Orlando Magic Name Steve Clifford Head Coach

by John Denton

ORLANDO -- Drawing from one of its most successful stretches in franchise history, the Orlando Magic have hired Steve Clifford – formerly an Orlando assistant coach from 2007-12 – as their new head coach.

Clifford, 56, takes over a Magic franchise that has been outside of the playoffs since 2012. Clifford was an assistant coach on that 2012 Magic team, working under then-head coach Stan Van Gundy. Clifford also worked in Orlando when the Magic reached the 2009 NBA Finals, the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, won three division titles and reached the playoffs five times.

``I don’t think you ever put a limit on a team and while I think I know some of these guys well, I’m no expert on our roster,’’ Clifford said, referring to how long he expects it to take to turn the Magic into winners again. ``That’s for these next few weeks and coming up with a team game that will bring out the best strengths of our players. We’ve got to establish a way to be good on offense and defense.

``Those are the decisions that will be made in the coming weeks, but I know this: You don’t put limits on a team,’’ Clifford added. ``Hopefully, we’ll come out and we’ll play early. But, as Jeff said, we need to build the right foundation and start from scratch. That’s what this league is about.’’

The Magic have been without a head coach since April 12 when they fired Frank Vogel following a 25-57 record. Clifford will be Orlando’s fifth head coach since 2012, following Jacque Vaughn, James Borrego, Scott Skiles and Vogel.

``This is our fifth coach in seven years and it’s very important that we start to establish our identity and create a through line and be able to build on something that doesn’t get turned over every season,’’ Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. ``That was a big part of what we were looking for as we went into this search – someone we felt we could build with and would have a long life philosophically and organizationally with the team.’’

Clifford was the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets for the previous five seasons. He guided Charlotte to a 43-39 record in 2013-14 – a 22-win improvement over the previous season that got the franchise back into the playoffs for the first time in three years. In five years in Charlotte, Clifford’s teams reached the postseason twice and had a 196-214 record.

Clifford interviewed with Weltman and Magic GM John Hammond two weeks ago in Chicago at the NBA Scouting Combine and again last week. Clifford then travelled with Weltman and Hammond to Grand Rapids, Mich., earlier this week to meet with the DeVos family, long-time owners of the Magic. Weltman said the Magic went through an exhaustive process of finding the right coach, interviewing several coaches from differing backgrounds, before determining that Clifford was the ideal fit for the organization.

``Very few times do you encounter a process where you as a team get to control and this is perhaps the most important thing you do in hiring a coach,’’ Weltman stressed. ``We were making a hugely important decision for our organization, and we wanted it to be the right one. … As we came through the process and we’re at the end, I’m thrilled with the result. We took a deliberate approach interviewing people of interest. There’s no reason to rush this and let’s get it right.’’

Clifford pronounced himself fully recovered late this past season following a serious health scare. He was forced to step away from his job as Charlotte head coach from Dec. 4 to Jan. 17 because of a series of severe headaches caused by fatigue and sleep deprivation. Clifford said the time off and the help of various doctors taught him the differences he needed to make both personally and professionally to better his health. A grinder much of his 35-year coaching career at the pro, collegiate and high school levels, Clifford has learned that working smarter beats working longer and harder.

``It’s impacted me a great deal and I told the doctors, `I know I have to do my job differently’ and the neurologists line was, `No, you have to live differently,’’’ Clifford said. ``As you get older your body can’t function without necessary sleep. I sleep now … and what I’m trying to train my body to do is to sleep more. I’m up to now where I can sleep to almost six hours straight, which is a long way from where I was a few weeks ago. I feel much, much better.

``The one thing I would say is that as you get older, you have to listen to your body and you have to use the doctors,’’ Clifford said. ``Modern medicine is a great thing if you use it. That’s what I’ve learned.’’

In Orlando, Clifford will assume a Magic team that he should be quite familiar with after facing it four times a season in Southeast Division play. Clifford’s Hornets beat the Magic all four times this past season and have whipped Orlando in each of the last 11 meetings over three seasons.

``It’s very unique that you get to find someone who is philosophically aligned with you, someone who is multi-skilled and has a proven track record,’’ Weltman said of Clifford. ``I’m not betting on something that I don’t know. Steve Clifford has proven himself to be an elite-level NBA coach in addition to having great personal skills. He hit all the organizational bullet points that we hoped to address.’’

The Magic have a solid core in place what with veterans Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Bismack Biyombo, Jonathon Simmons, D.J. Augustin and Terrence Ross under contract. Forwards Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja will be free agents, but the Magic have the right to match any contract offer and retain Gordon. Jonathan Isaac is filled with promise despite an injury-marred rookie season and has been working all offseason to add muscle and bulk to his rail-thin 6-foot-11 frame. Also, the Magic have the No. 6 overall pick and two second-round selections in the June 21st NBA Draft with which to further fortify their roster.

``I’m excited to get to know him and talk to him and see what he thinks about this team and what we can do to improve,’’ said Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic. ``He’s a proven coach and he’s done a great job. Charlotte has had some years where they also had some injuries, but his knowledge of basketball is really high, and I think he can take us to the next level.’’

Added Isaac, who attended Clifford’s introductory news conference: ``He’s obviously a great coach in being able to turn around the Hornets the way that he has, and I love his talk about being thorough and starting from scratch, so I’m excited. He knows what he’s doing, he’s capable and I’m just excited to see where he wants me and things like that.’’

The Magic’s existing core unit has struggled to make much progress in recent years, largely because of its woes on the defensive end. Clifford is known as something of a defensive guru and will undoubtedly affix his focus on trying to quickly improve Orlando’s sagging defense.

Clifford’s 2015-16 Charlotte team, which won 48 games, was statistically one of the best in the NBA. The Hornets were one of just four teams in the NBA to rank in the NBA’s top 10 in offensive and defensive rating that season. However, the Hornets fell on hard times in 2016-17 (36-46) and 2017-18 (36-46) because of lagging defense.

Last summer, the Hornets traded for center Dwight Howard, a dominant all-star player during his time in Orlando while playing for Van Gundy and Clifford. Despite Howard experiencing a tremendous bounce-back season offensively in Charlotte, he had little impact on the Hornets’ ability to get defensive stops. Charlotte’s defensive rating was 109.1 (points per 100 possessions) this past season – the worst of Clifford’s tenure in Charlotte.

``To me, in my five years (in Charlotte), I thought this was potentially our best team,’’ Clifford said late in the season. ``What we haven’t done – and it’s the No. 1 thing you have to do to be a good team – we haven’t established a team game and a way to play consistent every night. I thought we could be a Top 5 defensive team and instead this has been our worst defensive team. It’s really ended there.’’

A native of Island Falls, Maine, Clifford has been something of a coaching success story, working his way from the high-school level (Woodland High School in Maine) to college (Saint Anselem College, Fairfield University, Boston University, Sienna and Adelphi and East Carolina) to the NBA. He was a scout and an assistant coach with the New York Knicks and later an assistant with the Houston Rockets before being hired by Van Gundy and the Magic in 2007. During his five seasons in Orlando, the Magic compiled a 259-135 record (a .657 winning percentage). Those teams won 50-or-more games four straight seasons (2007-11) and once captured three straight Southeast Division titles (2007-10).

Following his stint with the Magic, Clifford was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles in 2012-13. He took over the 21-win Hornets in 2013 and guided the franchise to 43 victories and a playoff berth in 2013-14. Following a down season in 2014-15 (33-49), he got the Hornets back into the playoffs in 2015-16. That team went 48-34 before losing a tense, seven-game playoff series to the Miami Heat in the first round.

In a bit of irony, Clifford – a former Charlotte head coach – will now be coaching the Magic, while the aforementioned James Borrego – a former Magic assistant and interim head coach – will be coaching the Hornets. Borrego, who took over in Orlando as interim head coach after Vaughn was fired in 2015, was hired by the Hornets earlier in the month. Clifford is hopeful that he can help the Magic make the same quick turnaround that the Hornets pulled off in 2014.

``The old saying in the NBA – and it’s so true – is that you never know a player until you’ve coached him,’’ Clifford said. ``I’m going to start to attempt to establish the right kind of relationships with these guys because I want to get to know them. I want to be able to impact each one of these guys in the right ways. You want to build the kind of partnership where the two of you come to a commonplace on how they have to play to play well. I need to be up to speed and an absolute expert on their games.’’

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