey listen, we want Melo to develop and Mark Williams to develop. And we also want the veteran guys to be in here working and improving weaknesses and making strengths bigger strengths. So I think it’s all of them.

RB: There is also a contingent who don’t think you are as good at player development as strategy and other aspects of coaching?

SC: I would say within the league, that is how I’m viewed (as a player development coach). It’s not one coach, it’s a staff. But I would say if you want to go through the eight years I’ve been head coach of the number of players who’ve had their best year — Al Jefferson, Marvin Williams Nic Batum, Jeremy Lin, Kemba Walker, Terrence Ross, Nic Vucevic. … Gary Neal when he was here for three months. D.J. Augustine had his best year with us when he was in Orlando. So I think that I would actually be comfortable saying that within the NBA, I would actually think that is how I’m viewed.

RB: How will your familiarity with general manager Mitch Kupchak and Michael Jordan and knowing them previously help when it comes to making decisions with the roster?

SC: I think totally. Coaches are different and Michael knows this from my time before and Mitch knows, too. I’m not as passionate about personnel as probably a lot of head coaches are. I like to coach. I think I’m more locked into our team and how we have to play and what guys have to do to get better. I’ve never been very involved in the draft. I think on free agents, I’m sure that we’ll discuss things a little bit here and there. But Mitch is obviously used so many different ways already, from the draft to traders to free agency, to build this roster and he’s one of the most respected general managers in the NBA. So I’m not planning on being a big party of any personnel decisions.

RB: It’s obviously unusual to have a coach coming back for a second tenure. What would you like to say to the fans who aren’t sure this is going to work out?

SC: Stay with us. We are excited about it, and I think that there is a lot of potential here. We have to come up with a way that we can play balanced basketball. That’s what wins in the playoffs and again that’s what these next three months are for. But I’m confident by the time the season starts we’ll have a way to play that will be a little bit more balanced, and we’ll have a chance to play more consistent.

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