67RIEFNS No. 42: Steve Clifford handling more, um, personality

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The NBA is full of talent, personality and suspense. During the offseason, It’s easy to forget how wonderful the league can be. So, I’ve assembled 67 Reasons I’m Excited For Next Season (67RIEFNS). They’ll be presented in no particular order.

Steve Clifford took a team that started Al Jefferson and Josh McRoberts at center and power forward and built a top-five defensive unit.

That’s a hell of a coaching job, and it would have won Clifford the Coach of the Year in certain seasons. He just happened to take over Charlotte in a year Gregg Popovich, Jeff Hornacek and Tom Thibodeau all did did well with their teams.

This season, Popovich, Hornacek and Thibodeau each have similar tasks to last year. Popovich must balance winning enough to secure home-court advantage with resting his aging stars. Hornacek must devise an up-tempo offensive system that keeps opponents behind long enough to spring open all the shooters he’s instructed. And Thibodeau must get his team to defend and play hard for 48 minutes while key players battle injury.

Clifford, who finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, faces a completely new challenge.

It was extremely impressive how he built a defense and communicated its principles to a team with key players who hadn’t always taken such great pride in that side of the court. But those players wanted to go with the program. What they lacked in defensive history, they made up for in professionalism.

This year, Clifford must show he can work with players who are a little more difficult to manage.

Lance Stephenson is the big name here, and he faces considerable challenges and temptations by leaving Indiana. His issues are covered in greater depth here.

Rookie P.J. Hairston brings his own baggage, too. Hairston left North Carolina for the D-League during last season while suspended following a couple driving incidents. After being drafted, he fought a high school student during a pickup game. Then, it came out he had an uncertified agent.

But he can shoot, and the Hornets need shooting. And Stephenson is a borderline All-Star.

It’s up to Clifford to make this work, to keep both players focused. It’s not an easy test – and far different from the one he aced last season.

Clifford has already proven himself smart with Xs-and-Os and a good communicator. He quickly showed he belonged as NBA head coach.

But it’s tough assemble a talented team while completely avoiding players who need a little extra attention, as the Hornets have discovered. Great coaches make it work while handling everything else that comes with the job.

This season, we’ll learn just how good Clifford is.