CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The name ‘Steve Clifford” likely doesn’t ring a bell to casual Laker fans. But there was a reason why Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni playfully teased him as he saw him stroll a hallway in Time Warner Cable Arena.
After working Clifford worked for as an assistant last season, D’Antoni had nothing but affection for Clifford earning his first head-coaching gig this season with the Charlotte Bobcats.
“He is a really good head coach. We have a great relationship,” D’Antoni said. “It hurts that he left. It was surprising he got the job. I was hoping he didn’t get it for my own sake. I’m really happy for him.”
D’Antoni then joked he remained a negative reference tool: “Everybody that called about him I killed him.”
There were plenty that called.
Clifford interviewed this offseason with the Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns for their respective head-coaching positions. But he signed a three-year deal worth around $6 million to become the Bobcats’ eighth coach in the organization’s history after the firing of Mike Dunlap a 21-61 record in his first season.
Former Lakers coach Mike Brown originally hired Clifford, but he remained among five assistants that stayed with D’Antoni after Brown was fired five games into the season. The Lakers respected Clifford for his defensive expertise and amenable personality.
“I know for Laker fans it wasn’t a great year, but for me personally it was a good year of growth,” Clifford said. “I really enjoyed my time there.”
That’s partly because of what he learned from D’Antoni.
“I watched how he dealt with each guy differently and I felt effectively,” Clifford said. “He has a perspective about being a head coach. I ask him a lot of basketball questions, but there would be two or three times you have where you have not necessarily issues, but things I’ve never had to deal with as a head coach. I’ll reach out to him. He’s been through it and obviously very bright. He’s helped me a lot.”
Clifford also mostly blamed last season’s failures for overlapping injuries and credited the Lakers for closing out the season with a 28-12 record.
“If Kobe doesn’t do his Achilles [injury], I would say that no one wanted to play us,” Clifford said. “We were playing at a high level at that point.”
Clifford has gone through challenges far serious last season’s experience with the Lakers or improving the Bobcats, which finished last season with the NBA’s worst record. He was admitted into the hospital last month because of chest pains before receiving two stents in his heart.
“The advantage of being numb is it’s not as scary as it should’ve been. But it’s scary,” Clifford said. “I have no restrictions. My heart functions totally normally. I have to be careful and sleep better more and regularly. But I don’t have any restrictions on the way I live. I’m better in the mornings.”
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