Clifford Says Previous Stint with Magic Were Best Years of NBA Coaching Career

by John Denton

ORLANDO -- For years, any time Steve Clifford came back into contact with players and coaches associated with those early-2000s Orlando Magic teams, his thoughts almost immediately reverted to a zenith moment in a life dedicated to coaching basketball.

Back then, when the Magic were one of the truly dominant teams in the NBA, Clifford thought he had found coaching paradise after tirelessly working his way up from the high school ranks to college and ultimately to the NBA level. Not only was he working alongside of then-head coach Stan Van Gundy – someone he admires and respects as much as anyone in the profession – he was surrounded by top talent such as Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick.

``You never forget teams like that, players like that and coaches like that,’’ Clifford would say later while serving as the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets from 2013-18. ``I’ll always have fond memories of those years in Orlando.’’

Hired on Wednesday as the Magic’s new head coach, Clifford will now be charged with trying to rebuild an Orlando organization that has fallen on hard times since those giddy days when he was on the coaching staff and the Magic were in the 2009 NBA Finals and 2010 Eastern Conference Finals and racked up four straight 50-win seasons. Clifford knows his job now is to try and duplicate the lofty success he had in his first stint with Orlando more than a decade ago.

``I’ve had 18 great years in this league and I’ve enjoyed every year, but none more than the five years here,’’ Clifford said in Wednesday’s introductory news conference in Orlando. ``(That Magic success from 2007-12) started with the working relationship on the basketball side and I’m convinced that the philosophies that (President of Basketball Operations) Jeff (Weltman) and (GM) John (Hammond) have are in line with what I have. I believe this is going to be a great opportunity for me.’’

Weltman, who made the final call on hiring Clifford following a nearly seven-week search for a head coach, is confident that the new head coach can lead Orlando back to prominence. The Magic fired Frank Vogel on April 12 following a disappointing 25-57 season – the franchise’s sixth straight with a losing record.

``Steve has been able to establish himself as an upper-echelon coach and I can throw numbers at you that his teams all five years led the league in defensive rebounding and they committed the fewest turnovers, but the bottom line is when you play a Steve Clifford you have to beat them; they don’t beat themselves,’’ Weltman said. ``Over the course of five years (as a head coach) that’s what the real attraction was.’’

Weltman and Hammond interviewed Clifford twice before deciding to hire him as head coach. They already had a familiarity with Clifford having interviewed him in 2013 while they worked for the Milwaukee Bucks. They missed out on hiring Clifford that time around because he was ultimately hired by the Charlotte Hornets, but Weltman didn’t want to let Clifford slip away this time around.

``We brought him in and he blew us away because he was so prepared and passionate and thorough in every aspect about his approaches player development, Xs and Os, game management, organizational abilities and everything,’’ Weltman remembered from the interview five years earlier. ``He didn’t know, but he’s been a marked man ever since that day. Sitting here five years later and I’m thrilled to announce the next coach of the Orlando Magic is Steve Clifford.

Clifford, 56, returns to Orlando with plenty of head coaching experience following an up-and-down five-year run with the Hornets. He guided Charlotte to a 21-win improvement and a playoff berth in 2014 and crafted a 48-win season and another postseason berth in 2016, but his Hornets’ teams missed the playoffs three other times. In his five seasons with the Hornets, he had a combined 196-214 record.

During his time in Charlotte, Clifford helped develop guard Kemba Walker into an all-star point guard. Also, his Hornets were a perpetual problem for the Magic, whipping Orlando four times this past season and 11 times in a row over the last three years.

Clifford is hopeful that the Magic can have the same sort of instant success that he enjoyed during his first season in Charlotte when the Hornets snapped a three-year playoff drought.

``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. ``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, referring to the time needed to turn around Orlando’s fortunes. ``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.’’

Known in the coaching profession as a tireless grinder – a trait that served him well while continuously rising in the coaching ranks over the last 35 years – Clifford suffered a major health scare last season that forced him to leave the sidelines for a period of time. He was away from basketball from Dec. 4 to Jan. 17 because of a series of severe headaches caused by fatigue and sleep deprivation. A battery of tests and advice from various doctors taught him the differences he needed to make both personally and professionally to better his health.

Clifford was asked repeatedly about his health by Magic executives and he feels he is beyond the bout with headaches that threatened his ability to coach.

``As (the neurologist) told me, `You don’t have to change the way you work; you have to change the way that you live,’’’ said Clifford, who has worked to better his exercise, diet and sleeping patterns to avoid the crippling headaches he suffered last season. ``Going through it, professionally the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to go through. It impacted our (Charlotte) team in a bad way and I feel terrible about it. … Personally, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.’’

Clifford said on Wednesday that he received several congratulatory messages from Van Gundy, who is currently vacationing in Greece. He still considers Van Gundy as a ``mentor’’ and ``one of my closest friends.’’ Van Gundy is out of coaching following his resignation as President and head coach of the Detroit Pistons and Clifford joked that there will be no reunion in Orlando because, ``Stan is twice as smart as me and he’s not going to work for me.’’

Regardless, Clifford is hopeful that his second stint in Orlando can be as successful and filled with joy as his first stint from 2007-12. He admitted on Wednesday that those glorious days in Orlando as an assistant coach with the Magic shaped much of his philosophy and style as a head coach.

``That was a great five years and playing in the (2009) Finals was the most exciting year I’ve ever had in coaching,’’ Clifford said. ``Then, the next year we were playing in the Eastern Conference Finals. I believe we won 58 or 59 games two years in a row with a great group of players who were very professional and very committed. I loved working with Stan and the staff and it all started with the (DeVos) ownership and their commitment. There was just such an energy level throughout the city and the organization.

``And, frankly, I don’t think we get enough credit for it, but this four-out and one-in stuff was started with that team,’’ Clifford said, referring to the Magic’s widely copied offensive game plan from those heydays. ``We were one of the first teams that ever started playing four out (beyond the 3-point line). … We were one of the first teams to do that. It was a great lesson for all of us.’’

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