The Orlando Magic needed direction and a foundation. Steve Clifford promised to build that and accomplished that goal in delivering the team to the playoffs.
The team had a clear-cut star in Kemba Walker that always kept them competitive. But the team never seemed to transcend its talent. Not since that first breakthrough year. The Hornets had back-to-back disappointing 36-win seasons.
And with just two playoff appearances in five years with Clifford at the helm, there was a reason for skepticism.
At the least, it felt like Steve Clifford was a lateral move from Frank Vogel, a coach who was given the worst hand possible in two years as the head man for the Magic. And again, those criticism were vital.
Except Clifford had very direct promises and goals for his team at the beginning of the season. Nothing as concrete as making the playoffs, but more about foundational items that would lead to that ultimate result.
As president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said at Steve Clifford’s introductory press conference, Clifford’s teams were characterized by their discipline. They were not going to beat themselves. Opponents described them as difficult to play.
Clifford himself promised very little in the form of specifics. He believed they were a playoff team but that was never his goal. He said the team would be better in February than they were in December. And better in April than they were in February.
That constant improvement and understanding was the foundation for everything else the team would build.
This was what Clifford did for the Hornets. Magic fans may have wanted a home-run hire or some flashy name but the Magic wanted someone who would get down and do the work to build a foundation.
Consider it built.
By every measure, Orlando’s season was a success. The team won 42 games, won the Southeast Division and clinched a playoff berth. The team had its breakthrough.
The players deserve the credit for putting the work in and changing things themselves. But they all gave credit to Clifford for the encouragement and preparation he gave them. Orlando owes much of its playoff run to Clifford and his presence on the team.
The stats bear it out as much as the statistics.
Orlando has long tried to create a team with a defensive identity. It felt impossible for the Magic to have a top-10 defense with Nikola Vucevic anchoring the team. So many had already given up on that.
But the Magic finished eighth in the league in defensive rating, giving up 107.5 points per 100 possessions for the year. The Magic upped that defensive ante in the final 30 games of the season, turning around from 20-31 to 42-40.
That 22-9 run over the final 31 games was a whirlwind as the team began playing like one of the best teams in the league, picking off several major teams in the process.
There were plenty of moments where it seemed like the team would break. That inexperience in the moment and the pressure of real games would get to them. Yet they responded every time. And responded positively. They delivered.
Clifford did plenty to instill that belief in his team. They did get better as the year progressed. He delivered on that promise too.
This was all to build a foundation for the team moving forward. Clifford made it clear early in the season he was going to hold players accountable.
From the first few games, he publicly chewed out Aaron Gordon for overdribbling into an iso play. He would go into press conferences and before taking any questions and call out the team for their effort and even the media for claiming some kind of moral victory.
These early calls were important in getting the team to believe in their potential and change habits. This was just as important as everything else.
Clifford always believed the team had playoff talent and held them to that standard through the early parts of the season when it still seemed like a pipe dream. He refused to accept the team’s history or old habits.
The whole franchise should be thankful for that.
There were some issues, of course. Clifford was far from perfect.
After all, the team still had a bottom-10 defense, never fully reaching his thought of being a top-half offense to get to the playoffs. That did not happen until late in the season.
And, perhaps, Clifford stuck to rotations a bit too long.
The season turned when he finally removed Jerian Grant from the rotation to play Isaiah Briscoe. And then it turned again when Mohamed Bamba got hurt and Khem Birch brought his consistency into the rotation.
Both those decisions were somewhat defensible even if it was obvious the old rotations were hurting the Magic’s bottom line and win totals. Isaiah Briscoe was not quite ready to step into the rotation yet. Clifford was not going to throw out a strange lineup without testing it.
In Mohamed Bamba’s case, the rookie needed to play through his mistakes. He was not helping the team, but he was starting to turn a corner and play with more discipline and consistency before his injury. Who knows what would have happened if he could have finished the season, one way or the other.
These are all small items to nitpick about Clifford. No one will complain about these in the long run and the right rotation decision was made in the end.
Everything Clifford touched turned to gold this year. He was the perfect coach for the team to take this important step.
The Magic hired Clifford to help them accomplish the biggest goal of 2019: to reclaim legitimacy in the franchise.
It is safe to say that was mission accomplished. The team made their push to make the playoffs and proved their group can win at a basic level. The Magic can grow their young players, get better as the season progresses and win when it matters.
They showed up for Game 1 of the playoffs and delivered an incredible moment for their fans on a national stage and forced the Toronto Raptors to attention.
If anything, the way that series played out caused the whole playoff appearance to be disappointing. Clifford said he thought the team would make it tougher on the Raptors and there was a foul taste in everyone’s mouths for falling in four-straight games the way they did.
Orlando was not simply happy to be in the playoffs. They were disappointed with their performance on that stage. That is a huge culture change for the group. They had their best season in seven years and were somehow still disappointed. And Clifford’s inability to free up the Magic’s players in that playoff series deserves some criticism — probably more than anyone has given.
Clifford deserves a lot of credit for helping push this team to a new level and making them believe in themselves in a new way. He job was to lay the foundation for the future of this team and now that foundation was laid.
There is no other way to describe this season than a success and Clifford’s first year as a success.
But now comes the tough part. The part that Clifford struggled to accomplish in his time with Charlotte.
The Magic have to get back to the playoffs and start making noise there. They cannot be satisfied just bouncing in and out of the first round and the playoffs. They have to want more and develop into more.
This is not all on Clifford. The players hold their responsibility to get better and management has to supplement the roster with complementary players. The work is far from over.
But Clifford will have to keep building upon the foundation he built.
At least that is a better problem to have than figuring out where to start. Orlando has their base to build upon now.
Published at Fri, 24 May 2019 16:32:28 +0000