The Orlando Magic announced Wednesday morning that Steve Clifford, 56, agreed to a four-year contract to become the franchise’s thirteenth head coach. Clifford spent five years in Orlando as an assistant coach from 2007-2012 working under Stan Van Gundy.
The Magic have been without a head coach for over six weeks. Following a 25-57 record this past season, Orlando fired Frank Vogel (April 12th) and began a long search for their next head man.
Clifford will be Orlando’s fifth head coach since 2012, which is of course when the Magic traded franchise center Dwight Howard and began a rebuilding process that has continued through this past season.
However, Clifford is the first coaching hire by Orlando’s current management team, led by President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman.
Before Coach Clifford was introduced to the Orlando media at a press conference held inside the Amway Center this afternoon, Weltman began the proceeding by thanking the DeVos family and Alex Martins for their patience as he (and General Manager John Hammond) worked through the long process of hiring a new coach.
“I think it’s very important that we go through it the right way, so we come out the right end,” Weltman said.
As it turns out, Weltman and Hammond have been fond of Clifford’s coaching abilities for some time. The two men interviewed Clifford back in 2013 for the head coaching position in Milwaukee when both Weltman and Hammond were in the Bucks’ front office.
“We brought him in (to Milwaukee in ‘13) and he blew us away,” Weltman explained. “He was so prepared and passionate. Really just very thorough in every aspect as far as how he approaches player development, X’s and O’s, game management, organizational abilities - everything.”
Apparently, Weltman and Hammond had planned on hiring Clifford for the position, but when they reached out to his agent, the Maine-native had already accepted the same position with the Hornets.
After Clifford was introduced, the first thing he did was thank the DeVos ownership group as well. According to ESPN.com, Clifford flew to Michigan yesterday to meet with the DeVos family before accepting the position.
“It warms your heart to spend time with them (the DeVos ownership group),” Clifford said Wednesday. “I forgot what a great ownership group they are. I’m a firm believer that team chemistry begins with organizational chemistry. That always starts with the ownership group.”
Clifford then went on to thank “Jeff, John, and Alex” for bringing him back to Orlando.
“I’ve had 18 great years in this league,” Clifford said. “I’ve enjoyed my time every year, but none more than my five years here.”
At this point in the press conference, Weltman added that it’s vital at this point of Orlando’s rebuild to establish an identity. Ideally, he said it’s time for the Magic to start building something that doesn’t get “turned over every season.”
“A big part of what went into this search was finding someone we could build and grow with,” Weltman said. “Someone that would have a long-life philosophically and organizationally with the team.”
Weltman cited the draft and the trade deadline as times in an NBA season that are difficult to control. The reason that this search seemingly took a long time is because, according to Weltman, the team felt like they needed to control the entire process during such an important time.
“Clifford is the coaching version of a swiss-army knife,” Weltman added. “We’re not betting on something we don’t know. Clifford has a proven track record, he’s proven to be an elite-level NBA coach.”
Clifford last coached in Orlando during some of the most successful times in Orlando’s franchise history. As an assistant under Van Gundy, Clifford helped guide the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009, as well as to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.
“Playing in the Finals was the most exciting year I’ve ever had coaching in the NBA,” Clifford said. “I believe we won 58 or 59 games two years in a row. Great group of players; very professional, very committed. There was such an energy level throughout the city and the organization, that part of it I also enjoyed.”
Clifford mentioned something interesting at this point of the press conference. He credited a lot of the “one-in, four-out” basketball that we see in the NBA today to Van Gundy and those teams when he was last in Orlando.
“We were one of the first teams to start playing four out. That team started to take place when Tony Battie hurt his shoulder, he was going to start at the four. When Rashard Lewis signed as a free agent, one of his big things was he didn’t want to play the four. I remember Stan bringing him in and saying, Rashard - I know you don’t want to play the four, but I think we can be really good with you doing it.”
Clifford cited that moment as the time in Orlando when everything changed, when the Magic stopped playing guys if they “couldn’t shoot three’s (other than Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat).”
Clifford was then asked about Orlando’s current roster, a roster that he faced numerous times leading Charlotte in the Atlantic Division.
“I need to be up to speed on these guys, and I’m not yet. I’ve coached against them for a number of years, but I don’t know them nearly the way I know Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. So this will start now; I will be watching them, evaluating them.”
Clifford said he thought it was entirely too early to make judgments about the roster. He spoke at length about his evaluation process of the roster that will take place starting in the summer. He also noted that injuries seemed to be a large reason why the Magic struggled last season, noticing from looking at box scores that “a lot of good players missed a lot of games.”
When asked what he’s learned about coaching since his last stint in Orlando, I found it noteworthy that he mentioned his one year in Los Angeles coaching for the Lakers (after Orlando, before Charlotte). Clifford talked at length about what he learned about basketball just from watching great players such as Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard, and specifically how they handled their business on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s always going to come back to getting the most out of people,” Clifford said of his time as a head coach in Charlotte. “Having a way to play as a team that makes sense for the league. The league constantly changes, this year was different than last year. You have to be on top of that, a lot of study goes into it.”
Clifford said the key in Charlotte for their quick turnaround when he was hired was the commitment from players such as Walker. Under Clifford, the Hornets won 43 games in ‘13-14 (his first season), a 22-game improvement from the previous season. Clifford talked glowingly about Walker’s leadership, and how major of a factor that was for the Hornets. He also said that player development never stops, regardless of a player’s experience level. Clifford mentioned how the best players in the league never stop trying to develop and improve (durability, physical shape, their bodies, etc.).
“Player development never stops,” Clifford said. “It’s going to be different for veteran guys than it is for younger guys. Player development is not separate from coaching.”
When the Magic decided to part ways with Frank Vogel in April, the organization also let go all of Vogel’s assistant coaches. I asked Steve Clifford about his process of assembling a coaching staff as the NBA Draft and the NBA Summer League inch closer.
“We’re going to do the staff together, Jeff, John, and I,” Clifford told me. “We are going to begin on that tomorrow. Today is about hanging out with you guys, getting back to Orlando, and everything like that. But we are organized, and we’ll start discussing that tomorrow.”
A very lighthearted moment occurred when Clifford was asked about Van Gundy, the most successful head coach in Magic history. He was asked by a local news reporter about the chances that Van Gundy comes back to the organization as one of Clifford’s assistant coaches.
“Are you kidding me, he’s twice as smart as I am,” Clifford joked. “There's no way he could work for me.”
The Magic aren’t getting Stan Van Gundy back anytime soon, but they are getting one of his close disciples.
It remains to be seen if Clifford ultimately leads the Magic back to the kind of prominence the organization encountered the last time he was in town.
But one thing is for certain. The long, arduous process of hiring Orlando’s next lead man is over.