Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford is always instructing as team searches for answers

Steve Clifford has hung his hat on being a strong communicator as he builds the Orlando Magic's foundation. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Steve Clifford has hung his hat on being a strong communicator as he builds the Orlando Magic's foundation. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are struggling at this point of the season. But their mood is good and the lines remain open as Steve Clifford continues to teach.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford wrapped up his media session following Sunday’s practice when team representatives brought Markelle Fultz over for the next session.

Before Markelle Fultz could start though, Steve Clifford sarcastically let everyone know Fultz was waiving off every offensive play call, looking to get more shots for himself and all the other things coaches might criticize young players for. Fultz chuckled to himself and gave a look like a teenager rolling their eyes during a parent’s “dad joke.”

At least everything is still light around the Magic practice facility even through some of the team’s worst play of the season.

Orlando is trying to keep that level head and keep improving and getting better. The frustrations of the season have not taken over.

"“He’s just an unbelievable person who cares so much about more than basketball,” Fultz said after practice Sunday. “He has his own style. He’s unique. He comes over and does stuff like that. Sometimes he is being serious and sometimes you don’t know if he’s joking. It’s something that keeps you on your toes. But it’s always good to have some joking manners when you are not on the floor and just walking around. It makes it a little bit easier to be free.”"

Clifford comes off as gruff and serious in his postgame press conferences and on the sidelines during games. And he is certainly all of that. Clifford is a demanding coach who sets clear expectations for how the team is going to play and what they are going to do.

He expects a certain level of discipline and physicality to play his style. The results largely speak for themselves for teams looking to build a foundation.

But behind that is something else. There is so much the public does not see that goes into coaching and building a team from the ground up. And still so much work to do to get through the final third of this season.

At the center of everything Clifford does is communication.

He can push and demand because he keeps his lines of communication open and is working with his staff individually with players. There might be tough decisions, but they are explained and discussed. He might even take some ideas from players as they review the tape.

Clifford is not making decisions completely in a vacuum and he is constantly working to stay in everyone’s ear and be up front with his expectations for them and where they need to improve.

"“The communication thing is everything,” Clifford said after practice Sunday. “I don’t think it’s any different than your jobs. The people that you have to work closely with, you better learn how to communicate effectively with each one of them. So that when you do need to try to push them in a certain direction, you have the type of relationship where they will at least listen to you.”"

Fultz said his discussions with Clifford in his office have helped make him a better player. He said he can have open conversations and even disagree with the head coach in a respectful manner. These sessions have helped Fultz learn more about the game and improve.

Fultz said this openness makes players play harder for him. That open-door policy helps connect players and coach.

A call up to Clifford’s office is not always a bad sign. Often he uses it as a way to point out good things as much as show areas a player might need to improve. Clifford has said he usually leaves his door open so players can approach him for honest discussions at any time.

That was the case after Friday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks. With the team reeling right now, they are looking for answers everywhere they can find them.

At least everyone seems engaged and willing to help the coach find some answers.

Having a day off Saturday, several players were still in the Amway Center getting some individual work in. Several stopped by Clifford’s office to review film and talk, including Mohamed Bamba, Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic and Gary Clark, Steve Clifford said.

A session with Fultz for instance, Clifford said is a back-and-forth of questions and answers. It is Clifford pointing things out and Fultz absorbing them — Clifford said Fultz is like a sponge and has been impressed with his progress in what is essentially his rookie year. It is players asking questions about why they do things a certain way or making suggestions.

There is a lot more back and forth that happens than people realize. Improvement is a collaborative effort.

This is how the team hopes to build its foundation. It is not by edict or fiat, but by careful explanation and communication.

It might be among the reasons the season has been so frustrating for all. Things just have not clicked despite everyone’s best efforts.

"“Last year we got the best out of a lot of guys,” Clifford said after practice Sunday. “This year, so far, we haven’t. You can’t shirk from that as the guy who’s in charge. That’s a big part of what I’m trying to do right now.”"

Clifford is always teaching. He is always trying to make sure everyone is on the same page. He is always looking for the next answer.

That has been the biggest struggle for the Magic this year. The team has never been able to get its feet under it with the injuries. But plenty of other things have not fallen into place.

Orlando is still searching for answers. The team is seeking out what it can from some of these games to build on.

"“To me, we have to play well, play our way in and get better,” Clifford said after practice Sunday. “That’s what I tell them. We’ve got to win and make progress. We did some things the other night that we did pretty good. I thought today was good. We had good energy and a good practice.”"

Everyone is trying to do their part and make their contributions and learn what they can.

Next. Orlando Magic must win the race for the seventh seed. dark

Whether that translates to Monday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets remains to be seen. The Magic, though, remain searching for answers.