Q&A with Steve Clifford: Jordan is most understanding owner

ByNick Friedell ESPN logo
Wednesday, July 6, 2016

After scrapping ahead to a 3-2 lead in the first round of the 2016 NBA playoffs against the higher-seeded Miami Heat, the Charlotte Hornets dropped the final two games and were eliminated, preserving their disheartening streak of not advancing to the second round since basketball returned to Charlotte in 2004. It was a series of blowouts, grind-outs and one stern lecture to the media.

Despite the letdown, Steve Clifford believes his team is on the right track. Clifford, a basketball lifer, desperately wants to get them over the hump. As the calendar turns to a new season, Clifford shares what it's like to have Michael Jordan as an owner, if teams can win without stars and -- as an avid soccer fan -- which NBA player he thinks compares most favorably to Cristiano Ronaldo.

(Due to NBA rules, Clifford was not allowed to discuss offseason trades, which don't become official until July 7.)

Nick Friedell: As somebody who has been around the game as long as you have, who is the most prepared player you've come across in your time?

Steve Clifford: Kobe. Kobe watched film on every opponent. Because being such a prolific scorer for such a long period of time, he knew that within most games [other teams] were going to try defend him more than one way. He watched film on every team -- how they defended him the last time we played them. So he was, to me, as prepared as you could be, or maybe even a step ahead in all situations. He always wanted to know what we were going to do and why at both ends of the floor. And he constantly thought the game. To me, he was an expert on his game, he was an expert on our team. And he wanted to be an expert on how he was going to be defended.

Who has been the most competitive?

Wow. That's a tough question. I could name ... Kobe, obviously, is an A-1 competitor. [Shane] Battier was a great, great competitor. I think Kemba [Walker] is as good a competitor as there is. I think that his success here and the progress he has made all starts with the same thing. He has a competitiveness, I believe, on our team that's contagious to the other players just because of the way he plays every night.

As a coach, how do you come into a new team and change the identity of the group? How difficult is that?

First of all, when you study culture, chemistry, I think the misconception about all of that is what part of what percentage leadership plays in that. Culture is always going to be determined by the people. And if you want to have good culture, in our league, it's all about or more about finding ways to have serious, committed, professional players who will work towards winning on your roster. That's where it starts. In one of the [Bill] Belichick books he has a great line saying that team chemistry -- and I'm paraphrasing -- is much more determined by how you draft, how you make trades, and what you do in free agency than it is in how you coach them. I was fortunate in coming to Charlotte where we had a group of younger guys, who I knew even from watching film before I went to interview, is I knew they were competitive. And that's where it all starts.

But then I think the identity part is -- it just gets back to your personal philosophy. To win big in our league you've got to have balanced play. You've got to be good at defense, you've got to be good at offense. The defensive part to me has got to be the staple because it's the old cliche but it's true: You're not going to shoot the ball well every night, but you can defend every night and you can play smart every night. And you can be physical every night and you can follow a game plan every night. That, to me, is how you build your identity, have those things, get the right kind of guys, and then every year, even if it's an adjustment of one or two players, you've got to figure out with your staff the best way for that team to play well consistently, and that's your plan and you got to have a plan so they can do that.

I saw that clip in the playoffs when you gently reminded the media that they didn't know your team like you knew your team. When that happened, how many coaches or friends reached out to you and said, "Thanks."

(Laughs) I actually did get surprisingly -- for the next day, actually for the next week a lot of [them]. And I didn't say that in a condescending manner. The question was the right question. I think the point that I wanted to make is this, and it happens all the time in every series, there's always adjustments. When you play a team four times in the year you make adjustments between every game. You make adjustments at every halftime. Sometimes it is a coverage or it is a playing group, but I think what happens is that the bigger parts of every game usually get back to the principles, and everybody always wants to overlook that.

Hey listen, it's as simple as this: Like the Finals, LeBron went off the last three games. That's why they won. Kyrie [Irving] was terrific making one-on-one plays. Now there were other things, to me the [Andrew] Bogut injury was a big factor. The [Andre] Iguodala bad back in Game 6 hurt them badly. There were a lot of things in that, but the bigger thing in every game is usually going to be the simple things. How many fast-break points you give up, how many mistakes you make to your plan, how well you help -- those are going to be bigger things, a lot of times when switching a lineup. And I just think a lot of times we look at the thing that stands out and say, "What a great move," but then when you're watching the film it's always part of it. I'm not downplaying that at all -- that's always a part of it, but guys get called geniuses or the other guy's a step ahead a lot of times because Steph hit six 3s instead of one 3. And that's usually why the game is won or lost.

Can you win consistently in this league without a star like that who can put a team on his back?

I think there's obviously, at any level of play, there's no doubt that with only five players on the floor that the team that always has the best player on the floor has the advantage. There's no question about that. And yet I go back to, if you go back most years, I've been in the league now 16 years, the team that won, maybe they didn't have a superstar but they had a bunch of All-Stars, was the Larry Brown team in Detroit with Chauncey [Billups], Rasheed [Wallace], Rip [Hamilton], those guys.

Now, the interesting [thing] about that is, as good as those guys were, if you look at their numbers -- I believe if you look this up -- I believe they were the best defensive team by the number in the last 16 years. And offensively, despite the fact that they had those guys, I think they were very average. So I think that that's where it's hard. Because as you can see, I think almost every year and almost every big series it's about balanced play, but you've got to be able to score. And particularly in the last six, seven minutes of the game. People can talk about player movement all they want. Player movement, ball movement is always going to be determined by having a guy that has the ability to draw help.

Hey look, when Steph has the ball, you're helping. When Klay Thompson has the ball, you're helping. When LeBron has the ball or Kyrie, you're helping, or they're getting the shots. So to have that type of superstar offensively is where it's always going to be. Now you've got to have balanced play and all that, but basketball, I think, it's played out for the most part. If you have the best players it's a big advantage.

You obviously work for now arguably the best of the best in Michael Jordan. I was talking to Frank Vogel about this last year when he was still the coach of the Pacers. He said there were times when he looks over and still can't believe he works for Larry Bird. Are there times when you look over and say, "I work for Michael?"

I get asked this all the time, other coaches even ask me. Look, he is obviously highly competitive, and he's disappointed when we don't play well. But I would bet that day-to-day, and overall he may be one of the easiest owners to work [for].


Simply because he understands, he truly understands. Not that other owners [are] different, but I think what happens a lot in this league is we're all fans. And then all of a sudden you watch a thousand games and you think you know. Look, I watch NFL football, I love NFL football, and like you know the Panthers are great. And I'll sit there and watch an NFL game and [think] "Geez, why aren't they running?" I didn't even play high school football. I don't know anything about football. It's just the nature of our business. You're going to be second-guessed.

The difference with him is he watches every game. He watches it closely. He knows our team. He knows our players. And he has a vision of how he wants us to play. We're in contact all the time. And he gives me great feedback. And we have the kind of relationship where he tells me when he doesn't like something. And he also knows how it can happen. I could give you so many stories of times when I thought he'd be upset and he's supportive. I've been so fortunate with the experiences that I've had.

Like draft week, we went out to dinner and I'm sitting there -- Sleepy Floyd lives in Charlotte, [Hornets assistant] Patrick [Ewing] and Sleepy are good friends, so I'm sitting there listening to Michael, Patrick and Sleepy talk about the NBA and how players have changed, how the game has changed, their experience playing for Dean Smith, Phil Jackson, John Thompson, Jeff [Van Gundy], Pat Riley, it's just something that I'll never take for granted. The learning that you get from being around these guys is just ... I played Division III [at University of Maine at Farmington] ... it's not something that you ever take for granted.

As far as the back and forth, can you joke around with him -- how does that work?

Look, here's the bottom line with Michael: Michael's a nuts-and-bolts guy. He believes in work. He believes in team. He believes in guys sacrificing for each other. It makes the whole thing easier. Like the guys sitting out games [to rest], for instance, you should hear him and Patrick with resting players. I mean, like, they didn't do that when they played. And it's just so refreshing for me -- he was saying the other day he never sat out games. He said, "I would never have sat out a game." That's who he is.

He's more apt to be upset, for instance, about a stretch of play where we don't pass the ball to each other and play selfishly sometimes than if we lose. You know what I mean? He wants us to play the right way, the way the game should be played. Think about the guys that he played for. He played for purists, guys that stressed unselfish play, team basketball, and that's the way he views it so ... whether we're talking or texting. I'll get texts sometimes [from him] like, "Good win, but I really hated the way we had guys looking each other off tonight." That's great feedback, so when I'm watching the film I already have that in my mind.

When you look back on all the things that have happened to get your career to this point, were there times when you thought being an NBA head coach just wasn't going to happen? How do you fight that?

This is where I'm just incredibly fortunate. Jeff [Van Gundy] used to tell me you need to be more ambitious. Stan [Van Gundy] [said] the same thing. I've never had a bad year professionally in my life. I was a high school teacher and a coach, I loved it. I was in college for 15 or 16 years -- I loved every year of it ... I didn't come to the NBA and get to a point where I said I want to be a head coach in three years. I love this league, I loved college, I enjoyed high school. I just like to coach, and that's where I'm fortunate.

I've never been one of those guys that's saying, "My goal is to be a head NBA coach." I never did it that way. I would have been happy being an assistant forever. Come on. Everything is first class. You're making incredible money. You're working with the best players in the world. I look back at the [things I've seen] ... I saw Allan Houston get 50 on the Lakers in L.A. I saw [Latrell] Sprewell set the [then] NBA record for making 3s one day in Milwaukee. I remember the first playoff game in the Garden back working for Jeff when it was during the sellout when every dribble was night and day back then. The series we had in Houston with Dallas that went seven [games] with [Dirk] Nowitzki and Tracy [McGrady] in their prime. Going to the Finals in Orlando working for Stan. I've just had incredible experiences. The year [with] the Lakers with Kobe and Steve [Nash] and Dwight [Howard] and Pau and Metta [World Peace].

I'm just not built that way. And this is probably a weakness, but I'm just not that goal-oriented. I love doing this. I want it to work out. I love our staff, I love working for Michael and I love our core guys we have. Charlotte's never gotten out of the second round. I would do anything to be part of that. And yet some day it's going to end, and you know what? If I have to go back and be an assistant I'll be happy doing that too. That's just the way I love.

I read that you were a huge soccer fan. How did that happen?

It happened when I was an assistant here in Orlando. And we had Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus and Hedo Turkoglu, and they were all big European soccer fans and they used to talk about it all the time. So, I would get into conversations with them about it. And it just piqued my interest, so I started getting on ESPN SoccerNet, reading about it, and then I started watching little by little and I became a huge Manchester United fan. So ever since then, most NBA teams have guys who are soccer fans, so I went from [Orlando] to the Lakers when the Lakers -- Steve Nash is a huge EPL [English Premier League] fan. Kobe's a big Serie A fan from his time in Italy and then Pau [Gasol] obviously follows La Liga with Real Madrid. I used to talk to those guys, and now we have Nic [Batum], so I've talked to Nic a lot. That's like my hobby during the year. I watch, I betcha this year I watched 20 to 25 Man U games.

Why Man U?

As I was watching, when I first started watching, they had -- Wayne Rooney was emerging. It was their first year without Cristiano Ronaldo. They weren't picked to be that good. And they had great defense with [Nemanja] Vidi and [Rio] Ferdinand, [Patrice] Evra and Rooney was already established, but had a phenomenal year. And then they had [Ryan] Giggs and [Paul] Scholes, so I just loved the way they played. And I watched all the teams and I enjoyed 'em. So, I'm a Red Devils fan.

You might be better equipped than most to answer this then: As far as NBA comparisons go, who would be the NBA comparison for Ronaldo?

Ronaldo would be like ... he would be LeBron. Or Kevin Durant or Steph Curry. He's the best player -- now I would say from a money standpoint and everything and endorsements, I don't know how much he makes, but I'm sure it's pretty incredible.

What about Messi?

[Lionel] Messi, to me, that's a better one [to compare]. I would say Messi of the current players would be more like Steph. You know, totally skilled-based. Not as physically imposing. I would say Ronaldo would be more like LeBron. Obviously a great skill level, but also Ronaldo's speed and strength is also so exceptional.

So which guy, as a fan of both leagues and both games, are you starting a team with?

Oh man. It's like when people say who would you want: LeBron or Steph? If you could get either one of them you'd be happy. Look, if you could have either one of those guys you just take it and you have a smile on your face.