Steve Clifford will provide stability for the Orlando Magic moving forward

May 11, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford gestures during the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
May 11, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford gestures during the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

As the NBA season comes to a close, some questions need to be answered during the offseason.

Any time a team steps back out of the Playoffs, every part of the franchise needs to undergo some form of scrutiny. Even if there are extenuating circumstances. And especially since the Orlando Magic decided to start fresh.

The team’s decision to trade Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline signaled the franchise was getting set to restart. They were angling for a trip to the top of the Lottery and a reset of the entire franchise.

This necessarily brings up questions about what comes next for the franchise. Everything has to get reviewed as the team plots its path forward.

One of the biggest questions then for Orlando to answer is whether or not the team wants to keep coach Steve Clifford. Looking at this season as the exception, the decision on Clifford should be an easy one.

Clifford is undoubtedly the right coach for a young roster that needs to learn to win again.

The Orlando Magic should be reviewing all aspects of the franchise as they get set to rebuild again. The one area they should feel secure is with their head coach and his staff.

The 2021 NBA season should be seen as a throw-away based on the number of lineups and injuries this team has endured. The Magic have used 32 different starting lineups this season and have had 28 players on the roster at one point or another. The team lost more games to injury than any other team in the league by a wide margin.

This means the team as a whole has faced inconsistency all around, and it is hard to put any blame for this season.

The key to Clifford’s impact can be seen in the drastic change from the 2018 season to the 2019 season. With the same core, the Magic saw a 17-win improvement and their first playoff appearance since they traded away Dwight Howard. They then made good on that 2019 appearance with a second straight appearance in 2020, even while facing injuries.

The Magic remained in striking distance of the playoffs this year even as they dealt with tons of injuries that disrupted their rhythm. Orlando essentially decided to reset because the team saw no path out of the first round with the team’s current roster. It was not because the Magic felt they had the wrong guy leading the charge and teaching the team.

The biggest difference between the team before Clifford and after was the defense numbers. In 2018, the Magic ranked 18th in defense (110.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). In 2019, Orlando ranked eighth in the NBA with a 108.1 defensive rating. In 2020, the Magic slipped only slightly to 11th with a 109.2 defensive rating.

The team slipped even more defensively, even before the trade deadline. A lack of practice time and consistency with the lineups led to the team struggling to find its defensive footing. But the messaging never really changed. Clifford was always trying to prepare his team for the playoffs and thinking of the bigger picture.

Nobody does better with time to prepare than Clifford.

Just as some players play beyond the stat sheet, the impact Clifford has is not on paper. His mindset of demanding a consistent way of playing and always playing with purpose has even shined in this dark season.

While the Magic struggled throughout the year with injuries and making the trades at the deadline, Clifford made it clear Orlando still had a standard they had to play too.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

In the 96-93 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, despite the game being close, Clifford made it clear the team did not play well. Several weeks later, he stated that nobody gets better losing by 30 and that the team had to be competitive to get something out of this horrible season.

Even with a roster that even he admits is a bit depleted, he is still looking for ways to make his team better. All the while keeping the bigger picture in mind.

Clifford is molding a mindset to this team that will be important down the road. This is something the Magic lacked in their early rebuilding phase.

That is what made him successful in Charlotte when he took the Charlotte Hornets from 21-61 to 43-39 in his first year and in the playoffs. That is what helped that undermanned team be a consistent playoff threat in the Eastern Conference and one of the best defensive teams in the league fairly consistently. It is what helped Kemba Walker turn into an All-Star starter.

When president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman hired Steve Clifford he praised this foundation-building effort from Clifford. He said Clifford’s teams are difficult to beat because they do not beat themselves. For a young team, those principles and basics are necessary to teach them to win, even at the smallest levels.

It would be a mistake to part ways with Clifford. It seems the team still enjoys playing under him. As the team is developing good habits and working to avoid bad ones, Clifford is the right type of coach to lead this young team.

This is assuming he still wants the job after this season. There is no guarantee that he would want to coach through another rebuild considering his health-riddled past.

Clifford’s contract is set to expire at the end of the 2022 season. It is unlikely the Magic would want him to coach a lame-duck year. So the team should either extend his contract this offseason or mutually part ways.

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If he wants to continue to coach, then the job should be his. Whether Clifford returns as the head coach for the Magic or is gone, the impact that he is going to leave is going to be important heading towards the future.