Steve Clifford is at the heart of Orlando Magic’s success

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford will have difficult decisions and adjustments to make without Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford will have difficult decisions and adjustments to make without Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic were lost before Steve Clifford arrived and set a new standard for the team. He is as much a part of the Magic’s success as anything else.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has a message for fans.

Take your health seriously. Take guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and local governments — reminder Orange County is under a stay-at-home order that began Thursday at 11 p.m. until April 9 — seriously. Everyone needs to do their part.

In an article from Roy Parry of The Orlando Sentinel, Clifford played coach for the masses, urging everyone to take their health and take this current situation seriously. He sternly said he has been disappointed with how some of the public had responded to the pandemic and warnings from public health officials.

The coach is giving a message to his troops. And when the coach speaks, you listen.

He has earned respect and earned his players’ attention. His forthrightness and direct communication leave no room to wonder about his expectations and what you need to do.

On the court, the results speak for themselves. And this approach is at the very heart of the Magic’s ultimate success.

Clifford is blunt. He rarely beats around the bush — certainly with media and, by all accounts, with players.

If he thinks a question is not in the right vein — perhaps searching for a moral victory and the like — he will let everyone know. So many players have said Clifford is straightforward with them and his expectations for them.

And they appreciate that.

Clifford in this way has done an incredible job changing the culture with the Magic.

Even in a season most would consider disappointing — with plenty of fair criticisms about Clifford and some of his decisions — Clifford has been the constant for the team. He has been the one holding the team to the playoff standard and not letting the team slip despite plenty of obstacles in the way.

A weaker-minded team would have slipped with a two-week injury to its best player in Nikola Vucevic. Instead, he reconfigured the offense to run through Evan Fournier and kept the ship steady for his return.

A weaker-minded team would have slipped again when Jonathan Isaac went down with his injury. But the Magic filled in for him. Their defense has been more inconsistent than even he would like — the Magic are 13th in the league in defensive rating since Jonathan Isaac’s injury at 111.3 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Every time Orlando bounced back.

Clifford deserves a lot of credit for that. He may have made some poor short-term rotation decisions or stuck with players too long at times. But he has earned some faith to find the right rotations and lineups.

There is always a bigger picture he is building toward. And, at least in his time with Orlando, things have always come together at the right moment.

More than any other coach the Magic have had in this rebuild, Clifford has gotten his team to buy in and commit to an identity and style. And the team was really starting to come around as the season went to hiatus. The Magic’s offense was coming around and the defense was starting to ramp up again.

If you ask Dante Marchitelli of FOX Sports Florida, who travels with the team for every game as the network’s sideline reporter, Clifford is the reason the Magic have turned a corner as a franchise:

"“There’s a confidence that he gives to players to grow their games,” Marchitelli told me on the podcast. “But also understanding of what it takes for this group to win as a team. I think better than anybody I have seen, he has the ability to do that and relate to players. And I think they appreciate that. You leave no practice wondering where you stand with Steve Clifford. These guys know day in and day out what is expected of them and what is expected of them from a team standpoint, individually, what they have to work on and how it all fits.”"

This is something several players have echoed publicly when they talk about Clifford. His clear directives for the team and the work and preparation they put into practice to help individuals get better resonates with everyone.

That approach might sometimes slow team development. He might sacrifice some wins through the course of the season to build to a larger point. He would never admit that. He believes the team is capable of winning every game they play. But the team finds its way, especially once it gets into a rhythm.

Clifford’s whole goal has always been to make the team better as the year advances. He pulls all the disparate strands together throughout the season.

Clifford builds his team and their confidence to peak at this moment. Just like last year.

There is still the next level he has to reach as a coach. Some of that is because of the rosters he has had and the circumstances around them both in Orlando and with the Charlotte Hornets — young teams, injuries and poor free agent moves among them.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

This is not the year to reach that point, unfortunately. Orlando will still be chasing a way to improve its roster and Clifford will still be searching for a way to get more from his team.

But ultimately, Orlando wanted a coach who would build up the foundation for the team. They wanted a coach who would give the team the confidence and belief they could make the playoffs. So that even in a down year like this, the team was able to compete and still thrive.

Clifford helped build that confidence. He has expressed his disappointment after wins because the team now has a standard to reach. A standard he set and a standard the team acknowledges.

The sense of frustration from fans and players alike this year is because the team knows it has not met those standards. Even finding those standards again is a huge step forward for the franchise.

Clifford has been the one driving that change and setting that standard. He is the engine and driver for all the change the Magic have seen in the last two years.

There is still a lot of work to do. Clifford told Josh Robbins of The Athletic he is reviewing game tape and discussing tweaks with coaches (subscription required, but well worth it for this interview).

The hope is the Magic can go to their second training camp (or whatever the NBA looks like when it returns) and pick up where they left off, even with the potential for injured players to return.

The critical thing is that when Clifford says something in his direct, sometimes terse way, players listen. He has everyone thinking and preparing about the playoffs and getting better in every way.

Next. Orlando Magic still climbing uphill in free agency. dark

Clifford has set the standard for the Magic and is the key to the team’s newfound success.