Steve Clifford Q&A: Lance reflections, Hornets' draft process and more
Earlier this week, Hornets head coach Steve Clifford joined The Chris Mannix Show on NBC Sports Radio to discuss the Lance Stephenson trade, the Hornets' draft process, the NBA as a copycat league and more. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Chris Mannix: Steve, we hear in the aftermath of the Warriors winning the title, people like Alvin Gentry, former Mike D'Antoni assistants, say that this was kind of a validation of the way that Mike D'Antoni coached. You were an assistant under D'Antoni with the Lakers. Do you see it as a validation of the way that Mike coached?
Steve Clifford: Well, I don't really think Mike needs any validation at all. If you look at his teams, in Phoenix especially, where they had good talent, and they got to Western Conference finals, they were winning 55 games a year when the West was, I would say, equally difficult as it is now. The year that I worked for him with the Lakers, he actually took over five games into the season, and we had a bunch of injuries that year, but our last half of that season, we went 28-12, and before Steve and Kobe went down, I think that we may have been the team that nobody wanted to play in the playoffs. So, Mike is a terrific coach, and I think that they did a lot of things—obviously with Alvin's background with Mike offensively that he had done—but I certainly wouldn't say he needs any validation.
Mannix: We know the NBA is a copycat league—when one team does something successfully, other teams throughout the years have done things to try to mimic it. When you see the way the Warriors play, what do you think teams will try to take away from them and institute in their own teams?
Clifford: Well, I think the one they did as well as anybody has done in the last few years is that they were incredibly balanced. I think if you just started watching the NBA during the playoffs, everybody would talk about their offense and their skill level and their unselfish play, but their defense is equally as good. I think they were second in offense during the regular season and first in defense. And I think one of the things that you can take from their defense is the switching. And one thing I think they did a little bit differently than teams have in the past is they switch, and they're very aggressive in their switching. So, particularly the switches that involve Thompson, Iguodala, Livingston, Green and Harrison Barnes. That's where they create a lot of their turnovers. They were second, you know, in the NBA in steals. And, most years, creating turnovers in our league is not a big deal. Actually, most years since I've been in the league 15 years, teams that create the turnovers are usually teams that aren't as good defensively, but I think that's one of the things that they did that I know I took out just watching their team that we'll try to do more.
Mannix: The Hornets recently made a big trade sending Lance Stephenson to L.A. in exchange for Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes. We heard a lot about what Lance's future might be during the season, was he being shopped? Did this trade need to happen with Lance, or would you have been comfortable bringing him back next year?
Clifford: Oh, I would have definitely been comfortable bringing him back. I mean, he's a talented player. I think that in the offseason, there's a number of things you do. You try to get more talent, you try to make your team fit more together. We have a number of good players, our challenge offensively is that we were 30th in the NBA in three-point shooting. And I think that by bringing Spencer in, who's a very good three-point shooter and passer, who can stretch the defense a little bit better, it makes our team fit better together. I think Lance will fit better with the Clippers, I think he's a terrific pick-and-roll player with good size and a good competitor, and there were whatever, I guess, rumors or whatever about him here. He was very good here, very coachable, we asked him to come off the bench because our starting unit wasn't playing well together. Really because of a lack of range shooting. And obviously, he didn't love it, but we never had any issues. He's a good teammate, he's a good guy, and I think he'll play well there.
Mannix: What didn't work with Lance last year that maybe you thought was going to work coming into the season?
Clifford: Well I would say as much as anything—and I obviously have to take responsibility for this also—is that we just struggled to find a groove on the floor that functioned well for him. And that's where I think that playing with the Clippers, who have more perimeter shooting than we do, will help him. I mean, his game is pick-and-roll. He can drive it, and he can make all the passes, he can hit the screener, whether the screener is rolling or flaring. And he can hit all of the perimeter options, and he has great size and a great knack for making the right decision. And with us, again, because we weren't able to find ways where he was on the floor with a lot of perimeter shooting, he didn't always have the room he was accustomed to to turn the corner, get in the paint and get the ball going to the basket. And if you look at it statistically, the biggest difference in his game really was the number of layups he was able to attempt here versus the year before in Indiana, and those turned into pull-up jumpers, which is not his strength.
Mannix: You mention shooting, and obviously that's an issue for this team going forward. This draft has several pretty good shooters in it—Devin Booker, R.J. Hunter, among the better ones. Is that a priority for the Hornets in this draft, finding somebody who can be a shooter on the outside?
Clifford: Yeah, I think for the whole offseason, that's our priority, and I think that's why bringing Spencer Hawes here is a good start to our offseason. I think, for me in the draft, and especially this year, where I believe it's a deep draft with a lot of guys who have a lot of potential. But also, you're talking about a lot of 19 year olds and Devin is 18, so I still think that, for the most part, you take the best player, you help your team that way by adding talent, and then we have free agency also or trades where we can really address the range shooting. Devin is somebody, and R.J., we had them both in here, they're both terrific shooters, and both of them have a chance to be good NBA players.
Mannix: How do you evaluate a shooter during a workout. I mean, are you looking for specific things, whether it's his form, his confidence. I mean, what are you looking for in a workout when you bring in a shooter like Booker or Hunter?
Clifford: I would say both of those things, and then the other thing is how they're getting their shots off—do they have the ability to create the separation or space they need to shoot the ball? Some guys can shoot, obviously the easy one is just a spot-up shot, where somebody else creates the shot for them, and then guys that can shoot off the dribble can get their own shot, obviously that's a big advantage, guys that maybe have the ability to get an iso-game or a post-up game can get a shot, so they have a specific way that you can visualize them scoring in our league. That's one of the things, you mentioned Golden State, Golden State may have two of the better, or maybe best, four or five shotmakers in our league in Steph and Klay Thompson, where they both obviously are terrific spot-up shooters, but they can both play off the dirrble and play off screening or staggers, and they have such a variety of way to get shots and make shots. That's what really, I think, sets up their offensive game.
Mannix: I don't know if these guys have come in and you've matched them against each other or how it's worked with your workouts, but has it become harder to evaluate these guys in workouts because of how selective they tend to be, what they will and won't do during this process, now maybe more so than in the past?
Clifford: Oh, absolutely. And I think you have to be very careful about how much stock you put into these workouts. You know, they're coming in, the most you're allowed to do is some three-on-three. I think the majority of the work has to be film work and then, like, all the evaluation that the personnel people do, not just this year, but, as you know, they start watching these guys when they're in high school, and they've seen them for years. So I think that, I know my background has been, for a coaching staff is: Watch, give your opinion, but I think you have to be very careful about—you know, I know this, I've watched a lot of film on these guys, and I know I don't know nearly as much as our personnel people do about them.