As the great Bon Jovi once posed, ‘who says you can’t go home’ (again)?
Clearly that’s a mantra that Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford subscribes to. Coaching the Hornets for the second time in his career (he also led their bench from 2013-2018), Clifford returned for the first time Friday night to another city he is significantly familiar with.
Of course, The 61 year-old native of Island Falls, ME also served as the head coach of the Orlando Magic from 2018-2021. Coincidentally enough, Clifford also served two separate stints with the Orlando organization like he has in Charlotte (he was an assistant coach on Stan Van Gundy’s staff from 2007-2012).
“I got to sit out for forty-five minutes this afternoon and watch eight foursomes play (hole) number nine out at the Ritz, which is interesting there with the water on the left,” Clifford jokingly remarked when asked about his return to City Beautiful. “No, it’s good. It’s a great place, and I enjoy coming back.”
Helping coach the Magic during their 2009 NBA Finals run was undoubtedly the most success Clifford enjoyed on the bench as a member of the organization. But that doesn’t mean his second stint in Orlando (when he sat in the lead chair) wasn’t just as memorable.
“I think that coaching in the bubble will be something that none of us will ever forget,” Clifford told me when asked about the significant social and political events that occurred in our country while he was coaching in Orlando. “It was such a unique challenge. I still think about that sometimes (going through it).”
The Maine-Farmington alum, who started coaching in the NBA with the New York Knicks on Jeff Van Gundy’s staff, said coaching during a pandemic was like nothing he had ever experienced.
“It was difficult for everybody; it was an experience. And I was incredibly proud of how our guys handled that. We suffered major injuries (in the bubble) after starting out great, and yet we played a really competitive series against Milwaukee.”
Clifford, who went 96-131 over three seasons as the head coach in Orlando, helped lead the Magic back to the playoffs (2018, Atlantic Division Champions) for the first time in seven years. Under Clifford, the Magic were ranked within the top-ten in the NBA in defensive rating from ‘18 to ‘20.
Despite the team’s moderate success on the court, Clifford would likely acknowledge that some of the more significant contributions to the community that he was a part of in Orlando came off the court.
“(And) on the social justice side, (it’s interesting) because I communicated today with Sheena Meade, who we had (obviously we have still) a good relationship with FRRC (Florida Rights Restoration Coalition) with Desmond (Meade) and Sheena,” Clifford explained when asked about various social justice projects he was involved with as head coach of the Magic. “Dr. Randy Nelson who we were involved with - Michael Carter-Williams at the front of that - with the policing issues that were going on at that time in Orlando (who I also communicated with this morning). So those are people that we are going to try to continue to work with. It was a great learning experience for me, something that I feel strongly about and something that I will continue to do.”
The 2021 NBA Trade Deadline essentially flipped the Orlando organization’s vision and path moving forward in the immediate future. A veteran coach in his own right, Clifford’s end with the organization was signaled by the Magic front office opting to trade away All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, starting guard Evan Fournier, and starting forward Aaron Gordon in March of ‘21. The Magic and Clifford then mutually agreed to part ways and move in other directions at season’s end.
But Clifford seemed to show zero ill-will Friday night, joking with reporters while also speaking glowingly about the coach in Orlando who replaced him - Jamahl Mosley.
“Terrific. He and I have a good friendship,” Clifford said when asked about the job Mosley has done in Orlando. “I think (what you have to understand is), number one - the energy level that I think you have to have to start from scratch. Especially with all younger guys. This is a lot different than what people talk to me about (when it comes to) rebuilding. The two jobs that I took over, we were good (Charlotte and Orlando). And there were veteran players too. When you have all younger guys, and you’re not all-in on the winning, that’s tough stuff when you’re coaching 82 games.”
Knowing that reinvesting in the future of the organization through the draft was likely going to lead to a lot of losing, Orlando’s front office clearly felt that a younger coach who could grow along with the team aligned more with what they were trying to do than sticking with Clifford.
The Magic have lost a ton since Mosley arrived, but they’ve also suffered through countless injuries while running out every night one of they youngest rosters in the NBA. Through it all, Mosley has remained steadfast, focused on team development, improvement, and a lot of patience.
“I just think his (Mosley’s) positivity, his energy-level,” Clifford continued. “And last year, I didn’t get to see them play a ton, but I saw them play sporadically, and they got better and better (that’s difficult to do). Now they have more talent, and they have a game and a way to play. Which (I think) is a real tribute to the way he has handled this whole situation.”
Prior to Friday’s game, I asked Mosley about his counterpart, and specifically what he remembered (as an assistant for the Dallas Mavericks) about the Clifford-coached Magic teams.
“You understood that their defense was going to be on point,” Mosley said. “They were going to be highly prepared, they understood every set that you were running. And he was going to mix up the defenses to make sure that you weren’t going to have an easy night. (We understood) that they were going to be very disciplined in what they do. Steve is a great coach; he’s done a great job (in his career).”
With a roster chalked-full of promising young players, the days of the 2018-2020 Orlando Magic seem like a distant memory. In the NBA, you don’t always get an opportunity to go back. Vucevic has already had his opportunity to come back to Orlando, as have Fournier and Gordon.
And for Clifford, Friday night marked his first of likely numerous return trips to the Amway Center to guide the division-rival Hornets - his former turned current employer - against his former organization.
Aaron Goldstone has been covering the Orlando Magic for Orlando Pinstriped Post since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @AaronGoldstone.