Milwaukee — The waters in the coaching fraternity run deep for coaches on different teams. The bond is even closer for coaches on the same staff, as Stan Van Gundy and Steve Clifford were for five seasons with the Orlando Magic.
Clifford, an assistant under Van Gundy from 2007-12, now is the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets and is taking an indefinite personal leave from the team to address some unspecified health concerns.
It shook up Van Gundy ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks, as his thoughts were with his good friend.
“I have (talked to him), yesterday. I didn’t realize it’s been an ongoing problem. He’s had it for a long time and it’s really getting worse, so he needs to take some time and get some tests here,” Van Gundy said. “He’s been on my mind since I heard about it.
“It’s scary for any of us when we have a friend who’s going through something. To be honest, it’s scary on a personal level too. You just wonder what you’re doing in terms of the way you take care of yourself in this business.”
Part of the concern for Van Gundy, 58, is the coaching lifestyle, with the high stress levels, constant travel and dietary concerns and the general rigor and strain. Van Gundy trimmed down last summer to ease some of his health concerns, there’s not much else he can do to alleviate the burden.
“A lot of what he’s going through started as a stress-related thing. It’s hard. I hope he takes care of himself and gets healthy. Whatever happens with the basketball happens,” Van Gundy said. “He’s only 56 years old — that’s too young. He had heart problems and had to miss some time. I just want him to be healthy.
“Steve’s a lot better handling the ups and downs of the game than I am. I’ve been around him and I know that. It’s just tough. The main thing is it’s a good friend who’s not feeling well. The basketball right now is secondary right now for him and for all of us who care about him. Whenever he gets back, he gets back — it’s about him feeling well.”
Second-year forward Henry Ellenson has taken a step back from the early promise that he showed this season. After playing in only 19 games as a rookie, he looked to be coming out of his shell, playing in five of the first eight games this season.
That time has dried up, as he’s played in just four of the last 15 games, totaling eight points and 20 minutes over that stretch. It was another homecoming on Wednesday in Milwaukee, after missing the first two meetings against the Bucks this season.
Despite less playing time, Ellenson hasn’t changed his work ethic, preparing himself for the opportunity, whenever it should come around.
“Henry’s a great worker and you want him to realize the situation and it takes time,” Van Gundy said. “It’s made doubly hard because he started the year playing well and had a good preseason and good games early on. To not be playing is really difficult for him.”
It’s not so much that Ellenson isn’t playing well; rather, veteran Anthony Tolliver is playing better and giving the Pistons a valuable defensive presence.
After Jon Leuer’s ankle injury, it appeared Ellenson would move up in the rotation and get playing time behind Tobias Harris, but defense seems to be the differentiator — and Tolliver is ahead in that area.
When Tolliver returned as a free agent in the offseason, it wasn’t exactly the plan to have him play this much, but when Tolliver started getting small minutes, he justified the trust and his play warranted more.
The volume of minutes has increased significantly with that opportunity.
“Particularly with Jon going down,” Van Gundy said, “that’s what gave him an increased opportunity, and he’s run with it.”