Orlando Magic are in it for the long haul parting with Steve Clifford

The Orlando Magic are getting a much-needed break thanks to a postponement this week. Mandatory Credit: Michael Wyke/POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic are getting a much-needed break thanks to a postponement this week. Mandatory Credit: Michael Wyke/POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic and coach Steve Clifford have agreed to part ways, the team announced. The news was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Josh Robbins of The Athletic.

"“We would like to thank Steve for his contributions to the Orlando Magic,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said in a press release. “We appreciate the many sacrifices he has made as our head coach and understand the timeline of our new path does not align with his goals as a head coach in our league.”"

"“I would like to thank the DeVos family, Magic leadership and the entire staff, and certainly wish everyone well,” Clifford said in a press release. “It’s been an honor and privilege to coach this team in this community.”"

The Magic are embarking on a rebuild after trading away veteran stalwarts in Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier at the trade deadline. There was always the whiff of change throughout the franchise since that point.

The Orlando Magic have agreed to part ways with Steve Clifford as the team prepares for a long-haul rebuild that a coach like Clifford did not appear to be ready to go through.

The question was always going to be whether Steve Clifford, a coach who has done well to get the most out of a mix of young and veteran players to establish habits and consistency, was going to have the patience to work with such a young team.

And with one year left on his contract, it was going to be difficult to have him coach a lame-duck season.

Very clearly, the Magic and Clifford were now working on different timelines after the team tore down its roster at the trade deadline.

Clifford is a coach who demands a certain level of play and values competing for the playoffs as a necessary part of a player’s development. It is not that the Magic do not believe that. But they likely see themselves a few years away from seriously competing at that level again as they rebuild the franchise.

The team was always going to push for Clifford either to commit to the team long-term or look to part ways mutually. It appears that Orlando and Clifford had discussions about the direction the team wanted to go but ultimately decided it was better to part ways.

Clifford struggled some to reach his young team without time to practice and prepare to end the season. The Magic fell apart — perhaps, as planned — after the trade deadline, ending up with the third-worst record in the league and the top odds to win the Lottery. That was clearly something Clifford was uncomfortable with as he continued to push his team to improve as injuries consumed them.

Still, Clifford very much was a coach the team probably hoped would stick around. He has been an expert in building good habits and foundations for teams.

When he arrived in Orlando in 2018, rejoining the team after being a part of Stan Van Gundy’s staff from the 2007-12 seasons, he was joining a franchise that had struggled to find any level of consistency. The team had the worst record in the league overall during that time period.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

But Clifford immediately built a top-10 defense and helped the team reach a 42-40 record and the playoffs for the first time since Howard’s departure in 2012. He backed that up with another top-10 defense and a second straight playoff appearance in 2020.

The 2021 season was a huge struggle for him though. The team faced massive amounts of injuries and never could build the consistency the team needed. It was clear as the trade deadline approached, the team had kind of reached its peak and that change was necessary.

Clifford finished his three-year tenure as the Magic’s coach with a 96-131 record (.423 win percentage).

Would Clifford be able to lead another turnaround? Sure. That is what he did both with the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets. That is what he does in his career.

It feels certain that if Clifford wanted to stay and the Magic were willing to bring in veterans to help the team remain competitive for the playoffs despite these early stages of the rebuild, he would still be the coach.

But that is not the direction the team is headed. Orlando is looking to do a bigger rebuild it appears. And it appears there is still some heavy lifting to do with a young roster returning next year.

It may not be that Clifford was necessarily the right or wrong coach for this group and more about whether Clifford would get through the process of developing the team.

The question is which coach will be up for the challenge of guiding the Magic back?

Already, it appears the team has some interest in another experienced coach who has helped teams establish a basic sense. Marc Stein of The New York Times reports the team is interested in former Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts.

The question will be whether the Magic could find a coach that will grow with this young team and teach them the right habits to grow into a winner. Orlando knows from its first rebuild under Rob Hennigan how making the wrong coaching hire can set a team back.

It is a difficult thing to get right. But it is something the Magic must get right as they churn through another coach.

They need to find someone who can create as much success as Clifford created in a short time with the team. That is why losing Clifford hurts a ton. He gave the franchise stability when it struggled to find it.

Now the team is clearly preparing for the long haul. They are clearly preparing for a longer rebuild that will have multiple stages — beginning with the returns of Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz and continuing with the NBA Draft. This is not going to be a quick bounceback, even if the Magic seek a coach with an experience similar to Clifford’s.

Next. 5 biggest questions facing the Orlando Magic this offseason. dark

The team is truly in transition now and truly rebuilding rather than reloading.