Steve Clifford has coached against former bosses before. One of them, Mike D’Antoni, was at Charlotte Hornets practice on Tuesday.
But what Clifford will do Wednesday is different. For the first time he’ll coach against his mentor, Stan Van Gundy. This isn’t the sort of reunion Clifford cherishes.
“It won’t be fun,” Clifford said of the 11 a.m. exhibition game against the Detroit Pistons at Time Warner Cable Arena. “He did so much for me, and he’s one of my best friends. So it’s not something you look forward to.”
Clifford hoped that if Van Gundy got back into NBA coaching, it would be in the Western Conference, so that they’d compete less frequently. In May, Van Gundy was named head coach and president of basketball operations for the Pistons.
That’s the kind of sweeping power few coaches receive. Clifford worked for Van Gundy from 2007 to 2012 with the Orlando Magic. He says Van Gundy more than deserves such a prestigious.
“He’s very organized; he’s a great teacher,” Clifford said. “We try to play, to be honest maybe not exactly, but very, very similar to the way that they’ll play.”
Nearly everything Clifford is about – from defensive philosophies to his transparency in player relations to when and where to hold pre-game shootarounds – is derived from Van Gundy’s approach.
“He’s a terrific communicator with the players. He’s a great leader, he’s a great teacher, he knows what wins,” Clifford said. “He’s good at everything – how to pace his team, how to deal with NBA players,”
Today is a practice game with no tangible stakes. But the Hornets and Pistons will play for real four times between February and April, and like Clifford said, this isn’t something he’ll enjoy, knowing either he or his mentor comes out the loser.
Walker out: Clifford confirmed that point guard Kemba Walker will miss the exhibition against the Pistons after suffering a right knee contusion in Monday’s victory over the Magic.
Walker banged knees with Orlando rookie Elfrid Payton in the third quarter. Walker limped back to the training room and didn’t play the rest of the game. Walker said post-game he’d probably miss a couple of days, but he didn’t consider the injury serious.
With Walker out, Clifford figures to start Brian Roberts, with Jannero Pargo as the backup point guard. Pargo scored 16 points, all in the fourth quarter, to lead the two-point victory after the Magic pulled ahead in the third quarter.
The injuries are piling up of late, but things should improve over the next week or so. Gerald Henderson (hamstring strain) hopes to start playing either Friday in Washington or Sunday in Chicago. Noah Vonleh (surgery to repair a sports hernia) should soon be cleared to start playing 5-on-5.
Zeller progress: Clifford noted how much more assertive and confident Cody Zeller looks this preseason, versus how he played last season as a rookie. Zeller said he put in lots of work in the off-season that seems to be paying off.
“I’m playing more confident, creating more opportunities for my teammates,” Zeller said. “Gary Neal is playing really well, and Kemba is playing really well in the pick-and-roll. I’m trying to get to pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoffs with them, which also creates opportunities for me. Just about making quick decisions and being confident.”
Zeller made four of six shots Monday, including two 18-foot jump shots. He also totaled six rebounds and three assists in just less than 22 minutes.