Magic’s Steve Clifford deserves NBA Coach of the Year for rescuing the franchise | Commentary
by Mike Bianchi
Many of you will accuse me of being a hopeless homer for what I am about to write, but I don’t care because I’m going to write it anyway.
The Orlando Magic’s Steve Clifford should be the NBA’s Coach of the Year.
Those of you who disagree simply don’t understand where the Magic were before Clifford became the coach.
I acknowledge other coaches in the league have won more games and have better teams, but this is about more than just coaching a team; it’s about rescuing a franchise.
My case for Clifford isn’t so much based on the games he has won in his first year with the Magic; it’s about the attitudes he’s changed, the accountability he’s instilled, the excitement he’s created.
Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly other deserving candidates.
In his first year in Milwaukee, Mike Budenholzer has coached the Bucks to the best record in the league and turned them into a legitimate championship contender.
Denver’s Mike Malone has the under-the-radar Nuggets, who didn’t even make the playoffs last year, challenging the Golden State Warriors for best record in the West.
Indiana’s Nate McMillan has kept the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs despite the devastating season-ending injury to Victor Oladipo.
Former Magic coach Doc Rivers has taken a Clippers team that wasn’t supposed to get a sniff of the postseason and has them in the playoffs — defying critics who believed the Clippers would tank when they dealt Tobias Harris at the trade deadline.
Again, these all are worthy candidates, but none of them has done what Clifford has done. None of them has come in, taken out a plunger and extricated his franchise from the bottom of the toilet in just one season.
Memo to Coach of the Year voters: Clifford took over a franchise that had more losses over the last six seasons than any team in the NBA and he has them on the verge of the playoffs. Since Jan. 31, the Magic are 20-9 — the fourth-best record in the league over that stretch. The Magic’s 15-win improvement over last season ties Milwaukee for biggest turnaround in the league — and the Magic, unlike the Bucks, don’t have the benefit of having one of the NBA’s best players.
Clifford has done everything he said he would do when he took the job. Before this season, he told me, “My expectation is that we will play with a purpose and a spirit and togetherness and be a team that everyone in this city is proud of. If we can do that, I wouldn't put any limits on how good our team will become.”
Clifford hasn’t orchestrated this turnaround with smoke and mirrors; he’s done it with nuts and bolts. There were many Magic fans when Clifford was named head coach who inanely complained that he wasn’t a splashy enough hire. The Magic, of course, didn’t need splash or brash; they needed a coach who could teach and develop. They needed a coach who has the rare quality of being able to kick his players in the ass while simultaneously patting them on the back.
When Jeff Weltman, the Magic’s president of basketball operations, was asked what attracted him to Clifford, he talked about non-glamorous statistic such as how Clifford’s teams in Charlotte were always at the top of the league in defensive rebounding and turnover ratio.
“The bottom line is that when you play a Steve Clifford team, you have to beat them; they don’t beat themselves,” Weltman said.
And when you look at what’s led to the Magic’s turnaround, it’s the non-sexy parts of the game that Weltman mentioned and Clifford preaches. The Magic have the fifth-best scoring defense in the league and have committed the sixth-fewest turnovers.
It’s not really that complicated: Make it difficult for the other team to score points and give yourself as many scoring opportunities as possible. Value your possessions and devalue theirs. The hard part, of course, is getting players to allow you to coach them and accept the roles you have created for them.
“We have a good team and more talent than people give us credit for,” Clifford said. “We have a way we can play — when we’re moving the ball and hitting the paint on offense and locked in defensively — when we’re good enough to beat any team.”
Clifford has helped turn Nikola Vucevic into an all-star, in part, by simply recognizing he is the team’s best player and featuring him. He’s convinced the Magic’s best 3-point shooter, Terrence Ross, that he is best suited as a catalyst off the bench. He’s resuscitated the career of backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams, whom the Magic picked up off the scrap heap. Jonathan Isaac has developed into a force on both ends of the floor.
We could go on and on and on.
Even coaching contemporaries in the league believe the man they call “Cliff” deserves to be considered for Coach of the Year. When I asked Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce to assess the job Clifford has done on Friday night, he went on a two-minute rave on Clifford’s attributes.
“I think Cliff is one of the best — not only as a coach but as a person,” Pierce said. “Steve Nash is a guy I played with in college and he played with Cliff in L.A. [when Clifford was an assistant with the Lakers] and just raved about him. Cliff’s diligent and prepared and players like him for that. Cliff’s done a tremendous job in Orlando taking over a team that’s been on the ropes and now they’re knocking on the door to the playoffs. It’s not an easy task coming in and keeping a group together that could have gone either way. I give all the credit to Cliff.”
See what I mean?
Steve Clifford not only deserves to be NBA Coach of the Year.
He deserves to be Franchise Rescuer of the Decade.