Q&A with Steve Clifford
by John Denton
ORLANDO – When he’s out and about in Orlando, be it grabbing dinner or simply running errands, new coach Steve Clifford is often approached by Orlando Magic fans who want to talk about the franchise’s glory days in 2009 and ‘10.
Clifford’s job now, he said, is to change the narrative of those conversations and do what it takes to get the Magic back to where they are championship contenders once again.
An assistant coach on the ’09 Magic team that reached the NBA Finals and the ’10 squad that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, Clifford is back in Orlando now as a head coach. The 56-year-old basketball lifer has been charged with breathing life back into a franchise that hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2012 – his last season in Orlando as an assistant. Like so many Magic fans, Clifford fondly recalls his first stint in Orlando and he desperately wants to get the franchise back on track in terms of winning.
``I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and talk about that Game 6 against Cleveland. People still want to talk about Game 4 with Rashard (Lewis) hitting the 3-pointer when we were down one. So, yeah, the people still remember those big games,’’ said Clifford, who celebrated his 56thbirthday on Monday. ``I know how this fanbase can really help a team. They did it for us before when we were good and I’m super excited about getting it back that way again.’’
With training camp set to begin next Tuesday at the Amway Center, OrlandoMagic.com set down with Clifford for a question-and-answer session to discuss his Orlando nostalgia, how he’ll handle playing centers Nikola Vucevic and Mohamed Bamba, Jonathan Isaac’s growth and more. Here is what Coach Clifford had to say about the season ahead:
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Before we start to talk Xs and Os, have you had any feelings of nostalgia being back in Orlando where you coached from 2007-12?
STEVE CLIFFORD: Well, (Orlando) has grown a lot, that’s the first thing. I have a lot of good friends here and I’ve been able to reconnect with them and that’s been great. Then, it’s just about the memories. Being here was the only Finals that I’ve been able to coach in and making the Eastern Conference Finals the following year. Some of those series with Boston and Cleveland, those were so much fun. More than anything it was about that coaching staff that we had and the guys who played here. I’ve had a chance to reconnect with people here and there are just so many great memories.
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You’ve always talked about how your time in Orlando had a profound effect on you. How did that previous experience shape you as a coach?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``Stan had such a positive impact on me and I learned so much from him. The way he would study the league and the trends and trying to stay on top of things taught me the need to do that. Coaches who coach know it, but I still don’t think Stan gets enough credit for being one of the pioneers of playing four (3-point shooters) out. He really flipped the game around with 3-point shooting and Dwight’s role game. I still don’t think Stan has gotten enough credit for doing that. You get a reputation in this league of being a defensive coach or this or that, but in all those years in Orlando is we were a balanced team. We were terrific on offense and defense, too.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Several of your Magic players have talked already about their extended talks that they have had with you already. How have you gone about the process of building relationships and familiarizing yourself with the players here?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``It’s been different with every guy. Whether it’s been grabbing lunch or having somebody like D.J. (Augustin) coming up here (to Clifford’s office) on the first day to sit and talk. Sometimes, it’s been texting and sometimes it’s phone conversations. I’ve gone to dinner with guys. The biggest thing, and our assistants have already done a really good job with this, by the time we start training camp we have to already have those coach/player relationships. That’s why these September workouts are so important, and the guys have been great about attending. Otherwise, it would be difficult to have a great training camp without those relationships already being in place.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You got to know Mr. DeVos quite well during your first stint with the Magic and you briefly met with him again before you took the job this time around. What are some of your fondest memories of your interactions with him?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``It was a very difficult day when we lost him. As much as anything, like most of us, I was always a big fan of his. More than anything, it was always about how supportive he was for the team. I’ve read all of his books and I loved his message of perseverance, discipline in life and positivity is one I’ll always remember.
``Two things I’ll always remember about Mr. DeVos was how much we’d always enjoy him stopping in before the games and saying `hi’ and something positive to everyone. Then, every year before the season, we’d fly down to West Palm to visit with him and he’d sit everybody down and give us a message that our players and staff all enjoyed.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: With you coaching previously in Charlotte, you faced the Magic four times a year. What are your impressions of the roster as a whole?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``Obviously, the goal you have to have in this league is improving year in and year out and you have to be well-balanced (offensively and defensively). You have to take what you have and find ways that you can be good offensively and defensively every night. The defensive part of it is more black and white where you can have those hard-and-fast rules. The offensive part, to me, you can have plans, but you have to read the situation and see what changes you need to make to develop.
``Simply put, offensively, we need to have an aspect of ball movement, playing inside-out, playing unselfishly and taking advantage of one-on-one play, a post-up game and our catch-and-shoot game. We have to be able to depend on guys who have (advantages in) matchups. On the other end, being able to switch is a bigger aspect of this game and I think we’ll be able to do that.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Some of the players have mentioned that they love how blunt you are with them and tell them truth as it relates to their standing on the team. Are those traits that you have to have to be a respected head coach?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``In your personal life and your professional life, the older you get the more you realize that the best relationships you have are the ones where there is transparency and honesty involved. A coach/player relationship is no different. There’s no way to be a coach in this league and be effective if you don’t have the ability to tell them the truth, be it playing time, roles, number of shots or minutes. The games are going to come and you can either have communication and conversations and let them know where they stand before the games start or you can let them find out in the games. To me, so much of this league is about team spirit and having guys willing to sacrifice. They will do that if they have a level of comfortability with how things are done. That all starts with how you communicate.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You have said repeatedly that the health scare that you had last fall with headaches and fatigue was a life-changing moment for you. How did it affect the way you approach your job and your daily life?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``To be honest, it definitely brought on a change. Now, I’m off all mediation now and I don’t need any help sleeping. The only thing really different that I’m doing now is I don’t get here as early in the morning as I used to be. I’ll stay later, but I’ve found that I don’t have to work differently, but I have to sleep differently. So, by getting an extra 90 minutes of sleep a night, I feel so much fresher. I’ve never been one of these guys who has worked all of these hours. (In the past) I was always better in the morning and I liked getting in early, but I always left earlier. Now, I come in a little later and I stay a little later.
``I look back on where I was and I just feel so much fresher now. Your body is just going to tell you that at 54 or 55 that you can’t do what it did at 48 or 49. So getting more rest now has made me so much fresher.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Let’s shift to your thoughts on some of your players and positions. I know you have said that player rotations and playing time will be decided in practice and games, but what are your initial thoughts on how you will balance the center spot with Nikola Vucevic and Mohamed Bamba?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``One of the things that I’m hopeful of – and I don’t know if it will be this way from Day 1 – but that we will have a package of offense set to put in where they can play together some, too. I think so much of that will be dependent on whether they can play together, which I think they can. Also, it will be about how quickly Mo develops. My thinking on younger players is that you put them into roles where they can play well and that starts with minutes. Give them a role to start where they can have success and then go from there. A lot of that will play out as we get started with camp.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Aaron Gordon made a huge jump individually last season. What do you see for his future and where can he make the biggest strides?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``I think, as much as everything, he’s made a jump every year offensively. Now, it’s about purpose of play on the offensive end. He can put up similar numbers or even better with increased efficiency. But to me, the biggest things that I have been talking to him about are his defense and rebounding. This league is so much about having two-way players and I told him that if he wants to be considered an all-star level player you are going to impress more coaches and basketball people by becoming the defender that you can be. If he’s first or second-team All-Defense with 19 (points) and 9 (rebounds), he’s going to become an all-star. To me, that’s where it all starts for him. He’s a capable guy and that’s been my message to him every time that we’ve talked.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: At the point guard position, you have a veteran in D.J. Augustin, a bigger guard in Jerian Grant and a rookie in Isaiah Briscoe. How do you plan on using the three of them and do you have enough firepower and depth there at the NBA’s most talented position?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``So much of it is playing groups and finding playing groups where you can play offense and defense well. I actually think there will be times when D.J. and Jerian will be out there together because Jerian is big enough to defend some (shooting guards). That’s the part that training camp will determine for our staff – we’ve got to find playing groups because you search for balanced groups. You want groups that can play well both offensively and defensively.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You’ve gotten to see Mo Bamba play in Summer League and in some of the pre-camp workouts. How much of a load will he be ready for early in the season and how much of a chance to does have to be special in this league?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``I certainly wouldn’t put any limits on who he can become, but I just hope that right now people are fair with him. He’s younger and physically he’s still developing. He’s worked hard this summer and since summer league he’s come in here every day and he’s gotten a lot stronger. He’s so easy to deal with and I’m so excited about working with him going forward.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You put a big emphasis on developing forward Jonathan Isaac in Summer League and he responded with some strong play. Like Bamba, how much of a load are you willing to put on him early in his second season and do you see signs of him being a special player for this organization?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``I think he’s had a really terrific offseason. All the work that he did last year while developing his body and skill level gave him a level of confidence. Then, I think Summer League was great for him and he’s spent a lot of time with (Magic assistant coaches) Pat Delany and Bruce Kreutzer working on his skill level and his range shooting. I think people will see his development this year.
``I think he’s still just starting with where he can be, but he’s worked really hard and he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You’ve always been highly complementary of Evan Fournier as a player and you have two more veteran wing players in Jonathon Simmons and Terrence Ross. What have you learned about that group of players so far and how do you anticipate using it?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``First of all, I’d say we’ve had a bunch of guys coming in here all the time in September and are in a really good place right now – none better than Evan. He’s had a good summer, his game is on and he’s in really good condition. It’s the shooting, his basketball IQ, his ability to play off screens is terrific and he’s bigger than I realized.
``I think Terrence Ross is also a very good catch-and-shoot player and he’s good running off screens. He had a great August and he’s in a good place going into camp.
``Jonathon is the one who hasn’t been able to do much (following offseason wrist surgery), but he got cleared (last week) and we’ll get him back out there. I watched a ton of film from last season and he brings a level of competitive spirit and toughness that you need to win in this league.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Fans in Orlando remember you from your previous five years here, but they don’t know much about the coaching staff that you will surround yourself with. Most of you guys have been together for years in Charlotte, so what are the strengths of your coaching staff?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``The big thing for me I wanted what we had before with that (Magic) staff (from 2007-12). To me, I want a staff of teachers, a staff that works well with players and one that has great staff chemistry. To me, team chemistry starts with staff chemistry and a lot of that is dependent on organizational chemistry. When I was here in Orlando last time, that was a big part of our success and I really think we can do that again.
``Pat (Delany), Steve (Hetzel), Mike (Batiste), Bruce (Kreutzer), Rick (Higgins) and Mark (Jenkins) and I all worked together in Charlotte, we have a comfort level together and they fit. I believe that we’ve been able to hit this running because I have so much confidence in them. Obviously, we changed some things, but the biggest parts of what we’ll do will be the same, so we’ve been able to attack this thing and hit the ground running. The guys that we added – Ty (Corbin), he’s been a head coach twice and he was a terrific player, but more than that he, too, fits into being a teacher and has a great work ethic. Lionel Chalmers, who was here last year, was somebody I knew before and had relationships with him from people in upstate New York and he has a chance to be a terrific coach. And our two young video guys – James Fraschilla and Darrel Jordan Jr. – it was more about their personal qualities as coaches. So, I feel really great about our staff.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: ``You’ve always been known as a coach who specializes in teaching defense and you were the assistant coach primarily in charge of designing the defenses on the 2009 team that reached the NBA Finals and the ’10 team that got to the East Finals. How do you go about scheming a defense that will be successful for this roster?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``I think it’s like anything, if we’re not going to defend and not rebound a lot better, we’re just not going to give ourselves a chance to win. It’s just that simple. We have a group that will be capable, but we’ll have to develop the right habits and right mentality at that end of the floor. Whatever it is with our defensive schemes, we’re going to have to be a lot better with our defensive rebounding or none of it is going to matter.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: What are your goals for this season? What can make this season a success? Do you talk playoffs with this team from the start or is that too far down the line to even discuss at this juncture?
STEVE CLIFFORD: ``What I hope this team is thinking right now is training camp. We need a good training camp to get ready for the season. I think we’ve had a good offseason and most of these guys are in good shape and they’ve put a lot into it already. Training camp is all about getting ready for the games. We’ve got like five weeks now before we get started with (regular-season) games, so I hope that’s what we’re focused on for now.’’