Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has struggled as much as his team

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has successfully built a foundation but his struggles to grow beyond that have mirrored his team's frustrations. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has successfully built a foundation but his struggles to grow beyond that have mirrored his team's frustrations. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have had a disappointing season. And after a tough loss in Miami, Steve Clifford admitted his own mistake in preparation that cost them.

113. 38. 116. 110. Final

There are no moral victories for an Orlando Magic team in the midst of the playoff race.

Yes, the team played some better defense and put themselves in a position to get a big road win against a quality opponent on the road. There was a lot to like from the Orlando Magic’s 116-113 loss to the Miami Heat.

But there was no entertaining any of those positives. That is not what matters.

The Magic are 60-plus games into their season. They are in the midst of a playoff battle, trailing the Brooklyn Nets for seventh by a half-game, and trying to get back to .500 and secure a winning record for a second straight year.

Coach Steve Clifford dismissed quickly any notion this was somehow a good loss. It may not be a soul-crushing loss, but it was not a good one. There is no such thing as a good loss.

The Magic have to get these wins, especially having dropped a winnable game in San Antonio earlier in the week. Each game and each moment matters.

There is no going back for these things.

And that made Clifford’s opening statements to his postgame press conference so surprising. With pressure running high, Clifford admitted to a high-cost error. He put the blame for the defeat squarely on his shoulders.

He admitted the team did not review its “plan B” for defending Duncan Robinson. With so little time in a shootaround to review things, he said they chose to focus on other aspects. Considering how well Orlando played, it was probably time well spent. But well spent enough.

Robinson scored 27 points, making 9 of 12 from beyond the arc, including 7 of 8 in the first half. The Magic tightened their defense on him in the second half, doing a better job chasing him off the line and keeping track of him as he tried to weave his way around the defense.

But still, a coach publicly admitting or taking the blame for a failure in the gameplan is a rare thing.

Clifford has said he has to do a better job putting his players in better positions to succeed before. But never really admitted a fault in his gameplan or preparation. Preparation is the very thing he has hung his hat on as a coach.

Just like players have to show they have learned from their mistakes, Clifford will have to show he has learned from his. And like his players, this season has been a disappointment for him too.

But even he has been short on answers this year.

Pulling the right strings

During last year’s breakthrough playoff season, Clifford seemingly pulled every lever correctly. Once he got a feel for his roster, he made the right call over and over again.

He deployed Terrence Ross as a game-changer on cuts, shifting the offense to center around his shot-making with the second unit. He would later move Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier into the second unit to further boost those groups.

He got the most out of Nikola Vucevic defensively. Setting him up for success in drop coverages and allowing him to use his length to cover for his lack of mobility.

The same with Aaron Gordon on offense. He found a way to unlock some of his playmaking while tamping down his penchant for mid-range jumpers and isolation play. Gordon’s scoring was down, but he was a far more impactful player.

With the rotation, his move to bring Isaiah Briscoe off the bench gave the team a wrecking ball defender to bother opposing point guards. It got worse for them when Michael Carter-Williams stepped into the fray.

Everything clicked together. And Clifford deserves a ton of credit for finding playing groups that worked and doubling down on them again and again.

Of course, it took 50-plus games to get there.

Jerian Grant was still the backup point guard until an injury forced them to turn to Isaiah Briscoe. Mohamed Bamba was making progress as a rookie but was still largely a net negative. His injury forced him to use the more-solid Khem Birch in the rotation.

It was a long process to get there. Some of it by necessity. But when Clifford found a group that work, he maximized it. Maybe it is the hunt that is the problem. Especially with such a flawed roster.

Searching for trust

Clifford throughout his head coaching career has rankled some fans for over-trusting veterans and not giving young players a chance. That is certainly on display this year.

He has continued to stick with lineups that pair two point guards. And even in lineups that have both D.J. Augustin and Markelle Fultz — the team has a +17.3 in 209 minutes with both on the floor, so it is not a terrible idea to play them together — D.J. Augustin is the one handling the ball, leaving Markelle Fultz off the ball.

There is always the sense the Magic are not optimizing their players. Nikola Vucevic is taking more 3-pointers than ever before at far less efficient rates. The team plays at one of the slowest paces in the league and struggles to get out in transition, seemingly handicapping Gordon’s ability to finish above the rim.

It is partially fan narrative, but Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic’s penchant to run pick and rolls does not quite fit in with the herky-jerky, up-tempo style that might favor Markelle Fultz, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. If there is one thing everyone is waiting for is for the team to turn things over to Fultz more.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Monday’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers was especially frustrating as Markelle Fultz sat on the bench for much of the fourth quarter while the deficit ballooned out of control.

Maybe there was a lesson learned with Vucevic playing the entire fourth quarter in Wednesday’s loss to the Heat. Of course, that came at the price of cutting off Mohamed Bamba’s minutes. Even though he has played well and made a positive impact defensively, he has had a hard time getting consistent playing time.

Clifford certainly has a difficult balance trying to make sure young players get playing time while still putting out lineups that will help his team win. Clifford tends to lean toward the latter, especially at this late stage of the season. And that sacrifices some young players.

Wesley Iwundu knows that better than most. He played some strong basketball before the trade deadline. But the team has given James Ennis an extended look, resigning Wesley Iwundu to the deep bench yet again.

James Ennis has not played poorly by any means, but the starting lineup with him has performed significantly worse than the starting lineup with Wesley Iwundu instead — -11.0 net rating in 100 minutes with Ennis in the lineup compared to -5.3 in 136 minutes with Iwundu in the lineup.

He plays the lineups and players he trusts. And it sometimes takes him a little too long to realize he is wrong.

The big picture

Clifford, to his credit, has always been a big-picture coach.

As much as he talks about each game being important, his rotations and his approach are about making the team better over the long-term. He wants his team to be peaking at the right moment and to be better at the end of the season than they were at the start.

Especially, early in the season, Clifford wants to make sure players can get through the marathon. Perhaps he waits a beat longer than impatient fans to give trust. But if you play hard, defend well and fit the basic tenets of the team, roles will expand.

Clifford gives a sort of tough love. He keeps an open door with players and speaks honestly with them. If they engage with the gameplan and present a good idea, he will honestly consider it by all accounts. Players love playing for him and the structure he has provided.

Clifford is a teacher at the end of the day.

There is no arguing with the overall results.

When asked a question he viewed as taking a moral victory Wednesday night, he told the reporter, maybe this team would have viewed things that way two or three years ago. That is not this team anymore.

Clifford is a foundation builder and he has raised the team’s standards tremendously. The team is still fighting for the playoffs and still overall (not recently) one of the best defensive teams in the league.

But like the players, fans wanted to see Clifford help this team take the next step. And like the players, Clifford has not delivered that.

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The team promised to play at a quicker pace and get out in transition. Beyond pace meaning possessions per 48 minutes, the team plays incredibly slow in the half-court. The Magic struggle to get into their sets and keep the defense moving. Things move too slow.

Adjustments to rotations to respond to matchups have often been slow. Clifford has stuck to his plan and driven it into the ground until it is absolutely clear it is not working.

This lack of responsiveness might create consistency of expectations and comfort for players as they try to make new things work. But it lacks imaginative spark in big moments. Things are always very set in place.

This is undoubtedly a flawed roster.

Clifford has hinted as much saying the team is not outscoring anybody and needs to be elite defensively to make up for its offensive shortcomings.  He has often said the team executes its sets well but struggles to make plays once things break down or in late-clock situations. The same could be said defensively too especially with Jonathan Isaac out.

Especially in the playoffs, good players have to make plays with every defender knowing exactly what is coming. To be great in this league, you have to break the mold.

That is where Clifford has struggled most this year. The struggle for him, just like his team, has been adapting to new realities and making the most of the talent at hand.

A slip-up in preparation and execution in Wednesday’s game in the first half on Duncan Robinson was enough to cost the team an important game. His adjustments on Robinson helped the Magic climb back into it.

dark. Next. Orlando Magic's patience will pay off if they keep it

But it was still a game left on the board. One that even the coach had to admit was on him.