Of course, Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford was upset Friday about losing a sixth consecutive game, particularly so early in the season.
However, what really concerned him was not recognizing the group the Hornets assembled for this season. To use Clifford’s word, they lacked an "identity": a way to play they could count on game after game that makes for winning.
I asked Clifford before Saturday’s 102-87 home victory over the Los Angeles Clippers what that identity should be.
"If you look at our team, (to succeed) we have to be a terrific defensive team and a great rebounding team," Clifford replied. "We’re not, and that’s my job. The players always have a responsibility, too, but" ultimately it’s his responsibility.
For the first time in Clifford’s four-plus seasons in Charlotte, I thought his job might be in jeopardy. They were horrible Friday, giving up 123 points to a Chicago Bulls team that is statistically the worst offensively in the NBA.
That was the fifth time in the six-game losing streak the Hornets allowed 108 or more points. Their defensive efficiency ranking seemed to be plummeting.
This runs totally counter to what Clifford envisions as solid basketball: To him, the imperatives are low-turnover, low-foul and a commitment to getting back every defensive possession. Those back-to-back midcourt turnovers by rookies Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon Friday were eye-rolling bad.
"It’s (a coach) connecting with a team so that they share your vision," Clifford added about "identity." "Leadership is having a vision of what the end should look like. True leadership is getting your team to share that vision with you, and we don’t do that right now."
They took a baby step in that direction Saturday. They held the Clippers to 40 percent shooting from the field. They outrebounded the Clippers 49-44. They limited turnovers to eight (just one in the first half).
That was just enough to squeeze out a home victory over a Clippers team now on a seven-game losing streak. The 5-10 Clippers are still figuring out how to move on, after losing elite point guard Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets. They aren’t what you’d call a trophy victory, but at this stage, any win is progress.
Clifford said Wednesday he planned to go with experience, that he couldn’t afford right now to wait for the rookies to grow up. That went into particular force Saturday, when he chose not to play Malik Monk, the 11th overall pick, for the first time this season.
Instead, Clifford went with point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who hadn’t played in the previous two games. Carter-Williams missed all four of his shots from the field, but shooting wasn’t why the Hornets signed him: He has size at 6-foot-6, and he’s a defender.
"You lose six in a row and the defense has been bad," Clifford said of giving Carter-Williams Monk’s minutes. "It’s not Malik’s fault, it’s just his position; (Carter-Williams is) a difference-maker defensively.”
He is also a more experienced point guard who played 14 ½ minutes without a turnover.
"You have to make some changes," Clifford said. "He fits what we need right now."
There is no reason to treat this like a permanent, or even long-term, demotion. Monk is a gifted scorer, but his play has been inconsistent. Particularly with Jeremy Lamb leaving Saturday’s game with a hamstring strain, Monk will get his chances.
But Clifford is right that he had to try something to break bad patterns. It’s true, also, that despite the upgraded talent, the Hornets don’t have the identity thing figured out.
Point guard Kemba Walker, who finished with 26 points and six assists despite a left wrist sprain, knows this identity thing must be solved:
"Hopefully, with this win, we can keep learning, keep getting better, and – like I said – just keep pushing forward."