Jeff Weltman stands behind job Steve Clifford did for Orlando Magic

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has tested positive for COVID-19. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has tested positive for COVID-19. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic spent much of the final weeks of the season disadvantaging themselves.

Players were held out with injuries. The team was played several 10-day contract and two-way players heavy minutes in addition to rookies who, while at the end of their season. This was not a team meant to win.

Still, Steve Clifford pushed on. Never shy about talking about the playoffs or the need to play well in games that matter, Clifford can be encouraging but demanding. He was not changing his vision for the team.

At times, the way he talked about the team and his expectations were a tad unrealistic. But Clifford always had his eyes on the bigger goal and holding the team to a higher standard. He wanted the team to be able to accomplish something tangible as the season came to a close.

Whenever a team goes 21-51, everything should be assessed. The team finished with the third-worst record in the league. No one could call the season a success. The Magic detonated their roster and decided to restart.

That feels like a good time to do quality control on every part of the franchise to figure out where things went wrong. To some extent, it also feels like a good time to start over on the bench.

The Orlando Magic will be evaluating everything after a disappointing season. That includes their coach nearing the end of his contract. For now, the team stands behind the job Steve Clifford did.

With the team starting a rebuild, having a coach to grow along with it makes some bench. If the team is starting over, why not start over everywhere?

Especially with Clifford’s contract set to expire at the end of the 2022 season. It would not make sense to have a lame-duck coach.

There might be decisions to come in the offseason. But for now, the Magic are standing behind their coach and the job that he did this season, despite accumulating the third-worst record in the league.

"“I can’t tell you what a good job I think they did,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said during a meeting with the media on Wednesday. “When we were discussing these internally, we had discussions everywhere across the board with every agenda lined up as we always must, one of the things we discussed was it’s not the right time to do this.“These sorts of organizational shifts should not be done midseason. It’s not fair to the coaches. It’s not fair to the players that remain. It’s not conducive to a real smooth transition to another phase of your operations. What do you do as a coach when all of a sudden your roster changes, your agendas change, your goals change? What can I say? They’ve done an amazing job.”"

Weltman would not comment specifically on Clifford’s contract status, per team policy. Clifford, for his part, said after the season ended last week he would take some time away. But he seemed to have every intention of getting back to work and studying what went wrong this season.

The way Weltman spoke about the job Clifford did and how he tried to keep the team together and growing together sure seemed like the team hopes to keep him around to foster the next stage of this team’s growth.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Weltman pointed to the way the team played in the immediate aftermath of the trade of proof of the team’s potential. But he also pointed to the way rookies Cole Anthony and Chuma Okeke got better as the season progress. Or how R.J. Hampton improved with the increased playing time he got after the trade.

That growth was a sign of Clifford’s development chops and stewardship of this young roster.

Trade adjustment

The trades would have sent any coach into something of a loop and put them in an impossible situation. Half the roster was gone, including almost all of the team’s scoring production, all during a season that offered limited practice time to reorient the team.

Steve Clifford is a coach who likes to plan things out and carefully put players together. Especially with young players, he wants to put them in positions and roles they are comfortable in as a place for them to grow. Almost immediately after the trade deadline, he had to figure this all out on the fly and re-establish consistency.

That proved even tougher with the injuries the team took on after the trade deadline anyway. The Magic had to make the best with what they had with a roster that probably no longer matched the plays they were running or the skills they wanted to emphasize.

Let alone enough time to build defensive trust and instincts.

Weltman acknowledged first and foremost the difficult spot he put his coach in.

"“Coach Cliff spends a lot of time very specifically delegating minutes and roles and who’s on the court with whom and playing groups,” Weltman said Wednesday. “To have that all of a sudden upended is not something that is probably air to put on this plate. I thought he did an amazing job handling it.“Now we move on. Now we’re in a new phase of operations. Now we do have the proper alignment in front of us to take the summer to do this right.”"

Right coach, Right players

For Jeff Weltman, it always starts with bringing in the right players. But having the right coach matters too.

The team has to reconsider how it operates and look for ways to get better internally. Weltman acknowledged that and said that process has already started. A 21-51 season like this one does not just happen — even if injuries played a huge role in that decline.

This team is starting over almost completely new. And there is a choice to make with Clifford.

But who would be better to teach a team to win than the man who has done it already?

More from Orlando Magic Daily

Clifford has made his head coaching career to this point in reforming young teams who need to learn how to win. He turned a Charlotte Hornets team that won 28 games in its two previous seasons into a 43-win playoff team that would win at least 35 games in four of his five seasons.

He turned an Orlando franchise that had won 30 games just once in its previous six seasons into a 42-win team that earned its first playoff berth since he was an assistant coach with the team under Stan Van Gundy.

There are plenty of questions about whether Clifford can take a team beyond that initial winning stage and into the deeper parts of the playoffs. Some of it is certainly that Clifford has not had a team with the talent to advance that far. But his teams have bobbed in and out of the playoffs.

What is not in dispute though is that Clifford does a good job teaching teams how to be competitive. Competitive enough to be in the playoff hunt at least.

And for young teams learning how to win, that should be more than enough. That is the stage the Magic are at.

Whether that leads to an extension or not will be one of the key questions before the NBA Draft really picks up. The team should not want a lame-duck season from their coach.

The way Clifford tried to keep the team focused and playing hard to the end of the season seemed to align with the front office’s vision for how to end the season. Weltman credited good communication throughout the organization with the team’s sudden upheaval going smoothly.

At this early part of the offseason, it seems like the Magic are backing their coach.

Next. What the Orlando Magic can learn from the Charlotte Hornets. dark

It should mean that he returns for next year and beyond.