ORLANDO – In his 19 years of working as an assistant coach and head coach at the NBA level, Steve Clifford has developed quite a reputation as a defensive guru – something he proved once again last season while greatly improving the Orlando Magic’s play on that end of the floor.
So, considering Clifford’s reputation, it’s pretty easy to understand why the veteran coach considers defensive-minded guard Michael Carter-Williams to be one of the favorite players he’s ever worked with.
When it comes the versatile, game-changing defensive skills of the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Carter, Clifford is downright effusive with his praise.
``He’s been our best defender,’’ Clifford said of Carter-Williams’ play this preseason for the 3-0 Magic. ``He’s been disruptive, he contains the ball and he’s an elite-level defender. He can guard primary players and he’s one of the few guys that I’ve ever seen that can both guard the ball without getting beat and steal it. And at this level that’s very rare. He’s got size and he can guard different people, so I want to find ways to use him.’’
Clifford is such a believer in the 27-year-old Carter-Williams’ abilities as a defender that he’s experimenting with playing him at shooting guard and small forward this preseason. The thinking with the position shift is that it allows the Magic to play blossoming third-year pro Markelle Fultz more at point guard and it gives the Magic another defensive weapon while having Carter-Williams hound high-scoring wing players from opposing teams.
Carter-Williams, who was out of the NBA for a stretch last season and playing pick-up basketball at community fitness gym in Los Angeles, is all for doing whatever he can to help the Magic be successful and to get himself more time on the court.
``I’m a little used to (guarding shooting guards and small forwards) because I was in a few switching groups when I was (playing) in Milwaukee,’’ said Carter-Williams, who started at shooting guard on Wednesday in the Magic’s 97-88 defeat of the Hawks in Atlanta. ``It is a little different guarding people running off screens instead of off the dribble, and it’ll take some time, but I’m confident that I’ll be OK.’’
Orlando, which will make its Amway Center debut against the Boston Celtics on Friday (7 p.m., Magic Radio Network), has flexed its considerable defensive muscles already this preseason. In defeats of the Spurs, Pistons and Hawks – making the Magic the NBA’s lone 3-0 team in the preseason – they have held the opposition to 35.4 percent shooting (third in the NBA) and 30.5 percent from 3-point range (12th), while forcing 23.7 turnovers (10th), swiping 14 steals a game (third), blocking 6.3 shots (ninth) and limiting foes to 32 paint points a game (tied for fourth). Overall, the Magic’s defensive rating of 85.1 points per 100 possessions ranks second in the league.
While preseason success can often be difficult to gauge because of the quality of competition, those numbers fall in line with how the Magic ended last season. While crafting a stirring 22-9 run that got them to the playoffs, Orlando had the NBA’s most suffocating defense over that stretch (104.9 points per 100 possessions).
It’s no coincidence that much of the Magic’s defensive success late last season lined up with the addition of Carter-Williams, who supplanted the struggling Jerian Grant and breathed life into Orlando’s second unit over the final 12 games of the regular season.
Magic GM John Hammond worked with Carter-Williams while the two were together in Milwaukee, and Clifford was impressed with the versatile point guard during their half-season together in Charlotte in 2017-18. Both knew of Carter-Williams’ professionalism and ability to wreck opposing offenses, and his addition greatly helped the Magic reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
His success – he averaged 5.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.92 steals and 0.75 blocks in his 12 regular-season games – made it a no-brainer for the Magic to bring him back in free agency in July. Finding happiness and place to call home in Orlando greatly delighted Carter-Williams, who is now the father of a one-year-old child.
``As soon as the season ended, I knew I wanted to come back (to Orlando) because I was around a great group of guys and Coach (Clifford) was great,’’ Carter-Williams said. ``Obviously, I came on a little late, but the competitive spirit, unselfishness and willing to win is great (among the Magic’s players) and that’s what you always look for. So, I’m happy to be back and it was a pretty easy decision for me.’’
The decision to move Carter-Williams to shooting guard might not have been as easy considering the success that he’s had at point guard through the years. But the Magic put plenty of planning and thought in it, having Carter-Williams work all summer on growing his body to better prepare himself for bulkier checking wings instead of just point guards.
Again, Clifford has been impressed with the seriousness that Carter-Williams took to doing everything that he could to ready himself for the switch.
``He looks great. He’s put on, I think, like 13 or 14 pounds and his body fat is, (Magic High Performance Director) Dave (Tenney) said, exactly the same. He worked hard on his shooting. And he’s played very well in the minutes he’s been given.’’
Carter-Williams said he feels totally comfortable with the added bulk and muscle definition – something that fellow shooting guard Evan Fournier poked fun at on Wednesday night after his teammate stuffed the stat sheet with five points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and a blocked shot. He feels the added bulk will make him a better finisher at the rim and stronger as the NBA’s marathon-like season wears on.
``That was big for me over the summer – getting stronger and putting on some muscle so that I can guard multiple positions,’’ Carter-Williams said. ``I feel like it’s really helped me, and my conditioning is the same. It was definitely a plus for me.’’
With blossoming forwards Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon along the frontline with 7-footer Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s defense is loaded with expansive length and wingspan. Add in Al-Farouq Aminu, Terrence Ross, Fournier, Fultz and Carter-Williams and the Magic have the potential to be the tallest team in the NBA this season. Carter-Williams feels that the Magic can be the NBA’s most dominant defense over a full season – something that assuredly will make his defensive guru of a head coach happy.
``I think our size, for one, helps, our ability to play the pick-and-roll is another and we just have guys who stay in front of the ball,’’ Carter-Williams said of his team’s defensive strengths. ``Defensively, last year over those last 25-to-30 games we were pretty good, if not the best in the league. We look back at that and sustain what we did on defense, I think we can be pretty good this season.’’
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