Clifford Recognized Early On 2018-19 Magic Had Winning Attitude

Clifford: "We had serious-minded, tough guys who wanted to win, and I knew that in September because they all came back"
by John Denton

ORLANDO – Long before the stirring late-season push, before the first trip to the playoffs in seven seasons and even before the many ebbs and flows and highs and lows of the NBA’s 82-game schedule, head coach Steve Clifford learned plenty about the makeup and potential of his Orlando Magic roster in voluntary workouts last September.

It was then the Clifford – a coaching veteran of 19 NBA seasons – knew he had something special with this Magic team. He never could have predicted how things would go during the season, but he said he was certain about the team’s commitment and will to win before an official game was ever played. As it turns out, Clifford said, those factors played major roles in all that the Magic accomplished in a 42-win season that ended in the playoffs for the franchise for the first time since 2012.

``We had serious-minded, tough guys who wanted to win, and I knew that in September because they all came back,’’ Clifford said of the team’s voluntary workouts held in Orlando in the weeks before training camp opened. ``They all gave up a month of their vacations, or whatever, to come back here so we could start to build a way to play. You just don’t get that much in this league.

``When you have a commitment like that by guys who are at the top of their craft and make the money that they make, I knew then that we had a serious-minded team,’’ Clifford continued. ``And it’s like anything else, when you put a lot into what you do, you’re more likely to fight when things don’t go your way. I think it was all set up by them coming back in September.’’

With those memories in mind, Clifford and the Magic are hoping the team will be able to use the upcoming offseason to build off the recently completed feel-good season and once again make major strides. Orlando’s run to the postseason took something of a hit with a 4-1 series loss in the playoffs to the veteran-laden Toronto Raptors, but on Thursday – when players cleaned out their lockers and held exit interviews with front-office staff members – the Magic vowed that the bitter feelings from the playoffs will drive them all throughout the summer and into next season.

``I think we exceeded expectations, and that’s good, but it’s all about winning playoff series, so it’s a disappointing day that we don’t get to come in here and practice and get better,’’ said Aaron Gordon, who admitted that he was severely limited in Tuesday’s Game 5 loss in Toronto because of a sore right shoulder. ``It’s not the end – we’ll take a month off and then it’s right back to work.

``I feel like we learned how to win, and that was one of the things that had been lacking here – a culture, a know-how and a standard,’’ Gordon added. ``Coach (Clifford) did a great job of bringing that back and instilling it in us and teaching us what it means to win. And our guys did a great job of responding and coming out with tremendous fight.’’

Orlando’s offseason – and its ability to build upon the successes of the past season – will likely be determined by free agency that could greatly affect the team’s veteran core. Also of great importance is the Magic’s ability to manufacture internal growth among the franchise’s many promising, young players.

Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, the Magic’s two most productive players this past season, will be unrestricted free agents on July 1 and their returns could be critical in the Magic becoming a perennial playoff powerhouse. Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said on Thursday that bringing Vucevic and Ross back are key priorities, but those things can’t be guaranteed because of the unrestricted nature of their free agencies.

``Bringing Vooch back is a priority, but with that being said Vooch is going to have a lot of teams that will make him a priority for them, too. We’ll meet with his representatives at the appropriate time,’’ said Weltman, who noted that Vucevic is represented by Bill Duffy, who also is the agent for Magic forward Aaron Gordon. ``Hopefully we can get something done (with Vucevic and Ross). It’s the NBA, and as I always say, `There’s a lot of real estate between the intentions and what gets done.’ But, yeah, it is a priority.’’

Vucevic, a member of the Magic for seven seasons and an all-star this year for the first time in his pro career, posted career highs in scoring (20.8), rebounding (12), assists (3.8), double-doubles (60) and 3-pointers made (84). However, Vucevic slumped badly in five playoff games (11.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists on 36.2 percent shooting) while facing Toronto standout center Marc Gasol.

``Everybody knows that I’ve had a great seven years here, but at the same time we’ll see what happens,’’ Vucevic said. ``It’s a mutual decision; it’s not just me; they have to decide what they want to do, and based on that, we’ll go from there.

``I’m proud I was able to really put that (free agency question) aside, not think about it and it not be a distraction for me,’’ Vucevic added. ``That was very important for me because I didn’t want it to bother me while I played. Even now, it’s too early (to discuss free agency) because I have no influence – I wish I did; I wish I knew what was going to happen and I had a contract in hand, and it would be all over right now. But, as it gets closer to (the free-agency courting period), I’ll know more. But right now, I can’t give (media and fans) answers.’’

Similar to Vucevic’s production in the regular season, Ross had his finest year as a professional, averaging career highs in points (15.1) and rebounds (3.5) while shooting 42.8 percent from the floor and 38.3 percent from 3-point range. He became the first player in NBA history to make at least 200 3-pointers (217) while never starting a game. Ross said he takes great pride in bouncing back from a poor 2017-18 season that was cut short by a knee injury. His comeback was emblematic of a Magic team that had 11 comeback wins when trailing after three periods – the second-best total in the NBA.

``It feels great. I had a long offseason and to get back and back into my old groove and back into what I love to do was amazing,’’ Ross said. ``No matter how dark it got during the season we found a way to keep pushing, believing in each other, keeping the trust and making sure that we played the right way. It was tough and it took a lot out of everybody, but the result was worth it.’’

As much as the Magic will be hoping to keep their veteran core together, they also have a lot riding on the growth of young players such as Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz and Wes Iwundu. Following a rookie season marred by ankle injuries, Isaac made huge leaps in terms of growing his game and strengthening his rail-thin body. His ability to make shots and be a long-armed, shot-blocking threat defensively was a major key in the Magic’s late-season run.

Prior to the season, many of the Magic’s players called Isaac’s development an ``X-factor’’ on the team. He was happy that he was able to come through in that role for the good of the team.

``This year was so much fun for me, and it was great to hear those guys say that at the beginning of the year and then be in a position (to do something about it) being healthy,’’ said Isaac, who scored in double digits 37 times and had double-digit rebounds four times while averaging 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.31 blocks in 75 games. ``In terms of me looking toward the future, I’m excited about it. It’s exactly what I’ve asked for and wanted – to become a pivotal player for a franchise who helps them win games late. I’m excited about this summer and I’m excited about becoming the player I feel myself growing into.’’

As for Bamba and Fultz, there is less certainty because of how their seasons in Orlando ended. Bamba’s rookie season was limited to 47 games because of a stress fracture in his left tibia, but he’s stayed involved with the team by submitting scouting reports on other centers to Clifford and assistant coach Mike Batiste. Fultz, who was acquired on Feb. 7 in a trade deadline transaction, is hopeful he can regain the skills that made him the first overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He played 19 games with the Philadelphia 76ers earlier in the season, but he’s only worked out informally in recent months since being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder.

``(The media) know that I was excited on trade deadline day; I can only say that I am much more excited now having gotten to know Markelle as a person, who he is a worker and who he is as a teammate,’’ Weltman gushed. ``He’s another guy whose timetable will not be rushed. He continues to rehab his injury and recondition. He’s a very hard worker and I think he’s gained tremendously from being around our team the last month to month-and-a-half. Not only from attaching himself to the team – which I thought was important – but understanding the perspective of Steve Clifford and the coaching staff, what matters to them and how they like to do things and how that relates to winning. These are very important things that I felt like if he wasn’t able to witness these things and be a part of these things, it would have set him back considerably. So, I’m really pleased that Markelle has bought in, worked hard, attached himself to the group and he’s put himself in a position where all this work means something.’’

As for Bamba, he knows the time between a player’s first and second seasons is when they often make their biggest strides. He’s already back working on the basketball court and he hopes to use this summer to grow his game.

``This summer is big, and I think everybody in the organization knows how big the summer is going to be as far as development, and I’m looking forward to it,’’ Bamba said. ``I’m back on the court shooting jump shots. I’m definitely further along than I thought I’d be. It feels good to be out there and do basketball things again.’’

Ross was one of the Magic’s leaders in getting the team together for workouts in September prior to training camp. He worked at the Magic’s headquarters most of last summer, sometimes putting a seal on the rim that would make his shooting target even smaller. At other times, Ross would bring his infant son along, blast music from the loudspeakers and just shoot to regain his feel for making shots off the dribble.

Like Clifford, Ross said he too could get a sense last September that the Magic were serious about turning their season around. The fact that the entire team showed up for voluntary workouts, Ross said, showed the squad’s will to win.

``We all just kind of looked at (the September workouts) as a fresh start and with all of that work, we just looked at it as us getting right, and coming in (to the season) with a clear mind really helped,’’ Ross said. ``It was an up-and-down season, but it was all worth it.’’

Orlando showed flashes of potential from the very start of the season when it whipped the rival Miami Heat on opening night. However, the Magic struggled with consistency much of the first four months of the season before inexplicably changing the course of the season on Jan. 31. Once 20-31, the Magic went 22-9 down the stretch to secure the franchise’s first playoff berth in seven seasons. During that 31-game run – which was the third-best mark in the NBA – the Magic had the league’s best defensive efficiency and they won 13 of 14 home games.

The challenge going forward for the Magic, Clifford said, is for them to be the team they were over the final six weeks and not the one that was so up and down over the 20-31 start.

``To be 20-31 and I told them, I never left the building ever where I felt the group was going to quit or the group wasn’t going to keep working hard to win,’’ Clifford said. ``It says a lot about them, their attitude and their approach. There’s nothing more important than making progress. This whole thing is about figuring out a way your team can win, and we actually did that early in the year. When things go badly, handling disappointment and when things go well, handling success. And being able to come in every day and working toward getting better, and that’s something this group did well.’’

The next step, of course, is getting enough external improvement through the draft, free agency and trades and via internal development, so that the Magic can become the kind of team that can do some damage in the playoffs. For the first time in four years, the Magic won’t be making a change at the head coach and/or President of Basketball Operations/General Manager positions. That continuity should help the team carry over the momentum it built up into the summer and through next season, Weltman said. Everything the Magic do from this point forward, Weltman said, is all about carrying the good vibes of this season into next season.

``We saw our team the team come together, and we became one of those teams that other teams didn’t want to play against,’’ Weltman said. ``But those things, you can’t just take them for granted that they just show up next season and you have to work over the summer to keep those threads aligned properly, keep our guys together and keep them working and hopefully you bring that momentum into next season. That’s where we are right now.

``We’re at a stage right now where we have a lot of issues to address this summer, but to me, nothing is more important than establishing what an Orlando Magic summer means,’’ Weltman added. ``We’ve got a lot of new faces and it’s important that we establish that going forward. … Internal improvement has to be a big part of what we’re doing. We have too many quality young players to ever say that can’t be a big part of how we get better. Whether (Vucevic) and (Ross) come back or not, that (player development) is a very important part of our future growth.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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