Steve Clifford: A case for the Orlando Magic coach to win Coach of the Year

As the NBA gets set to return, Steve Clifford is allowed to work with his Orlando Magic players again. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
As the NBA gets set to return, Steve Clifford is allowed to work with his Orlando Magic players again. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic Head Coach has already imprinted his will onto his players in less than one full season with the team. The results? A fight for the playoffs.

Playoffs?! We are talking about playoffs?!

Yes, yes in the 2019 NBA season, Orlando Magic players and fans are talking about playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.

The main culprit for this playoff fight? Look no further than Magic first-year coach Steve Clifford.

After going through four coaches in a stretch of five years the Magic finally seem to have found the right coach for the team in Clifford. Stability has helped lead the Magic to success. Orlando finally seems committed to growth with the same coach for the long haul.

But it is more than that.

What separates Clifford from those previous Magic coaches outside of success? Simply put, Magic players seem to respect Clifford.

Building respect

Players know how hard Clifford works to make sure their team is ready for games. Preparation is the key to Clifford’s approach. He is not a “rah-rah” type. He builds his trust through work in practice and commitment to each other.

Last season with the Charlotte Hornets, Clifford had to sit out a big chunk of games due to health issues related to the stress of coaching in the NBA. Doctors told Clifford his lack of sleep due to the rigors of coaching in the NBA were causing Clifford’s health problems. Clifford was forced to sleep more often in order to get his health right.

Imagine going to work and knowing your leader at work was working so hard to put you and your coworkers in a position to succeed that your leader became physically ill. Your first thoughts would probably be you wanting nothing more than for your leader to get healthy.

But your second thought would be something of an inspiration.

Your leader cared so much about your success as a team that they were constantly losing sleep or staying up late to help find that last little edge. That level of dedication to their craft would earn the respect of the team.

Clifford has found a better balance in his life now. He said he leaves his work at work and opts to go in early. He does not watch NBA when he gets home from the gym. Clifford has prioritized sleep to keep himself healthy.

But the same level of detail and care and attention are there. And the Magic have reaped the rewards.

Magic players clearly respect their coach and the way he wants to bring success to his players and team. For all the things Frank Vogel, Scott Skiles, Jacque Vaughn and James Borrego brought, it never seemed like the players bought into whatever these guys were selling.

Vogel was too lax and rarely held players accountable. Skiles had personal vendettas against management and certain players and was too stubborn to adjust and focus on player development. Borrego and Vaughn were just too inexperienced and seemed overwhelmed with the monumental task of a rebuild.

But Clifford has been quite different.

Defining roles

Clifford is a teacher. He cares about his players and wants to put them in the best position to succeed. He is not afraid to sit players who are not following the game plan. Clifford frankly, has a plan for this team that no previous Magic coach had.

Magic players under Clifford have very defined roles (and for the most part the correct ones for the current roster construction).

Terrence Ross is the lightning rod off the bench. Nikola Vucevic is the centerpiece of the offense. And Evan Fournier is the team’s primary perimeter scoring option.

You can go on and on with these examples. But Clifford has clearly defined the roles for this team and his players have bought in.

Former Magic player Victor Oladipo has since pointed out that this was a problem for those previous Magic rebuilding teams. It was one of defining roles and players accepting those roles:

"A lot of young guys trying to prove I am that guy. It was almost like we were in battle against each other when we played instead of trying to work together to try to get a win. It was tough."

Clifford has not allowed for this to happen in his time with the Magic.

He clearly defined the pecking order and gave players the ability to complement each other instead of battling against each other.

The Magic finally have an atmosphere that is conducive to growth as a team in addition to the growth of individual players.

He did this all while still giving players latitude to grow. Jonathan Isaac slowly grew his role and demanded more shots. Clifford has publicly expressed regret that he cannot find Isaac a larger role in the offense quicker.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

That did not seem to bother Jonathan Isaac much. He kept up at his work and continued the get better.

The team’s results? A minimum of a 13-win improvement and the first tangibly important games for most of the roster.

To top it all off the Magic may make the playoffs for the first time since Dwight Howard left.

Defining success

But making the playoffs should not define whether or not this was a successful season for Clifford. That has already been determined. Clifford already has achieved a successful first season with the Magic.

The Magic, with a team that resembles last year’s group has grown significantly. Of course, health has helped the Magic improve this year.

But Orlando’s success this year is sustainable.

The Magic own the eighth-best defensive rating in the league while having D.J. Augustin and Nikola Vucevic playing key roles (both have limitations on defense that limit Orlando’s ceiling on that end).

The offense has improved on last season but still struggles at 23rd in the league. But guys like Aaron Gordon, Wesley Iwundu, Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac are only going to continue to improve their offensive game.

Clifford has forged an identity for this team. A team that hasn’t had one for six years. That is certainly worthy for consideration for the NBA’s coach of the year.

Many will argue Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer should be Coach of the Year and deservedly so. Budenholzer is a great coach.

But Budenholzer took over an ideal situation. The Bucks were a team with a mega-star in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jason Kidd actively made that team worse and Mike Budenholzer corrected mistakes left from his predecessor Joe Prunty.

They were destined to improve from the seventh seed last year. Although rising to the best record in the league was unexpected.

Clifford took over a team that was left for dead by most of their hardcore fans. The Magic were supposed to be playing for the lottery this season.

Instead, the Magic may find themselves playing against Budenholzer in the first round of the playoffs in a battle of the two teams who have improved their record the most from the previous season.

Next. Orlando Magic's playoff hopes tied to Miami Heat. dark

That deserves plenty of recognition and thanks in this first year with Clifford.