Steve Clifford: Risk-averse coach, risk-seeking hire

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets talks to Dwayne Bacon
TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets talks to Dwayne Bacon /

The new Magic coach, Steve Clifford, brings in a philosophy that tells his team not to take risks.  That makes him a risky hire, but also makes the payout even higher if he does work out.

Often when a team starts with a new coach, there’s not all that much that you know about them.  Nine different teams have new head coaches after this offseason. Five of those teams selected someone who has never had a full season as a head coach.  Fortunately for the Orlando Magic, or at least for what sanity their fan base has left, Steve Clifford is not one of those guys. Clifford’s time in Charlotte gives a clear blueprint of what he will be in Orlando, and to what they should expect him to do in the upcoming season.

First, the negative. After all, there’s a reason why, in spite of one of the strongest reputations around the league, Steve Clifford doesn’t work for Charlotte anymore.

Steve Clifford tends to, for lack of a better descriptor, flanderize his players. This gets phrased in press conferences, often, as “playing to your strengths”. Which is a fine concept, but the extent to which Steve Clifford often takes it both restricts player growth in an unhealthy way and hurts the immediate production of his team.

As an obvious example, if you ask Clifford what Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s strengths are, he would answer with defense, hustle plays, and rebounding.  And if you look at what MKG was asked to prioritize last year, it’s pretty clearly defense, hustle plays, and rebounding. MKG’s involvement in the offense was nominal, and this was by design.  35.7 percent of possessions finished by Kidd-Gilchrist were from a spot-up. For comparison, Marvin Williams was at 37.2 percent. Malik Monk, the rookie draft pick who was supposed to be the best pure shooter in the draft, finished only 26.3 percent of his possessions as a spot up.  In other words, Kidd-Gilchrist was spotting up a crazy amount relative to his skill-set, and that’s because a large number of his possessions looked like this one:

Kidd-Gilchrist is in the corner and is never involved in this play.  He’s a safety release if anything goes wrong, which is why the spot up possessions kept happening, but the full extent of his involvement in this offensive possession is that he might crash the boards, or might crash early to be found for a cut, but practically he’s not repositioning, nor is he forcing his man to actually work, because the scheme just doesn’t have him involved on that play.  Possessions like that are a dime a dozen too — I didn’t have the film for that pulled in advance of writing this article, I just picked up a random Hornets game on the advanced box scores from, watched the playlist of Hornets field goal attempts, and found this one on literally the fourth play. They were such a constant of the Hornets’ play that no significant digging was going to be necessary.

But maybe that was the cap of Kidd-Gilchrist’s ability as a player, right?  Maybe he just doesn’t have the offensive acumen to do much on that end. That is what the fan stereotype of him says, right?

Well, Kidd-Gilchrist has shown at least some ability as a post-up player.  In 2016-17, across an admittedly tiny sample of 34 possessions, Kidd-Gilchrist averaged 1.04 points per possession, which was in the 90th percentile of the league. Clifford opted not to experiment with that last season to see if it could be larger part of the Hornets offense.

Clifford also never really tried Kidd-Gilchrist as a roll-man in the pack-and-roll, even though that could have easily been a secondary way to get him involved in the offense and his finishing ability when going downhill should have made it viable. Over the past three years, Kidd-Gilchrist finished a total of two possessions as the roll man. Last year, Kidd-Gilchrist had 14 total screen assists. Magic rookie Jonathan Isaac had 13 in a third of the minutes.

The list of players who were under-utilized or boxed in doesn’t stop there. Dwight Howard was never asked to actually step out of the paint on defense and the Hornets defense suffered for it as point guards would pull up for wide open shot after wide open shot. Nicolas Batum, was asked to dig hard like the other more explosive wings to help in rim protection and his lack of explosion meant he couldn’t get a good close out and the opposing team could rain 3s.

Even Kemba Walker, a player with no clear weaknesses, saw some of those effects.  The only players with meaningful numbers of possessions and a higher percentage of their plays out of the pick-and-roll last year were Tyler Ulis and Mike James, both of whom are probably headed to Europe next season.

That narrowing of responsibilities is probably also a symptom of a larger problem too, in that Steve Clifford is not always the best at evaluating his personnel. There’s a long list of players where the minutes were clearly not appropriately distributed. Jason Maxiell, Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions, Michael Carter-Williams, Gary Neal, Mo Williams, and Dwight Howard all had significantly more minutes than their play merited. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb, Troy Daniels, Treveon Graham, Christian Wood, and Noah Vonleh all suffered, and the team was worse for those rotations too. Those lists are both far, far too long for the mere five years that Clifford spent in Charlotte, and they aren’t even exhaustive.

And then there’s the lineups themselves.  Frank Kaminsky, who by his own admission has been a center his whole career until entering the NBA under Clifford, has played the significant majority of his minutes as a power forward.  He’s been forced to chase players several times as fast and athletic around the perimeter, and the results have been exactly what you expected. And yet when Cody Zeller was out with injury and we were playing a mishmash of Spencer Hawes and Roy Hibbert at the center, it took getting to 1-11 in games without Zeller for Kaminsky to actually get real center minutes.  And then the next night it was right back to playing power forward and getting run ragged by Tobias Harris.

For the Magic, this could be bad, but probably won’t be catastrophic. The limited off the dribble game that Jonathan Isaac showed at Summer League probably won’t end up seeing much use.  Mo Bamba probably won’t be shooting 3s. New signing Isaiah Briscoe may have a weird adjustment period on offense because he may not have a clear role. Nic Vucevic, if he sticks to the roster for that long, may get a little too active in the post. But all of those things are growing pains that may sort themselves out just the same — the Magic’s roster is a little more versatile than the Hornets’, so they may not be pigeonholed as much.

But there’s a reason why Clifford has such a positive reputation around the league. For whatever his shortcomings are with player development, he actually does a lot of things incredibly well.

In five years in Charlotte, Clifford’s defenses never ranked worse than 16th.  That would also be the best ranking for an Orlando defense in that time frame, despite having strong defensive personnel like Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Jonathon Simmons, and Jonathan Isaac.  Based on Pythagorean Expectation, every point per 100 possessions that the Magic improve by on defense under Clifford is worth about 2.5 wins. If he gets to the result he had in his last year in Charlotte, then Orlando is still just winning 31 games and probably doesn’t benefit too much.  If he sheds two points though, that’s 33 wins, and sadly, in striking distance of an Eastern Conference playoff berth.

That defense stems, by and large, from a commitment to getting back in transition, as well as disciplined defense focusing on not fouling shooters.  In 2017-18, the Hornets allowed the third fewest transition opportunities as a percentage of total possessions of any team. Since transition opportunities are consistently some of the most efficient in basketball, that was a huge advantage for them on the defensive end.  Similarly, the Hornets are coming off a five-year run under Clifford as a top-10 team with regards to the ratio of free throws to field goal attempts, including back to back years as the single best team in the league. Since free throws are almost always a plus possession once they are earned, this also was a pretty big gain for the defense.

And then there’s the other two things Clifford is known for:  Turnovers and defensive rebounding.

The statistical resume on both of those speak for themselves.

Steve Cliffords’ worst offense, from a turnover standpoint, ranks 27th in NBA history.  Not a typo. That actually might be one of the most unrepeatable coaching feats in basketball.  This also includes the 2016-17 season, which was the single best season of all time at avoiding turnovers. And since Orlando was a below-average team at turning the ball over last year, that should also be a major area where they can expect improvement.  Like with the defense, Steve Clifford’s worst result with regard to turnovers would be Orlando’s best in the last five years.

Similarly, Steve Clifford’s worst rebounding team ranks 34th all-time on the defensive boards. Also not a typo, and only slightly more repeatable than the ridiculous turnover number. In this one, though, he doesn’t own the all-time record, just second place by half a percent. Orlando, meanwhile, was the single-worst defensive rebounding team in the league last year. And like with the defense and the turnovers, Steve Clifford’s worst team from Charlotte would represent Orlando’s best.

So there’s at least a few clear statistical areas of improvement that Steve Clifford should be able to completely overhaul for Orlando, leading to, at minimum, a lot of short term improvement.

But schematically, what will change? After all, Orlando lacks a lot of the things that really defined Clifford’s schemes in Charlotte.  There’s no Kemba Walker to create huge amounts of pressure in the pick-and-roll. None of the wings have the ball-handling or playmaking ability of Nic Batum or Jeremy Lamb, though Aaron Gordon may be able to do that at some level. The pick-and-pop power forward isn’t really there either — Aaron Gordon, the assumed starting power forward, shot less than 34 percent from the 3-point line last year, and the Magic would really prefer for him to be attacking the basket anyway.

The shooting guards are decent candidates for how Clifford liked to use Marco Belinelli in his one unfortunate season in Charlotte.  Fournier is a good cutter off of the ball, and he has the shooting numbers to do some damage when lost. Ross is less good at moving off the ball and would really need his shooting numbers to recover to Toronto levels to be a major threat in this regard, but could conceivably do the same.  And both of them have some ability to put it on the floor and attack once the defense is off balance because of the movement, which was the biggest problem in the way Marco was used — he would get the defense off balance, and then he would get himself off balance and pull up for a bad mid-range jumper. Ross and Fournier have better quick dribble abilities such that that hopefully shouldn’t be the issue in Orlando.

Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, and possibly the rest of the wings, are likely to develop some kind of post game. Setting Nic Batum, one of the best post up wings in the league aside, neither of Marvin Williams or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the type to make that their primary offensive option. But they both used it in specific circumstances, when switched onto smaller defenders, and for both of them it was extremely efficient. As a result, I would characterize the wing post-up as a core component of Steve Clifford’s offense in Charlotte, and the Magic might have the personnel to pull it off.  Gordon and Simmons both already had some volume as post up players last year. Isaac did not, but if he can learn a post game at his length, it’s not really going to be defensible by most forwards. The biggest risk to this being implemented is that the lack of a strong pick-and-roll guard makes it more difficult for Orlando to force the kind of switches that set up the post-up mismatches, but when they do get those switches, look for Steve Clifford to have his personnel prepared to look for the entry pass.

Next. Can anyone challenge the Atlantic Division trio in a post-LeBron East?. dark

Overall, Clifford has a clear set of strengths and weaknesses in his coaching.  The Magic will almost certainly see both. When they win, they’ll see his strengths and think he was a great coach that Charlotte missed out on.  When they lose, they’ll see his weaknesses and wonder why the media insists that that guy is actually that good a coach. If they cover up his weaknesses and emphasize his strengths, they’ll have made a great hire.  If nothing has changed from Charlotte (Which is a legitimate concern, seeing as to how he brought half of his old staff with him) they’ll have set themselves back for the duration of the rookie contracts of high lottery picks Isaac and Bamba.  There are clear risks in hiring Clifford, and it isn’t clear whether or not the Magic have handled those risks well, but there’s also a definite payoff if it goes right, and that’s what the Magic have to count on.