Stephen Silas understands the “substitute teacher” analogy and isn’t offended by it.
No matter how well he performs as acting coach of the Charlotte Hornets, he’s still a temp. Everything about filling in for Steve Clifford the past 10 games has been a little awkward.
Clifford has been away since Dec. 4, dealing with a medical issue that has not been disclosed to the public. There is no timetable for Clifford’s return. Silas was promoted to associate head coach after Patrick Ewing left the Hornets last spring to coach Georgetown, Ewing’s alma mater.
Silas aspires to be an NBA head coach – he was a finalist with the Houston Rockets two seasons ago – but this is nothing like how he’d envision being in charge. Meanwhile, the Hornets are 11-20. They are 3-7 since Silas took over, suddenly and unexpectedly, hours before a home game against the Orlando Magic.
Silas and Clifford communicate daily, mostly by text. Their conversations are not so much strategy as friendship.
“I want, first, what is best for Cliff – for him to be back and healthy,” Silas said.
“The two awkward parts are not having Cliff around – missing his presence and his personality and his knowledge. Not having that person you’d lean on in this situation. The other thing was the timing, kind of being thrown into it.
“As far as being prepared to do it, knowing what to expect and nerves and such, I don’t really have that (anxiety). It’s the missing-your-friend part and the doing-it-on-the-fly part that were the biggest issues.”
Silas, 44, says he’s prepared himself to be a head coach from childhood, studying the NBA from the stands when his father, Paul, played and then coached in the league. Silas started out as an advance scout for the original Hornets when Paul coached them. He was the youngest assistant coach in the NBA, at 27, when his father promoted him onto the Hornets’ bench.
While much of Stephen Silas’s career has been working for his father, he has also made his own way. He had big impact as a Golden State Warriors assistant, with bravo reviews from two-time Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry, among others.
Stephen Silas continued on the Hornets coaching staff after Paul’s contract wasn’t extended in 2012, working for Mike Dunlap and then Clifford.
Veteran forward Marvin Williams said Silas showed no signs of indecision or panic coaching that first game against the Magic, which the Hornets won. The experience wasn’t totally new; Stephen coached a handful of games the 2011-12 season, with team ownership’s blessing, with Paul on the bench.
Still, there are differences from when Clifford was on the sideline.
“Coach Cliff is a little more intense, and Coach Silas is a little more laid-back,” said Hornets guard Michael Carter-Williams. “But both get the same point across.”
When Silas was first informed he’d be acting coach for an undetermined period, he texted Clifford that he’d be leaning heavily on him for advice. Clifford said not necessary, that Silas was ready.
Silas occasionally picks Clifford’s brain in anticipation of some particular player matchup, but he has avoided besieging Clifford with questions. He has other resources.
The obvious one is his father, Paul, who sits with his wife, Carolyn, just behind the Hornets bench at home games. Stephen Silas said he leans on his father’s guidance mostly for Paul’s people-management skills.
Paul Silas was a head coach for 12 NBA seasons, twice in Charlotte. His strength, as a former elite player, was knowing when to prod and when to back off.
Stephen, who played college basketball at Brown, is strong in skills-teaching and in play-calling (he was an early adopter as an assistant coach of iPads as a tool during timeouts).
The other significant resource day-to-day right now is assistant general manager Buzz Peterson. A former college head coach (most prominently at Tennessee), Peterson travels with the Hornets during the season, acting as a liaison between the coaching staff and the front office, including owner Michael Jordan.
“It caught us all off-guard – the whole situation – and we’ve had to make adjustments along the way,” Peterson said of Clifford’s absence.
“I’m giving Stephen the support that he needs; not micromanaging him in any way. Let him, as an extension of Cliff, coach this team.
“He’s got to put his mark on what makes him comfortable will win games.”
His own man
This is still Clifford’s team and his coaching staff, but he’s not available due to a health issue. Silas is honoring Clifford’s priorities, while also asserting himself when appropriate.
For instance, after a home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers Dec. 9, Silas tightened his playing rotation. Minutes for rookies Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon were reduced significantly. Silas said he prioritizes the best chance to win over development right now, and “gifting” minutes isn’t in the plan.
“They told me to coach the way that I want to coach, and the way I feel,” Silas said. “I’m going to make decisions – that’s part of being a coach. I’ll make decisions, and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.”
That winds this discussion back to that term, “awkward.” Silas doesn’t know if this assignment will last another hour, another day, another week, another year.
“It is different. I don’t know when Cliff is coming back,” Silas said. “But if I concentrate on this in a day-by-day way, and know I prepared for this for 17 years, it helps me deal with this uncertainty.”