2021 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: All of Steve Clifford’s weaknesses exposed

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford knows his young team still has a lot of work ahead of it. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford knows his young team still has a lot of work ahead of it. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) /

When the Orlando Magic hired Steve Clifford, they promised a few things.

A lot of it had to do with the discipline Clifford would instill in his team on the court. They would be low turnover and difficult to beat. Their style would be the bare bones and basics of how to win — limiting points in the paint, easy shots and mistakes.

This conservative style of play on both ends helps teams win. It is basic and simple and gets teams in the right spots to win games.

It also takes a lot of drilling and discipline. That drilling and discipline can slip when a team has little time to practice.

The other thing Clifford is great as it preparing. No team is likely going to be as prepared or have as much information as a Clifford-coached team. And give that team time to work on things in practice and they will be ready.

A season does not always afford a team full time to prepare. But it does give little moments of respite to get some practice in. Even on the road, it gives a team time to get in the gym and put some real work in to get better.

Clifford can be an over-preparer. He can become a bit fixed to his original plan and it can take him a long time to shift and adjust. Oftentimes too long.

Steve Clifford is an expert foundation builder and preparer and was a great asset for the Orlando Magic. But the pandemic season exposed his weaknesses as it required a break from the structure and comfort he craves.

So in a season where there was little time to get real practice time in and injuries took out most of the roster, sticking to the original plan was not in the cards. The Magic needed something a little bit more. They needed more from their roster for sure. But they needed a better gameplan to handle the pandemic season and they needed a little bit more flexibility.

This 2021 season should not be an indictment on Clifford’s abilities as a coach. His track record with the Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic are plenty of evidence of what he is good at — taking undeveloped teams and teaching them the basics of winning. But what he has struggled to do is take them beyond that.

And this pandemic season tested every pressure point for a Clifford-coached team and for the Magic in general.

It is not that Clifford had a poor season as coach. It was not that he did not prepare any differently.

But it was a season that required improvisation and quick adjustments. It was a season that required a breaking of the structure Clifford is known for. And too often, the Magic bumped against their ceiling and could not get through it.

With the team the Magic had, they needed this structure. They were a team with carefully placed parts and no true superstar to bail them out. This was a team that needed drilling and the team to follow its coach’s lead on that front.

If Clifford has a weakness as a coach, it is that the things that helped his teams outperform expectations and make and compete for the playoffs are likely the things that hold them back in the end. As much as preparation and discipline help during the course of the regular season, it takes preparation and a bit of improvisation to win in the playoffs.

And Clifford is not one to make quick adjustments or change things on the fly without some testing in practice. Clifford would repeat this line every time he was questioned about rotation decisions. He was not going to throw out random lineups out there as if it were a game of 2K. That just was not how things worked.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The stability and consistency Clifford builds are what give his team strength. Everyone knows when they will play and who they will play with. They all know their roles within that system and that gives them comfort.

This clearly has limitations. And in this season with limited practice and court time along with a rushed schedule that prevented teams from going fully physical in practice, the team needed a willingness to try things out and needed a willingness to think outside the box and a bit unconventionally.

There were a few decisions throughout the season that showed this lack of creativity and necessity to experiment.

None were bigger than the constant decision to play Khem Birch over Mohamed Bamba.

Birch is a player who helps winning teams by filling in the margins. But with a team struggling in all areas, the Magic needed a bit more offensive punch. And while Bamba certainly would have been a risk, he would have potentially given the team some offensive punch.

Without practice, there would have been no way to see if that would have worked or not. It needed a little bit of faith. Everyone else on the roster seemed to get a chance in the face of all the injuries the team suffered last season.

That might be an extreme example — or a simple one that simply was not tried as the team tried to throw the kitchen sink to get through the season. Maybe there was no way to save the season with all the injuries the team suffered. There was nothing any coach could do.

The fact is the team was not built to deal with the challenges of a pandemic season. The lack of practice time required a team that could adapt on the fly and play when things broke down. It required a coach who could put them in those situations and adjust just as quickly.

This was a season that hit every weak spot the Magic could have. They needed structure, but they also needed to know when to break that structure.

That is probably the dividing line that Clifford has not figured out how to break through. Or perhaps the dividing line his rosters have not allowed him to pass.

C+. . Coach. Orlando Magic. STEVE CLIFFORD

Steve Clifford is still a really good coach. He was still the absolute right coach to get the most out of the team he had. And his efforts to keep the team together and playing for something should be commended (even though the team still fell to the third-worst record).

The team might have fared a whole lot worse without a coach like Clifford. For sure, the young players on the roster will be better for having Clifford as an early influence.

Like everything else about the 2021 season though, it has to be viewed in the context of the team’s goals from the beginning of the season.

Orlando believed — and still believes — it would have taken the leap to compete for homecourt advantage if it were not for the injuries. The team believes, at minimum, it should have been a playoff team. To fall all the way down to the bottom of the Eastern Conference has to be viewed as a failure despite the exigent circumstances.

The roster was not built for this season. And the coach was probably not built for the challenges this season required. He needed to go far outside his comfort zone.

In Clifford’s three years in Orlando, he came into the season with a plan. The team struggled early on, a small adjustment would get made and the team would click. It was both encouraging and discouraging that this adjustment needed to be made but that it ultimately worked. There was no time without practice for Clifford to make these subtle changes. He needed to take some guesses and experiment with games.

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That was something he was not willing to do. And the Magic kept pounding their head against the wall trying to play within this box.

Who is to say whether it would work or not? Certainly, Clifford has probably forgotten more about basketball and tactics than most of us will ever know. But the Magic never changed or adjusted to the season. They were simply trying to keep their head above water.

With the Magic resetting their roster, Clifford would have been a good steward for this team. His strict structure and guidelines are perfect for young teams learning how to play for the first time.

Clifford though is not wired for a rebuild. He wants to win and he wants that to be the priority. He was never going to play a young player over a trusted veteran if it would cost his team a win — thus Bamba continued to languish on the bench.

The Magic deciding to move on from Clifford was likely this push and pull.

Clifford needs a team that will help him break through that ceiling he has struggled to get through. And the Magic need a coach who can be a little more flexible while providing the same consistency and structure.

Next. The case to hire Terry Stotts. dark

Clifford is a good coach. But not the coach the Magic need right now.