Pandemic season presenting the biggest challenge to Orlando Magic’s Steve Clifford

The 2021 season has already created a ton of challenge for the Orlando Magic and little room for Steve Clifford to address them. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
The 2021 season has already created a ton of challenge for the Orlando Magic and little room for Steve Clifford to address them. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports /

Injuries and a strange pandemic season are putting pressure on the Orlando Magic and their coach Steve Clifford as he tries to prepare his team.

There is never a good time for a major injury.

It creates massive disruptions to a team. Especially when it is the point guard and a player so central to the way the team has to play.

Markelle Fultz’s injury is already creating massive changes to the Orlando Magic. The talk of playing with an increased pace has almost gone completely by the wayside. The team is talking about playing through Nikola Vucevic in the low- and mid-post more.

With a rookie backing up Fultz, the team might also platoon Aaron Gordon in a more initiator role and Evan Fournier might have to take on more playmaking roles.

The team is going to have to figure out a lot of things on the fly thanks to all the injuries and the nature of the schedule. The Magic will not have consecutive days off until Feb. 3.

Coach Steve Clifford said after Saturday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks that what the team really needs is three days of practice. A few days just to drill down and work on in live-action the things they have to do.

Even in a regular season, three days of practice would be a difficult ask. But there would at least be a few instances where the Magic would have a couple of days between games to get a couple of hard practices in and drill any adjustments and changes.

Practice time

In the first half of the 2020 season, the Orlando Magic had seven instances of two days off between games. Those periods are invaluable to fine-tune things and reinforce tweaks that the team is seeing on film alone.

Steve Clifford is confident that a team full of professional basketball players will be able to adjust through walkthroughs on a ballroom floor before games and in film study. He has said repeatedly his group has been good about making those kinds of adjustments on the fly in his time with the team.

Of course, part of that problem is many of the Magic’s veterans they would trust to make these reads are on the shelf with injuries.

Evan Fournier is out with back spasms, although he could return soon. Aaron Gordon is back and expected to be off any further load management, but has continued to deal with a sore hamstring.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Michael Carter-Williams is out with a sprain in his left foot — he did not travel with the team on its Texas road trip and Steve Clifford said he is still in a walking boot.

Still, the Magic are relying a lot on young players who may not be as adept at making these changes in NBA games on the fly. Especially rookie Cole Anthony, who has been thrust into the starting point guard role.

Clifford as a teacher thrives in practice. It is a controlled environment for coaches to pause play and test things out without as many consequences. Clifford’s practices are detailed and super focused. They have things they want to accomplish and they work toward getting those things done effectively.

No one will complain about the results with the Magic. He turned this team into a perennial playoff team. And players speak extremely highly of his approach and the way he relates to players.

It feels like one of Clifford’s biggest tools to improve the team has been taken away from him.

And with the Magic preparing to go on a six-game, 10-day trip, there will be even less time to practice and get work in on the court.

COVID concerns

With the schedule so compressed so far, Steve Clifford has been hesitant to run the team through five-on-five drills and a ton of live-action drills. And with COVID safety protocols, the team has not been able to practice much on the road to avoid extra travel from the hotel and potential exposure to other communities.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is also ravaging the league in many ways. And that is going to further complicate how the Magic move forward.

Saturday, the Dallas Mavericks were without three starters who were isolating still in Denver because of contact tracing. Sunday, Mavericks forward Maxi Kleber was put into isolation because of contact tracing but not before he played 23.5 minutes in Saturday’s 112-98 Dallas Mavericks win over the Orlando Magic.

The Mavericks practice facility is now closed.

In a season that has already seen an unusual amount of injuries for the Magic, this will only be another challenge the team has to overcome — barring the team or the league shutting things down.

At this point (I am writing this in the early afternoon Sunday), no Magic players have tested positive — the team did not practice Sunday, as they usually do after back-to-backs. The NBA’s protocols do not require players to quarantine and isolate merely for playing against another player.

Most of the league’s protocols are about minimizing contact and exposure. So playing basketball might well fit into the no more than 15 minutes of exposure within six feet of someone else. But that argument also feels patently ridiculous in the big picture. The spread has already started in the NBA bubble.

Clifford said this feels inevitable that every team is going to deal with COVID at some point unless the league puts the season on pause.

"“Every team has to test every day and the guys do the rapid tests every day,” Clifford said before Friday’s game against the Houston Rockets. “As of right now, everybody has been good. The NBA is so thorough with it, I don’t know if there is anything more we can do. So far, knock on wood, we’ve been fortunate. But let’s face it, it’s going to happen. I think in the NFL, of the 32 teams 31 had at least one incident. I think, unfortunately, it’s the world that we’re living in right now.”"

Certainly, the Magic will be watching their daily testing closely in the next few days after Saturday’s potential exposure.

The Orlando Magic will face a Boston Celtics team on Wednesday and Friday that is being ravaged with players going through the COVID protocols. Jayson Tatum was put in protocols for hugging Bradley Beal, who later tested positive for COVID-19.

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And Clifford noted Florida is seeing a large spike in cases. Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said he was frightened to walk around Orlando when the Sixers were in town because of how few masks he saw.

Unfortunately, the Sixers had their own outbreak that forced them to leave some players in Brooklyn and play Saturday’s game with just seven available players (league rules require eight players on the active roster).

Tests ahead

Steve Clifford is going to have to be tested and succeed in teaching and instructing without the benefits of a practice. That means he is giving up some measure of control. And as he experiments and tries to find some combination that works, he will be doing them during games. Some games and moments are going to get sacrificed to figure this stuff out.

It is very un-Clifford-like. His meticulous preparation and detail are getting tested in major ways. Every coach is dealing with these issues to varying degrees.

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The Magic though are having to adjust. And this will undoubtedly be a challenge that continues througout this strange season for a planner and teacher like Clifford.