Fournier, Teammates Trust Clifford, Believe New Coach Has Right Approach

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier is in the midst of his seventh NBA season and, oddly enough, this is the sixth time that he’s had to get used to playing for a new head coach.

This season’s transition, however, has been much smoother and more drama-free than any other that Fournier has gone through, he said candidly, for one reason: Because of the blunt, no-nonsense nature of new Magic coach Steve Clifford.

``It’s easy on us players when things are very clear,’’ Fournier said. ``When Coach (Clifford) wants `blue’ and you do `red,’ then you (messed) up and that’s on you. He makes things easy by knowing his stuff very well. And when you have a question, the answer is simple and it’s very efficient. There’s no in-between and no gray area and that makes a huge difference for us.’’

As the Magic (2-2) head into Friday’s preseason-finale against the San Antonio Spurs (2-2) at the Amway Center (7 p.m. tipoff, no TV), it’s become quite obvious that Orlando has gelled quickly as a team and has made strides with each game played. Clifford, a coaching lifer who is certainly no stranger to the hurdles that often trip up teams getting used to new coaching staffs, has worked hard to bring disciple, accountability and familiarity to the Magic.

An assistant coach in Orlando from 2007-12 and head coach of the Charlotte Hornets the previous five seasons, Clifford went to work not long after being hired by the Magic in late May on building relationships with players. Sometimes, he simply met with them in his office as he did with veteran point guard D.J. Augustin. Sometimes, he took players out to dinner in Orlando, as he did when he broke bread at Christner’s steakhouse with Jonathan Isaac and others. And sometimes he even flew across the country to attend workouts and have various skull sessions with forward Aaron Gordon.

All of that work seems to be paying big dividends thus far for a Magic team filled with hope. Of course, the games played so far don’t count in the official standings and the team has yet to endure a rash of injuries or a trying losing streak, but Clifford has been pleased with how the Magic have handled all the newness thus far. Like any coach, Clifford can find plenty of areas where his team still needs major improvements, but he’s still happy with where the Magic stand less than a week prior to the start to the Wednesday night regular-season opener against the rival Miami Heat.

``I’m actually really happy,’’ Clifford said. ``(Wednesday) night, we played a lot better and every game we’ve played, we’ve been better. (Wednesday) night was a lot better than Monday (in Miami) and Monday we did a lot of good things, too. So, I feel like we can get there. … It’s the same thing (throughout the NBA) – you’ve got to get better every day because that’s what this league is all about. I feel like we’re doing that.’’

Clifford’s prior experience in Orlando came during some of the franchise’s glory days. With him working under former head coach Stan Van Gundy and coaching a star-studded roster that included Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, the Magic made the playoffs five straight times from 2007-12 and reached the 2009 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.

That coaching staff, that included Clifford, was let go in 2012 and the franchise has since fallen on hard times. Orlando has missed the playoffs in each of the past six seasons – the longest postseason drought in franchise history. In many of the past six seasons, the Magic have been out of the playoff chase before the All-Star Game, and Clifford has heard pleas from many of the players about how they desperately want to turn around the franchise’s fortunes.

``I sense it that guys are hungry to win,’’ Clifford said. ``I think they showed that by coming back in September (for optional workouts) and by the way they’re working in training camp. I think our attitude has been good, but all that does in this league is give you a chance. At the end of the day, it comes down to this: Are you willing to work? Can we handle frustration? Can we handle disappointment? Can we handle success? All those things have to happen because if you don’t have that right spirit, togetherness and mindset to do that you will be like a lot of teams that have great wins and bad losses and you look back and you’re disappointed. That’s why a team’s approach is everything.’’

Fournier, who has openly talked about wanting to be more of a leader this season for the Magic, has taken Clifford’s messages to heart and he said he sees a difference in the mindset of this season’s squad. Still, he said there are still plenty of ``bad habits’’ that the Magic must work their way through so that they are tougher and more together when/if bad times hit.

``Not being disciplined, for example,’’ said Fournier, who played for George Karl and Brian Shaw in Denver in his first two NBA seasons and Jacque Vaughn, James Borrego, Scott Skiles, Frank Vogel and Clifford in five seasons in Orlando. ``If you have a coverage and you don’t do the coverage, it’s (always) because `something happened’ or `I was late’ or making excuses for not being there when, really, you just made a mistake. Coach (Clifford) is going to tell you about that mistake and say what you need to do better.’’

From simply talking to fans around the community and at Magic events, Clifford knows there’s an urgency and hunger for the franchise to get back into the playoffs. That’s all well and good, he said, but most coaches like himself don’t even consider the postseason until the regular season is 40-to-50 games complete. Then, and only then, will Clifford even contemplate such an idea.

Confidently, however, he said there is no reason at all that the Magic can’t put together a season-long march that should at least keep the team in the chase until mid-April. In veterans Nikola Vucevic, Jonathon Simmons, Jerian Grant, Fournier, Gordon and Augustin and promising young players Mohamed Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, Wes Iwundu and Melvin Gordon Jr., Clifford believes the Magic have enough talent, experience and character to potentially do something special.

``I think that’s the way that you should think,’’ Clifford said, referring to the thought of using the playoffs as a goal for the season. ``The bigger thing is that we’re thinking the right way, which right now is about having a good training camp and that will put us in the best shape to start the season.

``We’ve got a difficult early-season schedule, but I don’t see why we can be a playoff-contending team,’’ Clifford said confidently. ``The biggest thing is, again, how do you get there? What’s the work part have to be like? In this league, and this is going to sound simple, but you’ve got to play well. That’s what you have to do. It’s not what you talked about. You’ve got to have a way to play as a group that makes sense and then you’ve got to go out and do it 82 times.’’

The mere mention of postseason aspirations has to be music to the ears of veterans such as Vucevic and Fournier. They are the Magic’s two longest-tenured players are they are eager to see things finally turn around this season. Both feel, without hesitation, that Clifford is the right coach who could finally satiate the Magic’s desires to be in a playoff chase again.

``We’re starving,’’ Fournier said with conviction. ``If we were happy with everything, that would be a problem. I was lucky with Denver in my rookie year to win a lot of games and go to the playoffs, but guys like (Aaron Gordon) and (Jonathan) Isaac – they’ve never seen the playoffs. As a group, we are really hungry, and we want to get (to the playoffs). We’re just really tired of, basically, ending our season by January. It’s an awful feeling and we want to be competitive and respected.’’

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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