What was rumored for weeks is now hard news: the Lakers have added three assistant coaches — Eddie Jordan, Bernie Bickerstaff, and Steve Clifford — to Mike Brown’s staff. They replace Ettore Messina and Quin Snyder (who both left for CSKA Moscow) and John Kuester (who has been reassigned as an advanced scout). These additions bring clarity to the Lakers’ bench by adding seasoned coaches who will help the team on both sides of the ball.
The names most recognized, of course, are Jordan’s and Bickerstaff’s. They’re former NBA head men that have made their way around the league for years. They may not be household names to the casual fan, but diehards know who they are and know how they’ll help the team. Jordan will be tasked with implementing the Princeton Offense and Bickerstaff will likely be a consigliere of sorts, lending a veteran voice to Brown.
Of the trio of new coaches the man who’s least known is Clifford, but he’s also the coach that most intrigues me. Because while Jordan and his new offense are supposed to turn the heads, it’s Clifford’s background on the defensive side of the ball that will be just as important to the Lakers’ success in the year ahead. Remember, down the stretch of last season the Lakers’ defensive efficiency fell off a cliff. In April the Lakers posted the 6th worst defensive efficiency in the league, posting a mark of 109.5 (which was only tenths of a point better than teams like the Cavs, Bobcats, and Warriors). In the playoffs, the Lakers posted a better efficiency number (106.5) than in the season’s final month, but ranked 12th out of the 16 playoff teams.
Next year, they’ll need better. Clifford (as well as Dwight Howard’s addition) should help a great deal.
For those that are unaware, Clifford has spent the better part of the last 12 years around some of the better defensive minds in the game. He was an assistant to Jeff Van Gundy (along with Tom Thibodeau) with both the Knicks and the Rockets and for the past 5 seasons he served in the same position under Stan Van Gundy with the Magic. In coaching next to these three men, Clifford has surely picked up invaluable experience in how to coach defense and been exposed to some of the best defensive schemes the NBA has to offer.
Furthermore, Clifford will likely share some of the same defensive philosophies that Mike Brown already has in place, at least if we use the schemes of the teams he’s coached for as a guide. All of those teams ran a hedge and recover scheme on pick and rolls and all of them liked to funnel drives from the corners to the middle where shot blocking big men could challenge shots. Plus, those teams also showed a risk averse approach to defense where gambling for steals was shunned in favor of playing strong position D that led to contested shots. These are the same principles Mike Brown learned at the altar of Popovich, honed in Cleveland, and brought to the Lakers last season. The fact that Clifford has coached on staffs that embraced these same principles should not surprise.
Having a background in these schemes should also breed continuity and familiarity with a team that will have enough change to deal with on the other end of the ball. Next year’s defense shouldn’t be too different from last season’s, only more refined. The fact that Dwight Howard is already familiar with this scheme is important, but the fact that it’s the same scheme he’s won multiple DPOY’s in is even more so. Combine this fact with the foundation of next year’s roster is entering their second year playing in this type of scheme and the team should be better across the board in understanding and executing on that side of the ball.
We’ll see how much of the defense Brown surrenders to his new assistant coach. After all, Brown was hired with a defensive pedigree of his own and he already has a coach on staff (Chuck Person) who’s acted in a “defensive coordinator” type of role for the Lakers. However, Clifford brings defensive chops from his previous stops that will be a very good addition to the Lakers. On its own, his familiarity with Howard is already a key variable in how he can help the team. But in coaching next to the aforementioned defensive minds, Clifford also brings a pedigree of his own that can’t be ignored and that surely played a part in him being hired by the Lakers in the first place.
So, while all eyes are on Jordan and the new O, don’t be surprised if Clifford and the revamped D are just as important next season. If they Lakers want to win at the highest level, they’ll certainly need it to be.
*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com