Former Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford was a meticulous planner.
The benefit — and perhaps the limit — of hiring him as a coach was he focused wholly on a few basic principles.
Clifford’s style focused on limiting turnovers, playing a precisely tuned offense with a defense set to basic principles and rules. He gave detailed game plans and prepared for each opponent with an immense amount of detail.
He did not have to focus too much on his team because he spent training camp drilling the basics. And his team was full of veterans who could understand and execute these things quickly.
The Magic were spoiled by this in a lot of ways. His focus on every minute detail filtered down to the players (at least the ones Clifford trusted enough to play). The team had a keen understanding of what they were trying to do. Their roles were clearly defined and structured in this system. Everyone fell into place.
Two games into the Magic’s 2022 season, all the things that helped give the Magic a basis for success the last two years have been difficult to see. Some of that is certainly this team’s extreme youth — no one in the Magic’s starting lineup so far is older than 25 years old. There is a lot of learning on how to play NBA basketball.
But coach Jamahl Mosley’s focus on effort and winning plays has fallen short. The team simply looks disorganized. They look lost in scrambling out to shooters and defending in the paint. They look flustered by pressure defense. There seems to be very little intention with how they are trying to play.
The Orlando Magic are struggling to find their balance early in the season. The new and young team has looked disorganized in their execution.
There are a lot of things to clean up after a 123-97 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the opener followed by a 121-96 loss to the New York Knicks on Friday.
But those two blowout losses are both a sign of how depleted the Magic already are to injury but also how much work they have to do to function at a basic level.
"“We got spread out too much tonight,” Mosley said after Friday’s loss. “I’m going to have to go back and look at the film and see where the details of it were because they space the floor so well. Early on, they were making that extra pass and knocking shots down.”"
Orlando can point to some positive “bell-ringing” plays or a strong run in the second half on Friday as signs things can move in the right direction. But the team has had time to prepare for these games and when teams ratcheted up the pressure, the Magic have not looked ready to play.
The Knicks made a franchise-record 24 3-pointers in Friday’s game. They hit seven in the first quarter alone. The Spurs, in Wednesday’s game, made 13 3-pointers for the game but hit five in a critical third quarter that saw them expand their lead past 30 points.
Defending the 3-point line was a struggle even in the preseason. The Magic dug into the paint too much and would often leave shooters open as they scrambled. But this was also about poor transition defense. Defense where the Magic were not communicating who had the ball and who was fanning out to the 3-point line.
The team struggled to navigate screens, often dropping too deep and going under, leaving walk-up 3-pointers to strong shooters like Kemba Walker.
These are basic organizing principles.
Either the coach has not reviewed these situations well enough or the team is failing to execute and recognize when these situations arise. Either way, that is not a strong look for the Magic’s rookie coach. These are things every team needs to be prepared for and have to execute.
Details that matter
These are the details that matter when a team is trying to build toward winning. It matters as much as the hustle plays the Orlando Magic have tried to emphasize and the winning plays that matter.
The team needs some organization.
"“We know we’re young. We know we’re going to get our medicine if you know what I mean,” Mo Bamba said after Friday’s game. “We know we’re young. we know we want to build off of something like this. We want to turn these Ls into lessons and build something off them.”"
Bamba said the team often made “juvenile mistakes” defensively, losing track of shooters and not knowing personnel. He mentioned twice that the big adjustment the team needs to make defensively in Sunday’s rematch at Madison Square Garden is knowing personnel better.
Offensively, the team continues to struggle to move the ball consistently. The offense has looked disjointed as the team struggles to play under pressure and execute when the play breaks down. This was again a point Mosley made throughout the preseason.
But too often too, the Magic look like they are freelancing. That is part of the freedom Jamahl Mosley wants to give his guards. But considering how inexperienced the group is, that has led to some terrible results. The ball sticks with one player and the Magic isolate too much late in the shot clock, especially when plays break down.
The guards are not getting good separation or making good decisions when they get downhill. The Magic tallied only 17 assists on 35 field goals in Wednesday’s opener and 24 assists on 33 field goals in Friday’s game. The Magic are 25th in the league in screen assists (11.0 per game) and have totaled just two secondary assists in their two games.
That is not the ball movement the team needs and suggests both how quickly the Magic have abandoned whatever sets they are trying to run and how much they have struggled to setup and get organized, understanding where teammates are and should be.
That is what detail is all about.
"“We have to understand the ball has energy,” Mosley said after Friday’s game. “The ball moving and everyone being able to touch the basketball is very big for us. I think we were attempting to make that happen but when shots don’t fall it takes a little bit out of you. We have to hang our hats on the defensive end and then getting out to run so everyone feels a part."
Focus on the score
Steve Clifford may not have been the right coach for an extremely young team. Clifford certainly did not have the patience to go through a rebuild at this stage of his career — he has been a master at turning veteran struggling rosters into first-time playoff teams, but has hardly had a roster capable of getting out of the first round.
The Magic had to turn in a new direction. And finding a coach with that meticulous detail who will go through the pains of a rebuild is difficult.
A lot of rebuilds fail simply because quality coaches do not want to commit to the lengths of a rebuild and even good coaches can struggle to get young teams focused on the right things.
In that sense, maybe Mosley’s insistence on emphasizing the team’s “bell plays” is building these very foundational pieces of who the team is trying to be. Maybe slowly those pieces will build together to create something better.
But it is also clear the team and the players are (rightly) focused on the score. And they are searching for a way to succeed both with their hustle and effort and in the final score.
"“We’ve got to go out and hit first,” Mo Bamba said after Friday’s game. “We can’t be a team that goes out there and lays down. We’ve got to stick it to them.”"
Orlando will continue to emphasize these hustle plays. That part is not and should not change. That has to be the team’s identity.
But the Magic clearly need to get the details down too. They need to be more in tune with their gameplan and the things they want to execute.
Until then, they can hustle all they want, but they are still going to find themselves struggling and frustrated.