Steve Clifford is still the right coach to lead Orlando Magic

Steve Clifford is trying to hold the Orlando Magic steady and confident as players inch closer to returning. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Steve Clifford is trying to hold the Orlando Magic steady and confident as players inch closer to returning. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

There is always pressure for head coaches in the NBA.

They are the most expendable pieces in a results-driven business. They get judged on their ability to deliver wins and losses. When things go south, attention turns quickly to the coach.

When a team has the disastrous season the Orlando Magic are having, eyes have to turn to every part of the franchise to figure out what went wrong. It is no coincidence that Steve Clifford’s name is listed among the betting favorites as “the next NBA coach to get fired.”

Orlando’s playoff hopes are quickly dimming — four games back of the play-in tournament with the second-toughest schedule remaining in the league by opponent win percentage — and there has to be some reckoning for it.

With an All-Star at center in Nikola Vucevic doing his best to keep the team afloat and Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross both putting in career-best scoring seasons, the Magic should be better than being the fourth-worst team in the league and 20th in defensive rating and 28th in net rating. There is an argument the Magic have outperformed their stats to this point.

Injuries are undoubtedly the biggest culprit. Even though the team was starting to come back down to earth before Markelle Fultz’s injury in early January. But still, things should not be this bad. There should be some signs of life, some beacon of hope.

This is a playoff team after all that prides itself on defense. And this team does not resemble anything like that. Some of that has to fall on the coach.

The Orlando Magic are looking like they will limp to the finish after a disastrous season that nets them a high Lottery pick. But change at the top is not necessary. Steve Clifford is still the right man to lead and develop this team.

Clifford is not blameless in how this season has gone off the rails. But any calls to move on from the Magic’s coach is shortsighted and not in the team’s best interest. Clifford is still the right coach for this team.

Undoubtedly, Clifford has been the driving force for the team’s mini-revival. The Magic went six years of being abjectly bad — even worse than this year’s version of the team — where they struggled to reach even 30 wins before Clifford helped provide a strong foundation and got the team to the playoffs in 2019.

This is exactly what the Magic hired him to do.

Jeff Weltman said Steve Clifford teams are hard to play again, tough-minded and expect a general level of winning. Clifford helped teach a young team what it takes to win at this small scale.

It is fair to ask and wonder whether Clifford is the coach to take them to the next step and move beyond the first round. It is true he has a record worse than .500 both for his career and with the Magic. Those were concerns everyone shared when the Magic hired Clifford to begin with in 2018.

But Orlando still needs a foundation-building coach like Clifford. They still need someone who will instruct and teach a young team how to win at a base level and what is necessary on a day-to-day basis.

The Magic are seemingly planning on building around Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, both inked to brand new deals that kick in next season, and their first-round pick that is slated to be in the top-5 at the moment. Who better to get the most out of that group and ease them into high-level play than a coach like Clifford?

Rebuilding the foundation

This is not a group that is going to return from injury or enter the league and take it by storm. They will need to build themselves back up. And Steve Clifford still had the team moving in the right direction entering this season, even after stagnating during an injury-filled 2020 season.

The Orlando Magic were preparing to play its best basketball before the pandemic halted the season. And the team was playing really well in the bubble before Jonathan Isaac’s injury and the cavalcade of minor injuries derailed any hopes for a surprise run.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

What that experience proved was how Clifford maximizes preparation time and given a consistent group and time to prepare, he can have his team ready to play and to execute at a high level.

That is just something he has not been afforded this year.

No doubt, this pandemic season has challenged Clifford and hit on many of his weaknesses. It is not merely the injuries and having few options to turn to on an already limited roster, he has not had the time to drill down the fundamentals of the team’s defense or even hold real practices to reinforce defensive schemes and adjustments.

The injuries have only limited these opportunities when they arise. The Magic have been very cautious with the workload players have had beyond the games since so many players have had to play heavy minutes.

For a team like the Magic without a clear star, not having this time to cement adjustments has hurt the team as much as anything else. Orlando has had to learn through walk-throughs and instruction. That can be difficult.

Bracing for his faults

This is not to say Steve Clifford is not at fault for failing to make this adjustment.

Certainly his original plans for the season fell through when the injuries hit — it is hard to say they did not work with the team sitting at 6-2, even with some points for concern at that early stage. He has not been able to find an alternate plan or way for this team to play consistently.

That certainly falls on Clifford. But he has had numerous notable failed attempts to get the team going before settling on what worked later in the season.

As the previous two seasons for the Magic showed, Clifford can be a bit slow to make these adjustments or fully implement them. That will be something to watch moving forward.

How he handles the rest of this season — including his now infamous and sometimes frustrating handling of Mohamed Bamba — will have bearing on what the team does moving forward. Fans and management will likely reach a point where they want to see young players pushed to the front more.

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But Clifford has been fine developing young players and giving them their chance. It is just all done in the context of what helps the Magic win.

Management like will not change his approach and his drive to keep the team focused on winning habits and trying to improve as the season moves on, even if fans are focused more on ping pong balls.

Preparing the future

Steve Clifford will be a good coach then to help rebuild whatever part of the foundation has frayed because of this team’s shortcomings. Assuming things are more normal by the time next season starts, Clifford will have the chance to prepare this team the way he is most comfortable.

But to be sure, the pressure will be on next year. The Orlando Magic do not want this Lottery trip to be something permanent. Orlando should not accept a trip back to the deep lottery and will expect the team to be back in playoff contention next year.

And if Clifford fails to deliver then, the heat will start to turn up on him and the front office to begin delivering more tangible progress.

It will be hard — barring the team completely losing faith in Clifford and letting go of the rope completely which has not happened yet — to move on from Clifford at this point. The stability and foundation he provides is part of why they hired him.

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And with the adversity the team has faced this season being almost completely out of his control, Clifford has managed things about as well as he could. He will have to build things back up again next year.