Imagine all the text messages and voicemails Steve Clifford received when he was named coach of the Charlotte Bobcats last spring.
Most were congratulations from longtime colleagues. Two others were specific to the roster Clifford would inherit.
Darvin Ham, who coached with Clifford on the Los Angeles Lakers staff, and Jameer Nelson, whom Clifford coached on the Orlando Magic, left the same message:
Make sure power forward Josh McRoberts stays a Bobcat.
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Clifford still remembers Nelson’s words: “Everyone in the NBA loves playing with Josh.”
Clifford looks back on that as prophetic. Center Al Jefferson is this team’s most valuable player and point guard Kemba Walker its rising star. Team owner Michael Jordan nailed it in October, though, when he said McRoberts was the key Bobcat this season.
“The success of this team is McRoberts – how well he can connect the dots,” Jordan said then.
McRoberts, 27, who played at Duke in 2005-07, is a rarity in the NBA. He’s a 6-foot-10 power forward with the ball-handling, passing and decision-making skills of a point guard – plus the mindset to put others’ success above his own. His statistics – 8.5 points, 4.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds – don’t convey how important he has been to this team’s playoff run.
McRoberts and Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah are the best passing big men in the NBA. It’s telling that McRoberts’ assist-to-turnover ratio – the gold standard for efficient passing in basketball – is second in the NBA at 4:1. Only Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul’s is better at 4.5:1.
Last week when Walker was out with a groin injury, McRoberts came up with 10 assists against the Boston Celtics. Jefferson was asked afterward about McRoberts’ point-guard imitation.
“When Kemba does play we tell them Josh is still our point guard,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson was joking sort of. Almost from the day McRoberts joined the Bobcats in a February 2013 trade, the team’s ball-movement improved. As Clifford puts it, McRoberts makes simple, smart decisions and drives the ball in a way that sets up teammates.
Charlotte shooting guard Gerald Henderson, who played with him at Duke, observed what makes McRoberts’ approach distinctive.
“When most players hear, ‘Participate in the offense,’ that means score,” Henderson said. “With Josh, it’s about figuring how we can all perform better at that end of the court. He could score more, but that’s not a priority. He knows what he’s good at and he practices that very well.”
So well that Jordan said back in October one of his concerns was McRoberts opting out of his contract this off-season and testing free agency. This guy who has played for four franchises since 2011 has become integral to what the Bobcats do.
It’s no secret how the state of Indiana cherishes basketball and the “Hoosiers” movie approach to selfless play. McRoberts embraces that: Don’t take yourself too seriously; take the game way seriously.
McRoberts learned the game from his father and grandfather, who both played for Butler, one of the great mid-major programs in college basketball. He grew up in Indianapolis playing high school ball against future pros Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Eric Gordon and Daequan Cook.
They came together in the summer to form a devastating AAU team called Spiece Indy Heat.
McRoberts and Conley, now the Memphis Grizzlies’ point guard, created a spirit of unselfishness that became viral. As McRoberts described, they’d all already made their point with college recruiters, so why not play like a real team in the summer?
“From the time I started playing basketball at 5 years old, I’ve always enjoyed making the play that ties people together,” McRoberts said.
“Whether it’s a pass or talking on the floor, something to make things easier. In AAU, I think people saw I wouldn’t shoot it every time. Throw a couple of passes and you end up with a dunk. That’s pretty fun.”
And remarkably uncommon. Summer ball at the youth level becomes chaotic, selfish and disorganized. This was a renouncement of the culture.
“You don’t get noticed in basketball for seeing the play before it happens – for making that pass that leads to the pass for the backdoor. Or to make a hard cut to the rim to draw two defenders so that someone has an open corner 3,” Conley said of McRoberts. “Those are selfless acts and that’s how he’s been all his life.”
That’s the serious side Clifford has so come to value. The goofy side – the long hair-and-beard “Robin Hood” look – is also part of what makes this work.
Conley offered a golf story to illustrate the point.
A couple of years ago Conley and McRoberts were invited to play a charity tournament in Terre Haute, Ind. McRoberts claimed how serious he’d become about golf.
So Conley arrived in his best golf attire. Here’s how McRoberts arrived:
“He shows up in basketball shorts and Chuck Taylors,” Conley said. “He laughed it off and we went out and had a really good time. He’s laid back, doesn’t take anything too seriously.”
McRoberts amended Conley’s statement: He takes basketball very seriously. He’s intensely competitive about what he does. That doesn’t have to morph into overbearing and selfish.
“I try to get along with everybody – that’s my personality,” McRoberts said. “Especially on a team: Take advantage of everybody’s strengths.”
McRoberts’ skills are an acquired taste. There’s nothing SportsCenter-flashy about what he does, so he’s played for five NBA franchises since going in the second round of the 2007 draft to Portland.
(An aside on his two seasons at Duke: McRoberts said playing for Mike Krzyzewski “wasn’t the best fit for me, that’s all I’ll say I probably stayed longer than I should have.”)
His best stretch before the Bobcats was 21/2 seasons with the Indiana Pacers. That was an opportunity to understand and set up teammates. He never got that chance in half-seasons with the Lakers (who sent him to Orlando in the Dwight Howard trade) or the Magic, where he was told up front he wouldn’t play because of the youth movement.
He never averaged more than 17 minutes with the Lakers or Magic. Yet he left impressions at each of those franchises that paid back. Ham’s and Nelson’s references laid the base for how Clifford would use McRoberts this season.
“It’s not just that he tries to make teammates better. He makes the environment better,” said Ham, now an Atlanta Hawks assistant. “I just wanted (Clifford) to know his versatility. Cliff is using him well. I knew that’s how it would work out.”
Asked about his “everybody loves playing with Josh” message, Nelson described it this way:
“He’s smart. He’s been around a while and he understands the game.
“He’s not looking to score a lot, but he is looking to make the offense and the defense work. So whether it’s passing, running the floor, setting screens – he does everything right.”
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell