Posts Tagged ‘Steve Clifford’

Pop (hmmph) picks up third Coach award

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The best of Gregg Popovich (2013 playoffs)

SAN ANTONIO — Even after coaching 217 playoff games over the last 17 seasons, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich embarked on another postseason Sunday with butterflies swirling.

“Heck yeah,” Popovich quipped 90 minutes before the Spurs began their 17th consecutive playoffs under the coach everybody knows as ‘Pop.’ “If you don’t get nervous, you’re dead.”

The gruff Air Force Academy graduate is maybe the only coach in U.S. sports who has to come to be as celebrated for his typically terse exchanges with the media — particularly for his now famous, one-word retorts to television sideline reporters — as he is for his enduring legacy with a single franchise.

On Tuesday, Popovich, 65, added yet another layer to his rich, sure-fire Hall of Fame career as the recipient of the Red Auerbach Trophy as the 2013-14 NBA Coach of the Year. He led the Spurs to a 62-20 record, the best record in basketball, made more impressive because it came on the heels of a devastating loss last year in the NBA Finals.

“I feel very honored for a whole lot of reasons,” Popovich said at the news conference announcing the award. “First of all because there were so many coaches who did such a great job this year. I think it was really unique. A lot of people were really special and to be singled out is pretty humbling. I know I’ve been very lucky for a good number of years and I know full well I just represent part of what goes on here.”

It’s his third Coach of the Year honor and second in the last three years. He joins Don Nelson and Pat Riley as the only coaches to win the award three times. Popovich totaled 380 points, including 59 first-place votes, from a panel of 124 sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada.

First-year Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek finished second with 339 votes, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau was third, Charlotte’s first-year coach Steve Clifford was fourth and Toronto’s Dwane Casey finished fifth in the voting. (Complete voting totals here.)

Popovich also won the award following the 2011-12 season and also for 2002-03, the season in which Manu Ginobili joined Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to form the Big Three. They won their first of three championships that season. (Popovich won another title with Duncan and David Robinson back in 1999.) The Spurs entered these playoffs as the reigning Western Conference champions, boasting the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

That consistency is the hallmark of Popovich’s 18-year career in San Antonio. This season included a 19-game winning streak and only one losing streak of more than two games (three, back in late January). The Spurs extended their streak of winning at least 50 games to an NBA record 15 consecutive seasons.

The Spurs’ 62 wins is their second-highest total under Popovich, one fewer than the 2005-06 team. This team was an offensive juggernaut, ranking sixth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 108.2 points per 100 possessions) and No. 1 in 3-point shooting at 39.7 percent. At the other end they ranked fourth overall in defensive efficiency and second in the Western Conference.

Popovich achieved it while masterfully managing his team’s minutes and particularly his two aging stars, Duncan, 38, and Ginobili, 36. Popovich limited every player on the roster to less than 30 minutes a game while nine players averaged at least 18.9 mpg.

“We saved minutes all year long so we could give those minutes come playoff time,” Popovich said.

Rick Adelman‘s announcement Monday that he was stepping down as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves moved Popovich to the top of the list of career victories among active coaches — ninth on the all-time list — with a record of 967-443. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers (644-498) is second and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle (569-339), who is matching wits with Popovich in their first-round playoff series, is third.

“Pop’s the best coach in the game and for my money he’s the best coach in history because of what he’s been able to do over a period of almost two decades, keeping the same system and just plugging in different players,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s been phenomenal.”

Popovich is the longest-tenured coach with the same team in all four major professional U.S. sports.

Jeff Hornacek talks Suns’ 48-win season

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns’ Goran Dragic is a nominee for Kia Most Improved Player

DALLAS – The Phoenix Suns added their name to a very short list of teams to win 48 games and not make the playoffs. Their pleasantly stunning season has sparked increased debate about whether the NBA should look at ditching the conference model and put the 16 teams with the best record into the postseason.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek vaulted to the top of the Coach of the Year discussion early on and, like his team, never faded. Phoenix was believed to be a team headed for major ping-pong balls come the lottery, a team constructed of journeymen and unproven parts expected to top out at around 25 victories.

The first-time head coach will have competition from Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford, Toronto’s Dwane Casey and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

“Jeff is an awesome coach,” Suns point guard and team MVP Goran Dragic said. “He was a great player and he understands the game. As a coach, he sees things differently and he is always calm and gives us that extra confidence. He works hard with young players after practice and he gives us the strength to fight the whole season.”

Here’s how Hornacek views his rookie season on the bench:

Q: How did you manage to quickly establish a winning culture in a locker room with high turnover?

A: That’s the one thing going into this season we wanted them to do, just play hard, play together and for the most part they’ve done that. These guys care about each other, they’re a very close-knit team and that gives you an opportunity for success.

Q: How did Gerald Green, NBA.com’s choice as Most Improved Player, find success this season and bouncing in and out of the league?

A: Gerald is a guy who can get his shot off anywhere — and he does (laughs). He’s got great confidence in his shooting. He’s done a much better job of not just settling for the jump shot, but he’ll take it to the basket. If he gets a step and has a chance to jump, you know how good of an athlete he is, he usually gets the ball in the basket. He’s improved in terms of his consistency. It’s not where he’s jacking up 10 3s and making two of them. He realizes that if he’s not making them, he moves in and tries to take a different shot and that’s been big. I think that’s where a lot of his improvement’s come.

Q: It’s been said that you are the perfect coach for him and the system is a perfect fit. Do you agree with that?

A: He’s bought into what we’re trying to do, it kind of fits his style. We don’t mind running up and shooting quick 3s. I think his eyes light up when one of our point guards, Goran or Eric [Bledsoe], sprint down the court and he’s filling a lane. Guys have great confidence in him and they look for him now because they know he can get hot and make six, seven in a row. It’s a big part of what we do and he’s been great this year.

Q: You played for and coached under Hall of Fame Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. What aspects of his coaching style or philosophies did you incorporate into yours?

A: When we went into it I tried to take a little bit from all the coaches. With Jerry, it’s just go out there and try to play every play like it’s your last, that’s what Jerry always stressed and we’re constantly talking about that. We’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly of how to do that night in and night out, and then get to every play. You can’t have three or four plays that, ‘Oh I forgot,’ or ‘I spaced off’ or whatever it is because that’s going to be enough to cost you the game. Jerry was always on that: Play every play like it’s your last and we try to get that from our guys.

Q: Not sure if even you could have predicted the level of success the team had this season. What does it mean for the franchise when 20-something wins seemed to be the ceiling?

A: Well, the whole part of the rebuilding is you’re going to have steps. From a team that was supposed to win maybe 20 games, we thought if we can get to 30, 35, start establishing things, maybe next year make a push for the playoffs and the year after that get in the playoffs, the kind of stepping stones that you have to go through. Maybe we just skipped a rung. I think it’s great.

Q: Why were you able to skip a rung?

A: I don’t know. It’s always tough in the NBA, especially the way guys switch teams nowadays. The chemistry part is big. And our guys, we had 10 new guys, you never how that’s going to come together, they’ve gotten along pretty well. We emphasized in the beginning, you’re a bunch of new guys, you’re a lot of guys that have contracts that end this year or they end next year, so that’s always kind of a recipe for disaster when guys try to get individual, worried about their contracts. I told them stories about some of our guys from the past, that when you’re on a good team that’s when teams want you, that’s when they’ll pay bigger bucks if you’re on a good team. And so if we’re a good team, all that stuff will come, don’t worry about it, just play and try to win games and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve put it all aside and just played.

Q: When did you first see signs that your team could be pretty good?

A: Early in the season we lost a couple of close games to San Antonio and Oklahoma City at their place and our guys; when you’re in a rebuilding mode a lot of times guys are talking about, ‘hey, that’s a moral victory. Hey look, we played well.’ Our guys were ticked off, they were mad about it. So, to me, as kind of a competitive player, I think, I took that as a sign that, hey, we could be OK this year because these guys care and they want to win.

Q: You paired two point guards, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, in the same backcourt. Why did you believe they could complement one another?

A: I just kind of envisioned it because I saw what Kevin Johnson and I went through way back in the day when you had two guards out there and we wanted to be an up-tempo team. We felt that the best way to do that is to have two guys you can outlet the ball to. We don’t need it in one guy’s hand when you can throw it to anybody. We just kind of, [general manager] Ryan McDonough, when we talked about if it could work, he said, ‘yeah I think it would be great getting them from one side to the other. Teams have to look at the mismatches. Someone’s going to have the advantage as good as those two guys are.

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Gregg Popovich once again has the Spurs playing at a high level. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Gregg Popovich once again has the Spurs playing at a high level. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

If you took a poll of their peers and asked them to name, year in and year out, the best coach in the NBA, the same name usually would show up.

Gregg Popovich.

That’s what happens when you spend 18 years establishing roots and a philosophy in a Spurs franchise that produces four NBA titles, 15 consecutive seasons of at least 50 victories and the best record in the Western Conference three of the past four seasons.

“I think for everybody in the league, you hope to get to that point where the established players, Hall of Fame type players, play in a system together for a long time,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “They know each other, know the amount of effort that it takes, know how to get ready for games and how to get ready for series and how to get ready to win championships. All those things come from some time. It’s been a phenomenal run. In my career in the NBA, it’s been the most sustained long run. It’s just amazing that Pop gets them to play the same way every year.”

But especially this year, when the pages on the calendar cry out that Tim Duncan is soon-to-be 38, Manu Ginobili is 36 and Tony Parker is 31. Especially this year when the Spurs have worn the scars of their devastating loss of a fifth championship that was in their grasp until the last 28 seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Especially this year when Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Parker and Ginobili all spent stretches of time on the shelf with injuries or assorted aches and pains.

“Even if you have talent in this league, it isn’t as easy as people think,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “You have to get guys to come together and get them to buy in and find a way that they can play as a team.”

Popovich, the longest-tenured coach in any professional sport, has won Coach of the Year honors twice before in 2003 and 2012. But the work he’s done this season just might be his finest.

He is the first to tell you that the Spurs keep winning year after year because they have the talent, professionalism and unselfish nature of their Big Three to be committed to common team goals. But they continue to succeed again and again because Popovich has ingrained a system where the ball moves to find the open man and the best shot on offense and the defenders’ feet move to cut off open shots by their opponents.

The cast of supporting characters changes frequently, but what doesn’t is the requirement to stick to the same basic, demanding understanding of how the game is played. He won’t lower his own expectations, but will constantly raise your own.

This season Popovich has coaxed and nurtured the Spurs to 62 wins in the powerful Western Conference, all while carefully managing the minutes of his stars. Not a single player on the roster plays an average of 30 minutes per game. Parker is at 29.6, Duncan and Leonard at 29.2, Ginobili 22.8. Parker is the team’s leading scorer at only 16.7 per game, but the Spurs have nine different players averaging at least 9.1.

The Spurs are strong. They are deep. They are resilient and healthy going into the playoffs and ready again to drill into opponents what has been drilled into them — the sheer simplicity and brutal efficiency of playing one way.

Pop’s way. Which proved to be the best way. Again.

The contenders

Doc Rivers, Clippers — The veteran coach made the cross country hop and immediately changed the culture and the attitude of the franchise. He demanded and got more out of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and made a good team into a real playoff threat.

Jeff Hornacek, Suns — Getting his first chance as head coach, the last thing Hornacek wanted to hear was lottery talk. He took a disparate group of players and got them to share the ball and make the most of their ability. Nearly winning 50 games in the West is not to be undervalued.

Tom Thibodeau, Bulls — When Derrick Rose went down in the 10th game, he could have cursed the fates. When Luol Deng was given away to Cleveland, he could have thrown up his hands. Instead Thibodeau keeps grinding and now the Bulls are a fearsome matchup for anyone in the playoffs.

Steve Clifford, Bobcats — Another rookie head coach who gave the Bobcats what they’d been lacking for so long — an identity and a plan. He turned the worst defense in the league into one of the best (No. 6), made Al Jefferson the calling card of his offense and lifted Charlotte into the playoffs.

Morning Shootaround — April 17


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kobe readying for comeback | Irving still weighing Cleveland future | Thompson blasts Griffin’s style of play | Walker credits Clifford for his growth

No. 1: Kobe already gearing up for next comeback– All you need to know about how Kobe Bryant felt about this disaster of a Los Angeles Lakers season could be summed up in his tweet last night:

It should come as no surprise, then, that Bryant is already gearing up for a monster comeback now that he’s been cleared to resume running and shooting drills after recovering from a knee fracture. Ramona Shelbourne of ESPNLosAngeles.com has more on Kobe’s workout plans:

Kobe Bryant has been cleared to resume running and shooting and will begin an intense, six-month training program next week upon his return from a short family trip to Europe, sources with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.

Bryant has been ramping up his activity level in recent weeks as he continues to recover from a fracture in his left knee suffered during the Lakers‘ victory Dec. 17 at Memphis, just six games into his return from a ruptured Achilles.

While he is in Europe, Bryant will visit the clinic in Germany where he had the platelet-rich plasma treatment known as Orthokineon on his knee, according to a source.

The visit to the clinic is a check-up to ensure all is structurally sound with his knee before he resumes intense training.

Bryant has rarely traveled with the team or appeared in public since, preferring to focus on his rehabilitation instead of a team wrapping up the worst season in Lakers history.

***

No. 2: Irving: ‘Exciting’ if Cavs offer max deal — All season long, it seems, Cleveland Cavaliers star guard Kyrie Irving has been dogged by rumors of his desire to leave the team as soon as he possibly can via free agency. Now that the Cavs have wrapped up their season — one in which they fell well short of expectations of a playoff run — the team has some key roster decisions to make, the foremost of which may be signing Irving to a contract extension. For all the rumblings of Irving’s supposed displeasure with the team, though, it sure doesn’t sound like he wants to move on, writes Bob Finnan of The News-Herald & The Morning Journal:

The Cavaliers’ franchise faces several major decisions this summer.

None is bigger than the five-year, $80 million maximum extension the Cavs are expected to offer two-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.

“Obviously, I’m aware I can be extended this summer,” he said after the Cavs’ 114-85 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on April 16 before 19,842 at Quicken Loans Arena.

“It’s a big deal for me if they do offer me that. It will be exciting. I’ll make the best decision for me and my family. That’s what it will boil down to.”

Irving doesn’t sound like someone who wants out.

“I’ve been part of this, and I want to continue to be part of this,” he said. “We’ve made some strides in the right direction, especially as an organization. I want to be part of something special. I don’t have a definitive answer to that right now.”

The offer is expected to come on July 1.

Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert is attending the Board of Governors meeting April 17-18 in New York.

Brown has four years remaining on his original five-year, $20 million contract.

He said he won’t plead his case with Gilbert.

“I’m thankful to Dan for the opportunity he’s given me,” Brown said. “It’s his team. Whatever decision he makes, I’m going to support.”


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving talks after the Cavs’ season-ending win against the Nets

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No. 3: Thompson blasts Griffin’s style of play — Who isn’t excited to watch the L.A. Clippers-Golden State Warriors first-round playoff series? Aside from the fact both teams have two of the better offenses and defenses in the league, there’s the added drama of them not liking each other in the mix as well. That latter point apparently is getting racheted up even more as a little war of words in the media seems to be breaking out between the Warriors’ Klay Thompson and the Clippers’ All-Star, Blake Griffin. Thompson accused Griffin of “flopping” and Griffin had his rebuttal to that claim yesterday, as Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com reports:

The trash talking between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors has started — even before their first-round playoff series became official late Wednesday night.

Earlier in the day, Warriors guard Klay Thompson called Clippers forward Blake Griffin out for flopping and playing “kind of out of control sometimes.”

“He is a good guy off the court but he probably just … I mean … plays pretty physical and flops a little bit,” Thompson told The Wheelhouse on 95.7 The Game radio in San Francisco.

“He flairs his arm around so you know you might catch a random elbow or something that doesn’t you know rub off too well on guys,” Thompson said. “He’s kind of like a bull in a china shop, kind of out of control sometimes. And then you do just see him flop sometimes like how can a guy that big and strong flop that much.

“I can see how that gets under people’s skin and be frustrating to play against.”

Griffin was ejected from a Christmas Day game between the Clippers and Warriors after an altercation with Warriors center Andrew Bogut and called the Warriors out after the game for playing “cowardly basketball.”

“If you look at it, I didn’t do anything, and I got thrown out of the game,” Griffin said. “It all boils down to they (the referees) fell for it. To me, that’s cowardly. That’s cowardly basketball… Instead of just playing straight up and playing a game, it got into something more than that, and it’s unfortunate because you want to play a team head-to-head. You don’t want to start playing other games and playing cowardly basketball.”

***

No. 4: Walker credits Clifford for change in his gameFor the first time since the 2009-10 season, the Charlotte Bobcats are a playoff-bound team. Unlike that squad from a few years ago, though, Charlotte has a more solid future thanks to the standout play of youngsters like guard Kemba Walker. The third-year guard has become one of the leaders of the team and his improved playmaking skills have been key to Charlotte’s rise this season. However, he wasn’t always such a promising piece of the Bobcats’ future and as Jessica Camerato of BasketballInsiders.com reports, Walker credits coach Steve Clifford for challenging him to grow his game:

During an early-season game against the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats head coach Steve Clifford had seen enough of Kemba Walker’s defense of Jeff Teague – or lack thereof. Walker was lagging on the pick-and-roll, Teague was making plays at will.

Clifford and Walker had established a solid relationship shortly after Clifford was hired last offseason. The third-year guard jelled with the first-year coach, who he described as a “real down-to-earth, cool guy.” Walker saw another side of Clifford during that game, though, one that said more than the words he spoke.

“He really surprised me and he got into me. I really deserved it,” Walker told Basketball Insiders. “It motivated me and it helped me. … That’s kind of the first time an NBA coach has gotten into me. It was a mixture [of yelling and speaking]. It showed me that he cared about me because if he didn’t say anything, then I’m like he doesn’t care. But it showed me that he knows that I can do more. Looking back, I appreciate it.”

He added, “I think it definitely was (a turning point).”

Clifford made it clear early on he wanted to see Walker improve on the defensive end. He called Walker into his office to watch game film, pointing out clips where he played good defense and others where he was inconsistent.

“He’s made me a better player because he has so much confidence in me,” Walker said. “He told me that I could be a much better defensive player if I wanted to be. He challenged me with that.”

There are plenty of moments that go on between a player and coach that are not seen in practice or in games. Those are the instances that stand out to Walker this season – the conversations he has shared with Clifford, the times he has gone to him for advice, sometimes just as someone to listen.

“When a coach is able to help you with things off the court, that’s a lot more important than being on the court,” said Walker. “We’re all pros, but we still have problems just like regular people. Sometimes we need to vent, sometimes we need people to talk to. When you’ve got a guy like Coach Clifford whose been through so much in his life, a guy who knows things, can give you advice and you can talk to him, that helps a lot.”


VIDEO:Kemba Walker discusses the Bobcats’ win Wednesday night against the Bulls

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Wolves don’t have any idea about whether or not coach Rick Adelman will retire or not … Like his teammate (and fellow free-agent) P.J. Tucker, Suns guard Ish Smith is hoping to stick around in Phoenix … Cleveland center Spencer Hawes says he’s open to returning to the team next season …

ICYMI of the Night: It’ll be a good six months or so before we see some of the teams in last night’s top 10 plays again, so let’s give ‘em one last opportunity to shine here …


VIDEO: Relive the top 10 plays from the final night of the 2013-14 regular season

During an early-season game against the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats head coach Steve Clifford had seen enough of Kemba Walker’s defense of Jeff Teague – or lack thereof. Walker was lagging on the pick-and-roll, Teague was making plays at will.

Clifford and Walker had established a solid relationship shortly after Clifford was hired last offseason. The third-year guard jelled with the first-year coach, who he described as a “real down-to-earth, cool guy.” Walker saw another side of Clifford during that game, though, one that said more than the words he spoke.

“He really surprised me and he got into me. I really deserved it,” Walker told Basketball Insiders. “It motivated me and it helped me. … That’s kind of the first time an NBA coach has gotten into me. It was a mixture [of yelling and speaking]. It showed me that he cared about me because if he didn’t say anything, then I’m like he doesn’t care. But it showed me that he knows that I can do more. Looking back, I appreciate it.”

He added, “I think it definitely was (a turning point).”
Read more at http://www.basketballinsiders.com/cliffords-critique-led-to-walkers-success/#hDiVAClLkvlPCTqd.99

The buzz is back in Charlotte (video)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Steve Clifford didn’t make any promises when he took the job. He didn’t make any public declarations about where he was going to take the Charlotte Bobcats this season.

He vowed to do whatever it took to make things better, to serve as an agent of change in whatever way he could. It’s a vow that resonated with his players. He won them over, one by one, with his belief that they could be better than what they had been before, with a belief in them individually and as a collective.

Al Jefferson bought in from the start. Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did, too. All of the Bobcats (and soon to be Hornets) believe now. They’ve already clinched the second playoff berth in Bobcats history, delivering on owner Michael Jordan‘s edict to restore the order in basketball-mad North Carolina, his home state.

There’s new life in Charlotte for the Bobcats and especially the Hornets. The buzz is back on Tobacco Road. But it has nothing to do with the storied college programs at Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and North Carolina State.

March Madness is over. It’s playoff time and the Bobcats will take center stage in the days and weeks ahead …


VIDEO: There is new life in Charlotte thanks to the Bobcats (Hornets) grinding their way back to the playoffs

Jefferson Hits Stride With Bobcats


VIDEO: Al Jefferson dominates in the Bobcats’ win over the Knicks

Few NBA observers were wowed last summer when veteran big man Al Jefferson, 10 days after hitting the free-agent market, signed with the Charlotte Bobcats. That whole dance that goes on every year when notable players seek new destinations – “I want to win. I want to get a ring” – was conspicuously absent. The Bobcats were a long way from winning, conventional wisdom said, and everyone knew it. Jefferson included.

So when Charlotte guard Kemba Walker, who shares the same agent (Jeff Schwartz), nudged Jefferson in New York with the idea in the days prior to his team-shopping, “Big Al” scoffed.

“At first I thought it was just a joke,” Jefferson told NBA.com in a phone interview Monday. “I was like, ‘Heh. Yeah, right. Whatever,’ “

Then Schwartz suggested Jefferson make a visit to Charlotte to at least hear the Bobcats out. The rest has been a happy half-season of history for all concerned.

“I met the coaching staff. That was the first impression right there,” Jefferson said of Steve Clifford and his assistants. “That showed me that MJ [team chairman Michael Jordan], Rod [Higgins, Charlotte president of basketball operations] and those guys, they went and got a great coach and staff. That let me know right there they were trying to turn this franchise around.

“Then I looked at the young talent: Jeff Taylor, MKG [Michael Kidd-Gilchrist], Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson. Bis [Bismack Biyombo], a great high-energy big. Brendan Haywood and [Jannero] Pargo, guys who have been around the league and know what it takes to win.

“You add a guy with my talent and the things I’m able to do on offense. And then you look at the East, I really thought that was the best decision for me.”

To the outside world, Jefferson’s decision to leave the Jazz and choose the Bobcats looked like a cash grab. It was pretty nice grab, too: three years, $40.5 million. But for a player entering his 10th NBA season whose teams in Boston, Minnesota and Utah were a combined 160 under .500, with just one playoff appearance (four games) after his rookie year, it seemed like misplaced priorities or a competitive surrender.

Jefferson shrugged off that perception much like he did Walker’s initial suggestion.

“I could care less what the world says about what I was trying to do,” he said. “It wasn’t just about the money. I told Kemba when I first signed, ‘I’m not coming here to lose. I’m not coming here to be the best player on a bad team.’ I was coming here to try to turn this thing around. So far, I feel like everybody’s on the same page.”


VIDEO: Al Jefferson talks about his footwork-focused game throughout his career

No kidding. At 19-27 on the eve of a four-game trip out West that begins at Denver Wednesday, the Bobcats are eight games better than they were at this point a year ago (11-35) and only two victories shy of their 2012-13 season total. If they maintain their current .413 pace the rest of the way, the Bobcats will finish 34-48, an increase of 13 victories.

And based on the East’s mediocrity so far, that would be good enough for a playoff spot. Last season, only Orlando (20-62) finished behind the Bobcats out East.

Individually, Jefferson is averaging 18.9 points and 10.5 rebounds, with nine consecutive games of 20 points or more – most recently, 32 on 15-of-26 shooting against Chicago Saturday – and 19 double-doubles. He missed nine of Charlotte’s first 12 games with a bruised ankle suffered early in the preseason but clearly has caught up and hit his stride. His January numbers: 22.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 53.3 percent shooting.

“What we’re seeing now is really the fruits of his labor,” said Clifford, who considers Jefferson a leader and his best player. “Both doing a lot of extra rehab and a lot of extra conditioning, to get his ankle stronger and get into the kind of game shape he needed to be in, in order to do well. Now he’s not just back to where we hoped he could be, but really playing at a level more efficient than we could have hoped for.”

Even on defense, never a Jefferson strength. Clifford is happy with the results overall – defensively the Bobcats rank in the top 10 in points per possession, points in the paint and free throws attempted – and suggests the veteran’s good instincts at that end are being matched more often with greater effort. When he’s on the floor, Charlotte’s defensive rating goes up but its net scoring differential goes down.

Clifford is happy with how Jefferson has fared on defense, which has never been Big Al’s strength. Overall defensively, the Bobcats rank in the top 10 in points per possession, points in the paint and free throws attempted, which suggests the veteran’s good defensive instincts are being matched more often with greater effort. When he’s on the floor, Charlotte’s defensive rating goes up but its net scoring differential goes down.

Jefferson credits the system, along with some extra work with assistant Patrick Ewing. “He feels like my offensive game really don’t need that much work. So he’s trying to get me to be more of a defensive-minded player,” Jefferson said. “Just being more of a helper. I’m the big man. I’m not a shot blocker like some of the great bigs in this league, but I can be over to help a lot earlier, just to get them to see a body and make it more difficult.”

Jefferson has been playing well enough lately that, as the conference coaches make their picks for All-Star reserves, he is worthy of consideration. But he learned a long time ago not to get too hopeful about honor.

“I don’t really get caught up in it no more,” he said. “Because there were some years where I was really disappointed. I remember that one in Phoenix [in 2009], I was so close to buying flights to get my family out there, ‘cuz I knew I had an opportunity that they’d vote me in. But they didn’t. So I made a promise to myself then that I’m not going to worry myself about it.”

Jefferson had 30 double-doubles in his first 50 games with the Timberwolves that season, averaging 23.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. No sooner had he learned he wasn’t selected, though, than his season ended with a blown right ACL in a game at New Orleans.

Said Jefferson: “It’s something every player dreams about, just because it’s recognition, having ‘All Star’ behind you name. If they vote me in, I’ll be very thankful and very happy. But if they don’t vote me in, I’ll be OK too.”

He isn’t nearly as casual about the Bobcats’ quest for success. “

“The Charlotte Bobcats always have been one of the laughingstocks in the league,” Jefferson said. “But where we at right now, two games of tying the victory total from last year, to me, I’m not satisfied with that. The other guys aren’t satisfied with that.”

Sooner rather than later, Jefferson doesn’t want anyone scoffing or smirking at the idea of joining the Bobcats the way he did last summer.


VIDEO: Bobcats coach Steve Clifford praises Al Jefferson’s play of late

Jefferson Credited For — Yes — Defense

Charlotte Bobcats v Sacramento Kings

Al Jefferson is pleased to get a rare compliment about his defense. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Because his hearing was never the problem, the comments about his poor defense registered loud and clear, as did the diplomatic non-answer answers through the years whenever a coach or teammate was asked about the topic and didn’t want to trash Al Jefferson. He got it.

So when Jefferson joined the Bobcats this season, coach Steve Clifford quickly made the point that Jefferson’s defense wasn’t really as bad as people made it seem. There was a back-handed compliment in there somewhere, but there was also a match strike that led to the veteran center being newly motivated on that side of the ball and becoming a key component of the team that is fifth in the league in shooting defense and sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions.

“It means a lot,” Jefferson said of Clifford’s comments, words of praise that have continued long past the start of the season. “It motivates me. It motivates me to continue to get better on defense. I never heard my name and ‘great defense’ in anything. People always criticized me about my defense. I really don’t care what people think, but just to finally hear somebody giving me a compliment.”

Clifford gave him that compliment, but also a challenge. Tapping into pride, the new coach talked to Jefferson about his reputation. He put the image of a talented post scorer who gives a lot of the points back in the other end in front of Jefferson.

“He didn’t want to be the weak link defensively,” Clifford said. “And I think as he’s come in, despite the fact that he’s not healthy, he’s really done a good job.”

The bruised right ankle that cost Jefferson nine games in November remains a problem, reducing his lift, but he is at 17 points and 10.1 rebounds while 34th in defensive impact,  a measurement mostly of big men on blocks, steals and protecting the rim.

“I think he’s played a lot better defensively than anybody ever gave him credit for in the past,” Clifford said. “Whatever the knock on him, I guess, when he was younger was that he didn’t pass the ball out of the post, which he does very efficiently now. And the knock on him when we got him was that he wouldn’t defend. His defense has been good. It’s been solid. What people don’t know is, he’s not near a 100 percent. His ankle is what it is. I don’t think for the rest of this year he’s going to have the lift or the explosiveness he had last year and yet he goes out every night, doesn’t say anything. He competes hard.”

The Bobcats, at 15-21 on pace for the playoffs, are trying to recover from a decline in defensive intensity. Clifford has wanted to see better focus, but Charlotte should also benefit from the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who fractured his left hand Dec. 3, as soon as Tuesday against the Knicks.

Bobcats Target Kidd-Gilchrist Return


VIDEO: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stuffs Gerald Wallace at the rim

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Bobcats are targeting an important stretch of games in the middle of the month, possibly as soon as Jan. 14, for the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist from a fractured left hand, coach Steve Clifford said.

“Next weekend we’re at Minnesota, at Chicago, and we’re hoping to have him back after that,” Clifford said Saturday night at Sleep Train Arena, where Charlotte beat the Kings to close an otherwise-disappointing 1-4 trip. Under that scenario, Kidd-Gilchrist would rejoin the team for the Jan. 14 home game against the Knicks, a particularly welcome addition at a time the defense is slipping after previously leading the Bobcats into the playoff conversation.

That night would also be the start of an important time in the schedule, with six of eight games against teams either with worse records than the Bobcats (New York twice, Philadelphia, Orlando) or close to them in the standings (Toronto, Chicago), while also facing the Heat and Clippers. While it is impossible to truly be out of the postseason race in the Eastern Conference, Charlotte needs to either take advantage of that time or survive to re-establish itself as a defensive-minded group capable of something bigger than just an encouraging start.

The Bobcats are still on pace to finish in the top 10 in defensive rating, shooting defense and scoring defense, but Clifford has grown concerned the last couple weeks over a declining intensity, calling out the focus of players by saying “I think it’s our mentality. Even when we were winning four out of five, we weren’t defending the way that we had before.” That would become the other important timing aspect of a Kidd-Gilchrist return with Charlotte at 7-9 while the hand has been mending – his biggest contribution will come on that side of the ball, almost at the very time they need to be re-energized and the chance for a couple weeks ahead to find stability and in the standings.

“I’m the leader of the defense on this team,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I’m like a middle linebacker, so, yeah, I’m going to take it upon myself on the defensive end. On the offensive end, there’s Al (Jefferson) and there’s Gerald Henderson and there’s Kemba (Walker). But on the defensive end, there’s me. I put it on myself to get us back there.”

The starting small forward and No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft fractured his left hand Dec. 3 at Dallas. He was initially in a cast, has advanced to wearing a splint and is able to do a lot of running and other cardio work. But Kidd-Gilchrist has not been cleared to catch a ball yet, let alone for contact in practice.

“I miss the game of basketball,” he said, admitting there were times he took it for granted. “I miss it a lot.”

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

(more…)

Kidd-Gilchrist’s Fractured Hand ‘A Big Hit’ For Bobcats


VIDEO: Bobcats lose Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in loss to Mavs

DALLAS – Call it an epidemic.

Charlotte Bobcats second-year forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, emerging as a top defender in the league, became the fourth player in the last few days to sustain a broken hand.

Kidd-Gilchrist sat glumly in front of his locker, awkwardly attempting to get dressed with his fractured left hand secured by a metal brace and tightly wrapped, his ring and index fingers taped together. He didn’t know yet how long this freak injury would keep him out. Incredibly, he didn’t even know how or when the damage occurred, other than that something happened at some point before the 4:35 mark of the third quarter.

“I looked down at my finger and it was pointing the wrong way,” Kidd-Gilchrist said of his left ring finger. “I didn’t feel anything at the time.”

He exited the game, disappeared into the tunnel to have X-rays taken. Soon after, Kidd-Gilchrist was told his hand was fractured.

“I was really surprised,” he said.

The range of time Kidd-Gilchrist can expect to miss will likely range from two to eight weeks. How severe the injury is will obviously dictate his recovery time, but two to eight weeks is the range of time cited for the other three players who suffered broken hands within the past five days.

Two nights ago, Kidd-Gilchrist’s former teammate at Kentucky, New Orleans’ rising star and the league’s leading shot blocker, Anthony Davis, broke his left hand against the Knicks. A huge blow to the improving Pelicans, Davis is expected to miss four to six weeks. Nets forward Paul Pierce will miss two to four weeks with a broken right hand and Los Angeles Clippers sharpshooter J.J. Redick, who suffered a broken bone and tore a ligament in his right hand, is feared lost for six to eight weeks.

For the Bobcats, an offensively challenged club desperately trying to string together consistent performances and compete for a playoff spot in the downtrodden Eastern Conference, the loss of their 6-foot-7 wing is substantial.

“He’s our best defender,” dejected Bobcats point guard Kemba Walker said. “I don’t even know what happened yet. I hope we get him back soon.”

When Kidd-Gilchrist left the 89-82 loss against the Dallas Mavericks, the Bobcats were leading 60-51. They took a 67-60 lead into the fourth quarter only to be outscored 29-15 two nights after a heartbreaking one-point defeat at Miami.

“It’s a hit, it’s a big hit,” first-year Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said. “He’s been playing well. Foul trouble has limited his minutes lately, but he’s been playing really well, so he’s going to be a tough one to make up for what he does.”

Clifford said Anthony Tolliver and Jeff Taylor will have to pick up the slack. Kidd-Gilchrist was averaging 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds, but the Bobcats, ranking third in defensive rating in the league (97.9 points per 100 possessions), and allowing fewer than 92 ppg, will have to drum up the defensive determination from elsewhere.

“He’s been great,” Clifford said. “If you watched him in Summer League, I think his progress from how he played in Vegas to now, he’s a much-improved player in every area. People talk about his shooting, he’s done a great job with his body, his conditioning, and he can be an elite defender in this league. He’s got toughness, his technique has gotten better and he’s very bright.”