Steve Clifford making positive impact on Orlando Magic in first year

by John Black

Steve Clifford has had a profound impact on several key players for the Orlando Magic in his first year. And he hopes to continue building with the young core.

Sometimes, a coach walks through the halls of his new organization and makes an immediate impact.

He makes it clear this is his home — that things are not going to be run the same as they were. These are the very best coaches in the league and the very best players who change cultures through their presence. These are the coaches like Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr or Brad Stevens.

Other times, a coach does not make any immediate changes. He focuses on the X’s and O’s of the game. He tries to help his new players an organization adjust to him and the way he wants things run. This is a coach like Fred Hoiberg, J.B. Bickerstaff, or even Billy Donovan.

Coach Steve Clifford, like most coaches, seems to fall somewhere in the middle of those two poles of the coaching spectrum. There has not been a drastic change to Orlando’s culture, but Evan Fournier has said Steve Clifford makes his intentions clear. 

In his five years as a NBA head coach, Clifford has only finished the season twice with a winning record. The three other seasons his Charlotte Hornets teams finished eight games and five games below .500.

As the All-Star Break approaches, the Orlando Magic sit at 21-31. So far, Clifford is living up to his record in the wins and losses column. The results have not quite delivered fully, although the Magic are as close to the Playoffs as they have been in the last six years.

But the thing that got Clifford the job in Orlando was his integral part in the development of three-time All-Star Kemba Walker.

The Magic have not seen that magnitude of development from their young core of Mohamed Bamba, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon quite yet. But they have each shown improvement as the season goes on and plenty of subtle changes to their game. And Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross have surpassed all expectations this year.

All their work is just getting started. But there are clear gains Clifford’s players have made.

Nikola Vucevic officially got his first All-Star nod Thursday night, and rightfully so. Clifford has been able to completely tap into the big man’s offensive skill and defensive potential. Vucevic is averaging career highs in all of the box score stats at 20.7 points per game, 12.0 rebounds per game and 3.8 assists per game entering Thursday’s win over the Indiana Pacers.

The impressive thing is he is not putting up these numbers by just jacking up a lot of shots. Vucevic has a 55.5 effective field goal percentage while also shooting better than 37 percent from beyond the arc.

It is not just his traditional stats that stand out. Vucevic’s advanced starts are among some of the league’s best.

This year Vucevic is in the top ten in Player Efficiency Rating (PER). With a PER of 25.93 that puts him ahead of guys like Kyrie Irving, Paul George and Kevin Durant. He has put himself in elite territory a Magic player has not been in years.

Vucevic is also sixth overall in Player Impact Estimate, a statistic that takes all other stats into consideration while weighting specific ones like 3-pointers and offensive rebounds. The Magic center has an 18.9 rating, trailing only five players that are all in the MVP conversation.

Vucevic’s MVP-type numbers are not all Clifford’s credit, of course. But it would be hard to compare this year to last year and not realize the impact Clifford has made.

The offense has been running through Vucevic as effectively as it ever has. Clifford has cranked up Vucevic’s usage percentage to 27.3 percent but has done so while also getting him good looks and not forced ones.

But the biggest impact Clifford has had on Vucevic is on defense. The big man has been much more aggressive and willing to defend than in years past. His placement and movement on the court have improved drastically. Vucevic averages 10.4 contested shots on the defensive end this year. And he is no longer a complete defensive liability, better able to ward off drives through the lane and give guards time to recover.

Whether that is enough to keep the first-time All-Star center on the team beyond this season — or even beyond the deadline — is yet to be seen.

Similarly, Steve Clifford’s impact on Terrence Ross has been evident. Just like his teammate, Ross is having a career year. He is averaging 14 points per game while shooting 37.6 percent from three.

Clifford found what works for Ross early on this year. Clifford identified Ross’ ability to come into the game and be a spark plug for the team, using him off the bench rather than forcing him into the starting lineup. The team has taken advantage of Ross’ energy and athleticism.

Clifford brings Ross around screens and enables him to use his athleticism to get separation. Along with Ross’ quick release, this allows hi to catch defenses offguard and get into rhythm shots. It is the perfect role for Ross and his shooting ability.

The hope for the Magic is that the improvements these veteran players have made under Clifford will soon translate to Orlando’s young core.

That growth has come in flashes from Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac this year. As Mohamed Bamba continues to develop it will be seen there as well.

Under Clifford’s tutelage, the Magic have seen both Gordon and Isaac blossom into legitimate NBA defenders. Both forwards play aggressive, efficient, and consistent defense on a night in, night out basis

In Gordon’s case, the 23 year-old has shown flashes of being an elite two-way player. That was a goal Gordon set for himself at the beginning of the season at Clifford’s urging.

Despite his offensive numbers being down from the year before, Gordon is still averaging a healthy 16 points per game with a 50.5 effective field goal percentage.

This decrease in points can, of course, be attributed to Vucevic’s rise this year. But Clifford has turned to Gordon at times throughout the season. He has had multiple 20-plus point games, and even a 31-point game this year.

If anything, the biggest improvement has come with Gordon’s playmaking and passing. Gordon is averaging 3.5 assists per game, by far a career high. He has even begun experimenting with using Aaron Gordon as the initiator in offensive sets, hoping to get D.J. Augustin off the ball to spread the floor better.

With Isaac, Clifford has helped the second year forward establish himself as a defensive presence.

It is obvious Isaac is still a work in progress on the offensive end, but he has shown improvement there too. Isaac appears to have the go-ahead to shoot the ball in an effort to progress his development. It seems the most important thing Clifford has done for the 21-year-old is help him establish confidence.

That has built over time. Clifford said it is important for players to look better as the year progresses. And Isaac certainly has as the year has progressed, even if the numbers do not fully show it.

Clifford has limited Bamba so far this year. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.

He is only getting 16 minutes per game so far this year. Again, his limitations can be, in part, attributed to Vucevic’s outstanding play, but also to Bamba’s raw abilities and still-developing body.

Bamba has shown with his 7-foot-10 wingspan he will be a presence around the rim for years to come. Bamba can read shots well and has some emphatic swats to his record, averaging more than a block per game even in his limited minutes.

His offensive game is still rudimentary. But Bamba has shown an ability to knock down threes at the NBA level. That is a promising start for the rookie.

These are all promising signs, even if it is still an incomplete picture. And the Magic are obviously frustrated the results have not matched these improvements yet.

The hope with Clifford is he can continue to develop the Magic’s young core.

And while Clifford’s tenure as the Magic head coach is yet to be defined, if the Magic’s young players begin to develop and perform at the levels of their teammates Vucevic and Ross, the future looks bright in Orlando.

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