Welcome back to the final installment in our potential-end-of-season award series. For each of the NBA’s major gongs I’ll be making a case as to why a player from the Magic should be the one taking home the hardware. We’ve already seen Evan Fournier claim the MVP, Jonathan Isaac the DPOY, MCW the Sixth Man, Markelle Fultz the Most Improved, and most shockingly, Chuma Okeke the Rookie of the Year. Today we turn our attention to the person behind the clipboard as we consider the Coach of the Year award. Could we again have someone from Florida ready to claim the crown? You bet!
A quick disclaimer: although I’m building a (largely) serious case for each individual award winner, please understand that this is not a totally serious endeavor. The Magic won’t be bringing home any awards come season’s end. However, in my world I’m letting my Floridian bias shine. So strap on those Magic-tinged glasses, keep those faces straight, and join me as we envision a world in which Orlando claim award after award after award. Let’s dive in and have some fun!
Coach of the Year - Steve Clifford
Like many of the previous award winners in this series, to the average observer the Magic’s head coach doesn’t seem like the most likely candidate to take home the silverware. You’ve got Nick Nurse coaching up a storm in the north. Mike D’Antoni changing the way basketball is played in Texas. Taylor Jenkins exceeding all expectations with the youthful Grizzlies. Hell, there’s even the familiar face of Frank Vogel doing a pretty sublime juggling act out in Hollywood. However, not a single one of these cases matches the enormity of what Orlando fans witnessed during this shortened season.
In just two short years, Steve Clifford achieved what not a single one of his four preceding peers could: he turned the Magic into a playoff team. He took the core of a losing side mired in a seemingly interminable rebuild and moulded it into a winning product. Prior to his arrival the Magic hadn’t so much as sniffed the fringes of the playoff race since 2012; Clifford was able to work with what was largely the same core that had been in place for four whole seasons and extract more juice than almost anyone would have thought possible. He followed this up in 2019/20 by somehow doing an even more impressive job.
Last season’s finish established a baseline expectation, one it could easily be argued that was exceeded this season. The Magic again returned largely the same team, and it was Coach Clifford who was once again able to find mileage in unexpected places. 2019’s 42-40 record and seventh-placed finish in the East was a position arrived at in large part thanks to incredible fortune on the injury front. Orlando’s top six players somehow combined to miss just 15 games, with the team’s estimated win shares impacted by player absence in such a way as to be almost entirely negligible. Bringing back a roster with minimal upgrades and expecting the same outcome seemed like a very long shot.
Sure enough, this season injuries bit much more sharply for the Magic. Despite the team accumulating less man games lost (in part thanks to the shorter season, but also in part thanks to a lack of Mozgov on the roster) the expected win shares lost to injury was much more significant, easily placing Orlando in the league’s top third by this metric. Look at the names that missed time: Nikola Vucevic dropped 11 games. Aaron Gordon was out of the lineup for seven and Evan Fournier for four more. DJ Augustin sat for 16. Michael Carter-Williams lost more than 20 to injury while Al-Farouq Aminu lost more than 40. Perhaps most impactfully, Jonathan Isaac’s career-year was interrupted to the tune of 33 lost games. All up, the first nine players in the team’s rotation combined to miss 144 games in this shortened season; by comparison, the same number for all of 2018/19 was just 74.
More injuries to more integral players should be a recipe for disaster. And yet, when the season was suspended Clifford once again had the Magic in position for the playoffs and rumbling their way towards 40-or-so wins. What could easily have been enough to sink a team — a team, it should be noted, that is in some ways relatively indistinguishable from the moribund, lottery-locks of the recent past — seemingly had little impact on the side’s fortunes. Despite players both falling and floundering, the coach simply ensured that the show continued on. A side that probably should have sunk was kept afloat by the man behind the clipboard.
Clifford also evidently heard some of the existing criticisms of his coaching performance and adjusted. Despite a reputation for inflexible rigidity he demonstrated a capacity to bend; some major rotational adjustments were made over the course of the season, perhaps peaking with the seemingly-crazy-but-surprisingly-effective three-PG lineup that emerged at one point. Additionally, although he’s known for favoring veterans he at least showed a willingness to lean into youth; Markelle Fultz was starting by the first week in November, while Mo Bamba was a deserving reserve fixture. As a head coach his decision making wasn’t infallible, but the old dog showed he had a few new tricks.
It wouldn’t make for the flashiest pick, but it would make for the right one. Clifford took an ill-fitting roster awkwardly constructed for the modern NBA, beset by injury and still haunted by the ghost of recent underperformance, and piloted them to the playoffs. He consolidated last season’s gains when by all rights there should have been regression. He didn’t have the luxury of championship pedigree like Nurse did in Toronto. He didn’t have the luxury of an MVP candidate like D’Antoni in Houston. He didn’t have the luxury of a boom rookie like Jenkins in Memphis. Instead, Clifford did more with less than any other coach in the league.
For this reason, he is unquestionably the Coach of the Year.
That’s a wrap! Six different award-winning cases were made, and the Magic managed to secure six separate victories in an awe-inspiring and thoroughly unexpected clean sweep. All that’s left now is the parade.