Orlando Magic 2019 Season Review: What Went Right — Steve Clifford and the culture

Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford coaches players during action against the Atlanta Hawks at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, April 5, 2019. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford coaches players during action against the Atlanta Hawks at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, April 5, 2019. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic sought to build a foundation with a new coach in Steve Clifford. He built one and then some to achieve the Magic’s goals.

A year ago, the Orlando Magic initiated change.

For the fourth time in six years, the Magic were changing coaches. Their new management was beginning to sink their teeth into the organization and they needed a new direction. After an aimless, injury-filled season, the team fired Frank Vogel.

It brought uncertainty to a franchise that lacked direction. And really the only goal that seemed to matter was less about wins and losses and more about moving in a positive direction again. With little cap room and chance to change the roster, it felt like the 2019 season was more about restoring legitimacy in the franchise.

Everyone understood who they hired would have a major impact on the team accomplishing this. Like when the team hired Jacque Vaughn under Rob Hennigan, this coaching decision would establish the foundation for everything Jeff Weltman was going to build.

That new coach would do what all those coaches before them could not do — establish an identity and build a culture. Those may not be buzz words that Weltman or any coach likes, but it is the best way to distill the task ahead.

Orlando needed to establish the kind of team it wanted to be and put it to action on the court, making real, tangible progress.

It felt like a daunting task.

In stepped Steve Clifford.

He was not the coach many Magic fans wanted, falling more in love with newer names and looking for a young coach to guide a young roster rather than a coach who had been through the carousel and was found flawed. But he turned out to be the coach the team needed. In almost every way.

The record says it all. A 42-win season, a playoff berth, a Southeast Division title. And the foundation of an identity.

This is exactly what he and Weltman promised when he took the job last summer. The team would be like Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets teams. They would be disciplined and strong defensively, they would protect the ball and never beat themselves and they would be a tough team to play.

A lot of people may not have wanted the team to top off with his Hornets team. But they had to get to that level first. It seemed far away after a 25-win season with a roster with almost zero experience winning.

So no one saw the team latching on this quickly.

The Magic finished the year as a playoff team clearly. But the outlines of the identity the team will take on began to form.

Orlando finished eighth in the league in defensive rating (107.5 points allowed per 100 possessions), third in defensive rebound rate (75.4 percent) and sixth in turnover rate (13.3 percent). All the hallmarks of Clifford’s teams.

The team was gritty defensively. They had multiple come-from-behind efforts in the fourth quarter throughout the season. The Magic defended the Amway Center, winning their final nine games at home and making the arena a fortress.

This team was simply a tough out and a pesky opponent for anyone they faced. And fans quickly jumped on board once it was clear their playoff run was serious. This might be one of the most beloved teams in the franchise’s history outside of the title-contending teams.

It all clicked and the team grew and grew in confidence.

Many Magic players credited Clifford for instilling this belief in them. If his first step to building a culture is to believe in it and believe in yourself, Clifford was the first coach to get this team to do that.

That does not just go to him. He was the one who put the players in position to win. But he said at the team’s exit interviews he could sense a seriousness about winning and changing things from the start. He said he was impressed that almost the entire roster showed up a month early to voluntary training sessions and workouts at the Amway Center.

Commitment is no guarantee for success though. It still took the team learning and understanding what their coach wanted them to do. And that took some time. Orlando was up and down to start the season. Clifford had to foster that belief and desire into action on the court.

And this is another area where Clifford deserves credit. He never panicked or abandoned his principles or belief in the team. He stuck with it and made little tweaks to get the team going. Once Orlando was on a roll, the team played like one of the best in the entire league.

Confidence was contagious. Clifford stayed in their ear about how good they could be throughout the season — even when the team was at its lowest point at 20-31 in late January — until they finally bought into it all.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The results on the court only contribute to more success. And Clifford, never really putting limits on what they could achieve, always pushing them to do more.

With the success the team finally was experiencing, who could blame them?

Regardless of what direction the Magic go now, they have a foundation to build on.

There is a confidence and institutional knowledge of what it takes to win now. The team will not be starting from scratch when they gather again in September. They will understand the work it takes to get through the 82-game grind with a winning record. And surely they will not ease into the season as they did this year.

They will already understand what it takes and how they need to play.

And that was always the goal for this season. Making the playoffs was a byproduct — and a sign — of the team achieving its basic goal.

They hired Clifford to establish this culture and foundation. They wanted him to restore legitimacy in the organization. They wanted the Magic to be a team that was growing into something in some way and not an also-ran in the league.

On that front, it was more than mission accomplished. The Magic exceeded expectations.

They all thank Clifford what he was able to get out of them and accomplish all they did this season.

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If the Magic did one thing absolutely right, it was that hire and the base they now have to grow from.