When the Orlando Magic parted ways with Steve Clifford, the team looked like it was heading in the wrong direction.
For a franchise that saw two straight playoff trips prior to the 2021 season, they found themselves at a 21-51 record following the trade that removed their top three players.
Upon Clifford’s exit, it was detailed the team wanted to extend the coach but differences in the team’s overarching goals le to a mutual parting of ways.
“This was not some disjointed departure where we didn’t like each other,” Clifford said. “I got along well with Jeff [Weltman] and John [Hammond]. I feel very comfortable in saying Jeff, John and I worked well together and that we had a good relationship. This was more of what Jeff said when he talked about ‘alignment.’ That’s what it was about. Our goals did not align. I just didn’t want to spend another year …”
How that sentence was meant to end is speculation. But one would imagine it had something to do with losing and the team’s direction of heading younger into a long-term rebuild. Orlando did not take any time to dwell on Clifford’s exit, and immediately started to the process of finding his replacement.
That led them to Jamahl Mosley.
The Orlando Magic have not had an ideal offseason and there have been disappointments along the way. The team still has a strong opportunity to grow and a good place to begin building.
Make no mistake, Mosley has put his time in to be a head coach in the NBA. After starting out as a player developmental coach for the Denver Nuggets in 2005, he quickly transitioned as an assistant for the team in 2007. During the next 14 years, he would also have stints as an assistant for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks.
Throughout his coaching career, he has seen seven playoff appearances with his teams. It is worth noting those playoff teams never made it out of the first round besides the 2009 Nuggets, who made it to the Western Conference Finals.
But Mosley’s main job on those rosters was player development. He did not become defensive coordinator for Rick Carlisle’s Dallas Mavericks until 2018 — and the results there were less than ideal as the team remained in the bottom half of the league despite some glowing reviews getting something out of players not known for their defense.
Experience aside, Mosley’s name was not mentioned heavily at the beginning of the head coaching search. CBS Sports writer Sam Quinn wrote an article on June 5 detailing the five best candidates for the job. On his list were Terry Stotts, Jason Kidd, Jerry Stackhouse, Adrian Griffin and Pat Delaney.
Kidd met with the Magic for an interview but nothing became of the exchange — he ended up with the Mavericks. Stotts, Stackhouse and Griffin never got to the interview stage (at least according to anything publicly reported). Pat Delaney is already an assistant with the team.
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Magic fans seemed to agree upon universally the fact Kenny Atkinson would be the best candidate to replace Steve Clifford as head coach. The only problem was Atkinson never seemed to take an interest in the job and the Magic seemingly reciprocated that feeling. He was not interviewed nor did any reports say the team was pursuing him.
This could be seen as a massive issue.
Atkinson was one of the bigger names in the coaching carousel and Orlando should have been one of the first teams to talk to him. Actually hiring a head coach is a completely different situation than talking to him. When a coach does not even put his name in the hat it can reflect badly on the franchise.
In fairness, Atkinson may have looked at the Orlando situation the same way Clifford did. The sense was that if Clifford wanted to remain the head coach of the team, Orlando would have been happy to keep him.
Atkinson, like Clifford did with the Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic, had already built a rebuilding team into a playoff team. It seems likely Atkinson is hoping to get the chance to help a playoff team become a championship team in his next job.
Even as the coaching free agency pool thinned out, it felt like there were better candidates available, or at least some higher-profile ones at the time of Mosley’s hire. On our weekly coaching search power rankings, Mosley only rose the rankings as his candidacy got more serious.
In that defense, Mosley has been a career assistant. And outside of high profile assistant coaches on elite teams, they rarely get the praise for the work they do. He is a career grinder. And, with the Magic at the beginning of a rebuild, the range of candidates they could hire was likely somewhat limited.
It seemed destined the Magic were going to hire an assistant getting his first chance in the lead chair. With the team’s emphasis on player development for a roster that is so young — and likely to get younger — the candidates narrowed quickly.
While there has been nothing but praise from his peers, former players and people around the NBA, it is hard not to feel the Magic settled on Mosley. He was not the name that stood out at any point of the process.
Despite that, Mosley has endeared himself with some of the work and early media appearances he has made. Everyone has to give him the chance to coach the team.
But that “what if?” for better candidates is easy to creep in. Especially with so much uncertainty facing this team.
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Rebuilds are hard and they can eat up even successful coaches like Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons and New Orleans Pelicans.
Whoever the Magic hired would necessarily enter a difficult situation that would require stomaching at least one and maybe two seasons of losing as the roster gets rebuilt.
Still, the reality of the situation is the Magic job was desirable for many reasons. While they do not have an All-Star, they have a collection of talent to go along with two top-10 picks in this year’s draft.
There is no doubt Orlando had to move on from the core of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier. The group had run its course and the team was struggling to break through beyond a lower-run playoff seed. Everyone could see the group was not going to grow beyond that.
Playoff appearances can give an outward appearance of success (and make head coaches happy), but great franchises want meaningful playoff experiences that grow toward the ultimate goal of winning a championship. That is the direction Orlando seems to be working toward with their bold moves last season.
Despite Mosley likely not being the fans’ top choice, he will be given the opportunity to be successful and to build something special.
The top five players on the team are below 24 years old. For a coach known for player development, Mosley will have the chance to give them the fundamentals he feels necessary to build a winning culture before they hit their prime.
That is a situation few NBA coaches will ever have the chance to be a part of.
Markelle Fultz, R.J. Hampton and Wendell Carter have all had tumultuous starts to their career. Mosley will represent stability and a low pressure foundation needed to shape them into productive players for a Orlando franchise looking to raise its next leaders.
The Orlando Magic have a team ceiling higher than they have had since 2013 when they drafted Victor Oladipo second overall. Fans of the team should be ready for a rocky journey ahead but, more importantly, be excited by the prospect of what is on the horizon for years to come.