When Steve Clifford arrived in Orlando three years ago, the franchise was at its nadir.
The franchise’s long rebuild after the Dwight Howard trade had gone nowhere, topping off at 35 wins and their coach at that time essentially quit on his team leaving after that lone season. The Orlando Magic had a group of young veterans who had not accomplished anything, much less formed a cogent identity.
Clifford was introduced with a promise: His teams would be hard to beat. Their fundamentals would be so strong and the team so disciplined that they would not be the cause of their own destruction. The team still did not have the top-end talent, but Clifford’s teams would be competitive.
The trips to the deep Lottery were not going to happen again.
Quickly, it was easy to see the Magic take hold of those principles. They finished eighth and 11th in defensive rating, third and fifth in defensive rebound rate, sixth and fourth in turnover rate and ninth and fourth in opponent fast-break points per game.
All this is to say, the team was fundamentally sound, they were not going to turn the ball over or give teams second chances to score. Opponents do not get anything easy.
This was the foundation the Magic were going to build from. It was not an identity completely. But it was the basics needed to be successful in the Clifford system. It was enough to make the team competitive.
The Magic have fallen off so much this year because of injuries for sure. They greatly weakened the team’s cohesion and attention to detail on both ends of the floor. Orlando always had a small margin for error.
The Orlando Magic are still trying to re-establish their principles and their identity after the trade deadline. That is going to be a process for the team as they grow.
In the third quarter of Friday’s 92-75 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, these basics let the Orlando Magic down. The Magic turned the ball over seven times for 11 points, they gave up seven offensive rebounds (although just four second-chance points) and 13 fast-break points.
That is how Orlando lost an early nine-point lead and fell behind by 17 points. A poor eight-minute stretch was enough to undo a gritty (although imperfect) first-half effort. The kind of effort that showed this team’s potential to meet the team’s basic expectations and principles.
“It’s a huge factor,” acting coach Tyrone Corbin said after Friday’s game. “This is a team that’s what they do. They create steals and get out in transition. They are the number one team in the league in fast-break points. 29 for the game is too many. To our guys’ credit, I thought they fought hard. We had a lead at halftime. We did a good job controlling the tempo of the game. Just that third quarter, we are undermanned and we got a little fatigued.”
For the game, the Grizzlies recorded 29 fast-break points (on an inefficient 11-for-24 shooting). The Magic had 20 turnovers leading to 20 points off turnovers. The Grizzlies had 15 offensive rebounds for 10 second-chance points (4-for-15 shooting).
In some respect, the Magic were lucky to be in the game with all the missed opportunities the Grizzlies had throughout the game and especially in the first half.
The Magic have seen slips in these principles since the trade deadline and the new roster took over.
Orlando’s defensive struggles are noted — the team still sits 27th in the league in defensive rating, a slight improvement from the previous weeks (the team’s 92.9 defensive rating against the Grizzlies was the third-best of the season and best since the trade deadline).
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So too are the Magic’s rebounding issues — 25th in the league at 72.1-percent after sitting first before the deadline. And the team’s fast-break defense — 27th in the league at 14.6 points allowed per game — has remained poor.
The only thing the Magic have done consistently well is limit their turnovers — fourth in the league since the deadline at 11.8-percent. That obviously did not play out against Memphis on Friday. Or even against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday as turnovers in the fourth quarter nearly cost the Orlando Magic the game.
Some of this certainly can be blamed on the team’s relative freshness. The Magic are still a new team coming together with limited practice time. A training camp and an offseason of planning will go a long way.
And fatigue has played a role as players have had to learn everything on the fly while also learning the league at a basic level.
This is all part of the learning experience.
“For where we are, we just have to keep talking about it,” Corbin said after Friday’s loss. “We’re undermanned. We’re playing a lot of young guys. They are trying to find a way to work through fatigue. In this league, you are going to be tired at times. You have to find a way to control your mind and body to get the job done and play through being tired. I think we let it get the best of us in the third quarter.”
But these are supposed to be things that are intrinsic to the team.
How are the Magic going to climb back out with this new team after the trade deadline? It is going to start with those principles. It is going to start with the very basics of what made this team successful in the past and delivered on that promise when Clifford was hired.
This current Magic team is a shell of what it will be — two starters in Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz will return from injury next season and likely two top-10 picks in a top-heavy NBA Draft will join them. But the work the Magic need to do now is to get this ethos down.
“I don’t think not practicing is a good excuse, we’re professionals,” Mohamed Bamba said after Friday’s loss. “A lot of teams run the same stuff in the league. They scout us as much as we scout them. We should just know. We do have that extra time in the morning. Us young guys meet for about 20 minutes and go over our principles. I believe the effort is there. It’s just a matter of being smart and putting the game together.”
Certainly, rebounding and limiting turnovers is something that any team can do. And for a young team still figuring out how to win consistently, this is where they must start.
The Magic should feel some confidence they can get there. These games to close the season are about the team gaining experience. They are about the team going through the reps and experiencing these situations and feeling the pressure of games so they can grow and build upon them for next season.
Next season, when they are hopefully better organized and running defensive and offensive schemes better tailored to their talent.
No matter what that team looks like, it is going to start with these basic principles. Clifford helped build this team once with these principles. That is likely how the team will have to get built again.