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The Hornets aren’t flashy. They’re just good

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Steve Clifford has quietly built a rock-solid culture in Charlotte.

Miami Heat v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

BOSTON -- Steve Clifford, the affable but understated coach of the Charlotte Hornets, didn’t want to hear about the frigid temperatures surrounding the Garden or winds whipping down from the north. "I’m from Vermont," he said as he walked out to the court for a morning shootaround. "This is when we would go to the lake."

There is no artifice to Clifford. Even when delivering a stern message about his team’s lack of toughness in a loss to Washington earlier this week, he was even-handed and precise. It’s hard to argue when you know he’s right. The Hornets had been getting shredded, giving up 115 points per 100 possessions during a three-game losing streak that he later called the worst stretch since he’s been in Charlotte.

When Clifford took over, the team was still known as the Bobcats and just one year removed from its disastrous 7-59 season. They were a faceless entity with little foundation. Now in his fourth season, the Hornets have an identity and it’s one that’s crafted in Clifford’s steady image.

Indiana Pacers v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

An assistant coach for 13 years before getting the top job, Clifford worked for both Van Gundys, starting with Jeff in New York and Houston before joining Stan in Orlando. He may have been an anonymous dude in a suit to most NBA fans, but those who knew raved about his teaching methods. Clifford long ago paid his dues, yet he still works like the lowest man on the ladder, spending long hours immersed in video. He’s not a huge personality, but his direct manner is appreciated by his players.

"He’s the best. He’s the absolute best," veteran forward Marvin Williams told me. "He’s the most fair coach I’ve ever been around. He’s the most fun coach I’ve ever been around. He’s not really into coming in and practicing two, three hours a day, every day. He just wants you to really focus on what you’re doing when you’re in the gym. That’s not a lot to ask from any coach. Players enjoy playing for him. I know that’s why Nic (Batum) came back. That’s why I came back. Coach Clifford was a huge reason why I wanted to stay in Charlotte."

Clifford may be the draw, but it’s not that the Hornets lack for talent. Point guard Kemba Walker has elevated his game from really good to near-elite status. He’s scoring more efficiently at the basket and knocking down over 41 percent of his shots from behind the arc. The Hornets believe that Walker would have been an All-Star last season if their record had been better. There’s no question he’s in the mix this year.

Beyond Walker, they have an emerging big man in Cody Zeller who can score, rebound, and set screens. In Williams, they have a versatile defender who has been a reliable stretch four to space the court. Batum is an underrated wing who can handle the ball and shoot from deep, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the best end-to-end defenders in the league. It’s not the most exciting core, but it’s been an effective one.

What they lack in star power they make up for with preparation and rock-solid defense. They are stingy with the ball and smart on offense. They are connected on defense and strong on the boards. Those are the hallmarks of Clifford’s teams, which makes it all the more jarring when things start to slip.

The trouble began with a five-game road trip that opened with a LeBron blitzkrieg in Cleveland and continued with a blowout in Indiana. Wednesday’s game against the Wizards offered a chance at redemption, but the Hornets played one of their worst games of the season and Clifford lamented his team’s lack of physicality. Playing without Walker on Friday, they blew a second-half lead against the Celtics and were outscored 15-0 to open the fourth quarter.

Before the week, the Hornets had been playing quite well. They had won six of eight and were climbing back into the upper tier of the Eastern Conference standings. This has become a routine occurrence for the Hornets this season. They’ve had good runs followed by bad ones and then they go through the whole cycle again looking for equilibrium.

"We’ve been up and down with our play to this point," Clifford said. "We’ve had, even within games, really good stretches and then we haven’t sustained the play we need to be a good team. The other night (against Washington) it was just mistakes. Frankly it was embarrassing defensively. Let’s put it this way: If we’re going to be a team that can make the playoffs and then be factor in the playoffs, we need to be a top-five, top-six defensive team."

By the numbers, the Hornets are not far from that goal. According to NBA.com/stats, they ranked sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions. There is nothing fancy about their approach. They get back on defense, defend without fouling, and control the defensive boards. Unless they don’t, and that’s when the problems start.

"It’s the defense," Williams said. "No question. When our defense is on point we win games. When our defense is not there we never even give ourselves a chance to win games. We just have to defend more consistently."

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at New York Knicks Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Defense has been a staple of Clifford’s tenure in Charlotte, beginning in the 2013-14 season when he transformed an unremarkable collection of players into a top-five unit that made the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. After taking a step back the following season, their offense finally caught up and helped produce a 48-win team.

It’s that offense that has taken a sharp turn this season, plunging from a solid ninth to a mediocre 16th. Some of that can be pinned on the loss of valuable role players like Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson, and Courtney Lee. That was the cost of retaining Williams and Batum, who enjoyed career seasons just as they hit free agency. Yet, the offensive issues don’t concern Clifford too much.

"I believe we can be good offensively," Clifford said. "We’re not going to be top five in offense. We just don’t have the points in our lineup. We can be good. We can be hard to guard. Last year we were ninth in offense. We have to get back to a similar place. I think we can as the year goes on, but we’re not right now. If we’re not real good defensively, we just won’t have enough offense to be that good."

As it stands, the Hornets take up residence in the most nebulous space in the league, that being the middle of the Eastern Conference. As of Friday night, exactly one game separated teams from third to ninth. It’s not the worst place to be: six of those teams will make the playoffs and it would be a major jolt if the Hornets are not among them.

"I think we’re OK," Williams said Friday morning. "Coach doesn’t necessary gripe on the wins and losses. He cares about how we’re playing."

Right on cue, Clifford praised his team’s effort against the Celtics. It was a loss but one they could accept. With Walker back in the lineup the next night, the Hornets gutted out a win in Atlanta and salvaged the final game of their trip in signature style. They’re not flashy or otherworldly. They’re just good. Like their coach.

This piece was originally published on Dec. 18 as part of SB Nation’s Sunday Shootaround feature.