Steve Clifford's Coaching Style is Outdated

One reason for the Charlotte Hornets' ongoing struggles? Head coach Steve Clifford's strategies on both sides of the floor haven't caught up to the modern NBA.

In the past five years, head coach Steve Clifford has established himself as a beloved and respected part of the Hornets franchise. He took over the then-Bobcats in 2013 after a pair of abysmal seasons and immediately brought them to the playoffs. It resulted in a first-round sweep, but that didn’t matter. Clifford managed to turn a league-worst defense with 21 wins to a top-five unit and a postseason berth. Morale was high, and the future looked bright.

Things have changed quite a bit since then.

The defense has regressed, and with the exception of an offense-powered playoff run in 2016, the team has struggled. With 29 games left this season, Charlotte is mediocre-to-bad on both ends of the floor and staring down another summer watching the playoffs from home. Sure, Clifford isn’t solely responsible for those struggles. But it’s not hard to see the issues with his style, specifically on defense. With a reputation as a defensive mastermind, that’s a major issue for Clifford.

The biggest issue with Clifford’s defense is simple: it’s outdated. The primary goal of defense should be making life as difficult as possible for offenses. As the NBA has changed, Clifford’s defense no longer accomplishes that. Today, teams are taking and making three-pointers more frequently than ever. And the Hornets let them.

The team does a pretty good job preventing opponents from taking high-percentage corner threes, but they allow way too many from everywhere else. And though opponents might not take a lot of shots, from the corner, they hit them at an absurd rate. The major takeaway here is that Charlotte allows its opponents to take too many three-pointers. And opponents are making them pay for it.

This is a function of the Hornets’ defensive scheme. That scheme involves big defenders hanging way back against the pick-and-roll, clogging passing lanes and blocking off the paint. The consequence? Plays like this one from Monday night’s game, where the Nuggets’ Darrell Arthur gets a wide-open look from three.

There are explanations for that mishap – Arthur is shooting under .300 from three this season, so playing that conservatively is reasonable. Besides, no one ever accused Frank Kaminsky of being a great defender. But that play can’t be blamed on a specific adjustment or even a defensive error. In reality, it’s indicative of the Hornets’ entire ethos. Take this play, from later in the game:

Dwight Howard gives Jamal Murray miles of space when the latter comes off a screen from Nikola Jokic. Kemba Walker gets hung up on the screen, and no one is there to contest Murray’s shot. Murray, shooting over 38 percent from deep on the season, nails the open look. The Nuggets would hit 18 three-pointers en route to a 121-104 win.

That’s not an attack on Howard or Kaminsky – the scheme they’re playing in dictates that they protect the rim first. Opponents consistently drain three-pointers, and the offense just can’t keep up.

Those offensive issues also come from a seeming reluctance to adapt to three-point shooting. The team takes corner threes less often than any other team in the league and is 24th overall in three-pointers as a whole. And though they’re not exactly the Golden State Warriors, it’s not like Charlotte completely lacks three-point shooters. Walker, Marvin Williams, and Jeremy Lamb are all more than capable, while Treveon Graham has been great in a smaller sample size. Kaminsky has good range for a big man, and despite struggling this season, Nicolas Batum has a history of being a good shooter. Then there’s Malik Monk, the sharp-shooting rookie that can’t seem to find any time.

The point is, this team has too many shooters to be taking so few three-pointers. That’s on the coaching staff, plain and simple. There are other issues on offense, including a lack of creators and players that can finish at the rim. Of course, that’s more of a Rich Cho problem. But abandoning the three-pointer to the extent that Charlotte has fallen squarely on Clifford’s shoulders.

The fact is, however beloved he is by fans and whatever his reputation, the results just aren’t there for Steve Clifford. If he wants to lead the Hornets back to the playoffs – and keep his job – he needs to update his philosophy.

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