Steve Clifford tries to guide the Orlando Magic into the unknown

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford is trying to map out how to prepare his team for the season's restart. But there is no blueprint for this. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford is trying to map out how to prepare his team for the season's restart. But there is no blueprint for this. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are getting set to resume their season. But like every team, they are entering unknown territory and coaches are adapting daily.

An offseason usually has familiar rhythms as coaches get ready to meet their teams to start a new season.

There is a period to decompress after the season ends and the ability and time to review every game the team played. Coaches can pick apart their team’s flaws and evaluate where they need to improve. They might provide some of this input to executives as they assess how to acquire new players through the draft and free agency.

When new players come in, he can review their tape and learn their tendencies. From July until September, there is ample time to map out a plan for training camp and really the whole season. A basic framework from which everything else can grow.

Players usually begin arriving into town to prepare for the season in early September (around Labor Day) and optional team workouts throughout the month give coaches the chance to assess where their team is at and what they can do from the start of camp near the end of the month.

This is different to say this least. This will be no ordinary training camp. This will be no ordinary finish to the season.

A coach like Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford who is highly structured and methodical in how he teaches and prepares his team is in the dark about what happens next or where his team is at, in actuality.

All with what he said are the eight most important games of the Magic’s season on the horizon.

He, like every other coach in the NBA, is in the dark about what happens next and what his team will look like as they enter the NBA’s bubble.

"“I think there is more unknown for all of us than any NBA situation I can ever remember,” Clifford said in a ZOOM conference with media on Tuesday. “We are trying to plan our first few days of practice for in the bubble and frankly I watch our guys every day and I change my mind every day on how much we can do.”"

Clifford was able to rejoin the players on the floor at the Amway Center just last week. He entered the gym — wearing gloves and a mask while rebounding for the players — and just wanted to watch and get a feel for where his guys are at.

Planning a practice schedule for the opening of the team’s training camp in early July — the Magic are reportedly scheduled to check in to the Grand Floridian on July 7 and would be able to open camp on July 9 after everyone goes through their two-day isolation upon entering — is proving extremely difficult without knowing where players are as far as game shape.

Hitting the ground running, or jogging

Typically, coaches use those early September optional workouts to get a sense of how quickly they can hit the ground running once training camp begins. This year, for instance, Steve Clifford said the team was able to play three whole quarters on the first day of camp.

No team will be able to do that from the start. In fact, those early practices might resemble more of those September workouts. Clifford said he has no feel for where guys are at right now.

Everyone is in that same boat.

"“I think that we’re way behind where we would be to start camp,” Clifford said in a ZOOM conference Tuesday. “So you have to progress as a group in terms of conditioning level and all those things. You have to have enough offense and defense in so you have a chance to play well in a NBA game. But then there is also an injury factor.“How we pace our team to me during whatever it’s going to be in those 20-21 days is going to be critical. I don’t have a feel for how that’s going to go.”"

That is not to say the Magic are not going to be as ready as they can be or they have not kept themselves in shape.

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Clifford has been in the gym with players for a week now, assisting as a rebounder and talking to players at least. He said he has been happy with the conditioning level and work ethic of players back in the building.

He added he senses an enthusiasm from the players about getting back to the season and trying to restart the season.

But everyone is still getting a feeling for what the return to play will look like. This is no ordinary training camp. The team has to manage not just trying to get players in shape but also making sure everyone stays injury-free. The games will come so fast — eight games in 15 days — one even light injury could knock everything out.

It is a difficult balance nobody really knows how to make right now.

"“I take this as a unique opportunity where it’s been 10 or 11 weeks since we played,” Clifford said during a ZOOM conference on Tuesday. “Guys have basically had an offseason. I think teams have come back and I think you will see some different offense. We are going to put some new things too. It’s a unique situation and I think that’s the way you have to look at it.”"

That includes figuring out what to teach when they are able to work out together.

The Magic have to hit the ground running. They open things up against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they are chasing for the 7-seed. Then they play a Sacramento Kings also trying to chase down the 8-seed in the Western Conference.

It may end up that teams like the Magic, Nets and Kings take things seriously from the start knowing they need every win. While teams near the top of the standings treat the seeding games like preseason tuneups.

Not that there is not something for them to play for — the Boston Celtics, for instance, trail the Toronto Raptors by three games and the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers remain tied for fifth and sixth in the East.

How teams approach these final games seems to be pretty fluid. The Magic do not have that luxury.

Studying the team

The focus then has to be on the Orlando Magic themselves. There will be some pre-scouting, with so much on many rosters fluid and the chance that teams shake things up some with the chance to dive back into a camp, scouting previous game tape will not be perfect.

The concern for now is getting the team up to speed. And so the focus is less on the eight opponents the Magic will face and more on themselves.

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Clifford said he approached at least the early hiatus like it was an offseason, doing film review and assessing his team. There are some wrinkles he would like to add to the team. But it will be very tough to overhaul the team completely.

"“That to me is the biggest challenge. Normally when you are coaching, you look at your team and you try to get a definitive idea of where you are at so you can make the best decisions going forward and how you make progress. Until you get in and start playing 5-on-5 and practicing as a unit, I think it’s very difficult to know where we are at.”"

There just is not enough time and it is unclear how close to game shape the team is until they get on the ground. Everything will be up on the air and those well-laid plans will need to be adjusted and re-written daily.

They already appear to be so.

Injuries will be in the background of everything the team does. Clifford said he will have to be mindful of players’ health and wear and tear.

It is not likely, Clifford said, he will be able to play his preferred nine-man rotation. He may have to go up to 11 players in his rotation to make sure players remain fresh and capable of handling the minutes load.

It is hard to see Aaron Gordon or Nikola Vucevic playing the 37 minutes per game they were logging before the season went on hiatus.

Everything will need to get adjusted.

An opportunity present

But as the Orlando Magic get ready to enter the bubble, though, Steve Clifford sees an opportunity.

This is not the same as the regular final eight games of the season. As Clifford put it, nobody can say definitively that one team is playing better than any other. Everyone is starting with a relative blank slate.

Dancing perhaps in the back of everyone’s mind is the realization that 8-seeds defeated 1-seeds in both the 1999 and 2012 lockout-shortened season. The odds might be long, but there is certainly a chance.

The Magic are eager to take that chance.

"“It always comes back to playing well,” Clifford said Tuesday. “I know it sounds simple. The one thing we have talked about as a staff is let’s still try to gameplan and take things away, but we’ve got to spend time and concentrate on our team and get our team to a level where they are comfortable and playing as well as they can in as many different aspects of offense and defense as possible.”"

Getting to that point where they can seize that opportunity is the great mystery. It is the thing nobody seems able to predict. And the thing good coaching will have to prepare for and adjust.

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