Q&A with Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford
by Michael Wallace
ORLANDO – Steve Clifford’s office at the Amway Center isn’t some sort of nostalgic shrine to a 36-year basketball career that has seen him work either with or for luminaries such as Michael Jordan, Pat Riley, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Patrick Ewing and Yao Ming.
Instead, the no-nonsense, all-business head coach of the Orlando Magic surrounds himself only with grease boards full of Xs and Os, scratch pads to jot down team talking points, flat screen TVs to watch game film and a large rectangular table for meetings with his coaching staff.
So with his somewhat spartan, no-frills surroundings, it’s not surprising that Clifford, 57, hasn’t spent large amounts of time basking in what his Magic accomplished last season. Clifford took over a Magic franchise riding a skid of six straight losing seasons last May and turned Orlando into a winner again. It didn’t happen right away, but ultimately the Magic proved to be a reflection of Clifford’s grinder mentality, getting better and more effective as the season progressed.
Orlando started a pedestrian 20-31, but it closed with a stirring 22-9 stretch for a 42-40 record that got it into the playoffs for the first time since 2012 – a season when Clifford not-so-coincidentally was also on the Magic’s bench as an assistant coach. In the playoffs, the Magic beat the eventual World Champion Toronto Raptors in Game 1 before losing the next four games.
That memory has stayed with Clifford all offseason, and it’s led to him pushing his players this offseason to wanting more and expecting more of themselves in the season ahead. Prognosticators believe a Magic team that retained four key free agents in the offseason and signed free-agent forward Al-Farouq Aminu can contend for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference this season, stoking the optimism of Magic fans.
For Clifford, he said there are no secrets as to why his team played well late last season and the same factors will apply in this season of greater expectations. Ultimately, Clifford said his team’s ability to make more strides will come down to its daily approach to improvement and the collective will of the group to sacrifice in the name of winning.
``It’s all about having that mentality of wanting to get to the next level,’’ said Clifford while seated at a desk that overlooks the practice floor at the Amway Center. ``It always gets back to the same basic things – how you work every day and how committed we are to playing a (style) that can win. There’s so much that goes into that obviously, such as the shot-making and the creativity of players. But because the guys in this league are so good and so smart, your level of execution is so important. We’re going to have to be better at that and more consistent with that. That leads to winning more.
``I think we have a good work team and they’re committed,’’ Clifford added. ``And I think they also understand that if everybody makes that necessary commitment, we are a very talented team that can accomplish some things.’’
With the Magic’s training camp set to open on Oct. 1 at the Amway Center, we sat down with Clifford and got his thoughts on last season, this season and about several of the team’s key players.
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: When you got some down time this offseason or when you started back studying last season what was it like reflecting on all that the team accomplished?
STEVE CLIFFORD:``When I sat down after the season ended with (President of Basketball Operations) Jeff (Weltman) and (GM) John (Hammond) to evaluate the team and I thought the strengths, to me, they were our positional size. That makes us so versatile and that was a key ingredient of being so good defensively. But, the second part, to me – and this is what I thought at the end of the season and after studying the team I believe it even more now – was the reason we played so well at the end of the year was our individual approach. That has nothing to do with the coach, but the guys here wanted to win, and they were willing to work toward winning. From the way that they practiced every day and did shootarounds and got themselves ready, that’s why we got better. Watch Games 1-25 versus 26-82, what happened is that we played a lot better. People love to talk about all those other (variables), but we played a lot better. That was a direct reflection of what our guys put into it.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You are a student of the game and someone who studies yearly trends in the NBA and what it takes to be successful. How rare and special was it that your team could dig its way out of a 20-31 start and close at 22-9 by playing your best basketball late in the season?
CLIFFORD: ``The analytics bare out what we did. The last 34 games of the year, we were first in defense and 15thin offense. If you’re top 10 in one (statistical category) and say top 15 in another, then you are going to be balanced enough to be a good team.
``To me, to accomplish that, those are major positives that we’ll hopefully build on going forward. With that being said, after watching the playoff series a couple of times – and we played a terrific team – but we were all disappointed and we should have been disappointed because I felt like we could have played a lot better.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You were here as an assistant coach when this franchise was on top, getting to the 2009 NBA Finals, 2010 Eastern Conference Finals and make five straight playoff appearances, and you looked on from afar the past six years as the Magic struggled to rebuild. How satisfying was it for you personally to help right this franchise and get it back into the playoffs?
CLIFFORD: ``For sure, that was special. We have such a great fan base here and they deserve for us to play well every night. I think our guys got a good feel for that I’d say the last 10-to-12 home games when we were playing meaningful games. Our guys played really well, and our fans were a huge part of that.
``Hopefully, now we take that next step. I feel what this (past season) did was it helped us become more relevant again. But the NBA is all about winning in the playoffs and that’s the step that we’ve got to take.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: When you’re out in public, say at dinner, the grocery store or at a movie, do you have fans come up to you and talk about the success the team had last season? What is the reaction of Magic fans?
CLIFFORD: ``They all want to know how the guys are in the summer and who’s working hard? Or they’ll ask me how this guy or that guy is to coach? I get that all of the time and I appreciate it.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You credited some of last season’s success to the work your guys put in during the 2018 offseason. How does that compare to what you have seen so far from players working this summer and preparing for training camp?
CLIFFORD: ``We’ve had what I believe to be a really good summer almost to a man. We’re allowed to have optional workouts here and we had two this week. We had really good attendance in that. And we’ve had the four guys playing in the World Cup. People can look at that (World Cup experience) a couple of different ways, but I look at it as a big advantage for us. I think those guys will come here and be in rhythm and in great shape. Most of the coaches that I talk to have told me that they like it when their guys play (in International competitions) because their guys are farther ahead. One of my closest friends said, one of the better players that he’s ever coached said that player’s best years came after he played for USA Basketball. He told me, ``You’re going to want them all playing. They’re going to be working out anyway, but the quality of the workouts will be better (in structured environments). So, we’re hoping for the same thing with our guys.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: How big of a factor will stability be this season with you in your second season as head coach and almost all of the team back together after the Magic retained four major free agents in July?
CLIFFORD: ``I would say this, the offseason is for improvement and you want to do it externally and internally. You want to improve whatever way that you can – trades, draft picks and free agency. Adding Al-Farouq (Aminu) was big for us obviously, but being able to bring (Nikola Vucevic), (Terrence Ross), Khem (Birch) and Michael Carter-Williams back, that’s so big for us. Those are four guys who played really well for us last year.
``The continuity party, again, that will be determined by our approach going forward. Often, we look at professional athletes as if they’re a given. The thing for us to all understand is this – we played better because we put a lot into it. The consistent players put a lot into it every year. And the really talented players who don’t really ever reach the level that they should, it’s because they have a fluctuation in their focus from year to year. It’s important that we take advantage of the continuity that we have here and we have a similar approach to the one that we had at the end of last season.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: After an offseason of studying the team from last season what are the areas where you feel the team can make the biggest jumps in terms of production and efficiency?
CLIFFORD: ``As good as our defense was late in the year, we have to be able to score the ball better. We have to do similar things in terms of protecting the rim, not fouling unnecessarily, not giving up fastbreak points and being a good defensive rebounding team. By the numbers, we forced teams to take the shots that we wanted them to take last season, but we didn’t create much offense with our defense.
``We talked about this a lot last season, but when we were good offensively, the ball hit the paint. And when we weren’t (good offensively) – like in the playoffs – it didn’t. So, we need to improve our pace offensively because we were better when we played quicker and the ball has to get going toward the basket more consistently.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: After flying below the national radar last season, most projections now have you in the playoffs and a contender for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. Is there something to the cliché about going ``from the hunter to the hunted’’ and your team will be facing bigger expectations this season?
CLIFFORD: ``In this league, we’re far from being the hunted. The hunted are those top two or three teams every year. What we did is we took the first step toward being more relevant and the better organizations in this league become playoff teams year-in and year-out.
``We’re capable, obviously, of taking that next step, but doing stuff like that is all about having the right attitude. We want to be a team that can win in the playoffs, but we’re no lock to be in the playoffs again. That’s where the mindset is all going to start for us – understanding who we are, understanding why we were able to do well last season and understanding that we had success because of the way that we worked.
``I’d say this, `People probably look at our team and say we’re long, we’re versatile and we’re hard to play against. But they’re not saying, `Whoa, how are we going to hold them under 115 (points) so that we can win.’ So, there’s a world of difference there. You’ve got to always know who you are and how you can be successful.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: As you mentioned earlier, you ranked first in the NBA in defense over the final 34 games. Can you be that team over the course of 82 games and dominate defensively?
CLIFFORD: ``I don’t see why not. Again, we’ll have the same group back. And one of the major strengths of our roster is that our guys are smart. Not because of the coaching, but they’re a smart group and we have high IQ guys. I think that’s a huge part of winning in this league, too.
``We can be good defensively, but we need to be balanced because that’s what wins in our league, too. But I really think a realistic goal of our team is to be a top-five defensive team.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Offensively, what are the areas that need to be much better for you to be more potent on that end of the floor? Have you already set benchmarks that this team will need to hit offensively to make strides?
CLIFFORD: ``With our 3-point shooting, we were 14thin attempts and 11thin percentage, so that was one of our strengths. But, again, our pace of play has to be better. I don’t think that’s as much fast-break points as it is overall pace. We were better when we go the ball down the floor, got the defense on the move and made them play catch up. That gave us more gaps to drive and the lane was more open for cuts. That’s when our offense was at its best.
``And, again, when we played inside-out and our ball movement was good, that’s when we played our best. Over the last 34 games, we were 15thin offense and played a lot better. But in the playoffs, we really struggled (offensively) and we need to be better there.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: How big of an advantage is it to your team going forward having been in must-win mode much of the final month of the regular season and then also playing in high-leverage playoff games?
CLIFFORD: ``You know, it’s funny that in a lot of ways that we have a group where only two or three of them had really experienced playoff basketball. And when you look at what they did last season, they played their way into the postseason. We were 20-31 where we had 31 to play and we were 11 under .500. That (final portion of the schedule) included some stretches where we played the 76ers here and a back-to-back in Miami and we played fantastic two games in a row. We won in Indiana twice and obviously there was the game in Boston that night where we won. We had a lot of really good home wins, like the one against Memphis where we were way down and came back to win it in the fourth quarter. So, they played their way in and that should give our group lots of confidence going forward.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: The day that Vucevic signed, he said that he feels like he is just now entering his prime and that last season wasn’t some random career year. Do you agree that he can be even better?
CLIFFORD: ``I just don’t see that he did anything that he wouldn’t be capable improving on this year. It’s not like he shot the ball really well from 3-point range, it’s not like he shot 43 percent and won’t be able to keep that up. I think he’ll shoot it even better this season.
``The thing that goes unnoticed with him is that for as good as he was offensively, he was very good defensively. He put a lot into last season and he’ll be back here next week after playing in the World Cup. But, I do agree with him that he’s in his prime. Talent comes in different ways. He’s not a high flyer, but his basketball IQ and his decision-making for a man his size – there’s not many who can do all the things that he can do.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Evan Fournier made the All-Tournament team at the FIBA World Cup. How do you see that experience helping him have a bounce-back season?
CLIFFORD: ``I think that can propel him into having a really good year. I know he wasn’t happy last year with how he shot the ball, but I do think he established himself as a very good two-way player. He guarded point guards, guarded (shooting guards) and (small forwards) and his team defense was really good. He’s got great size and he continued passing the ball well. He scored the ball in the World Cup, but he was also 3.7 assists a game going into (last Friday’s semifinal game versus Argentina). His playmaking has also greatly improved.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Terrence Ross was as productive and consistent as he’s ever been in his NBA career last season? What’s the key to him doing it again?
CLIFFORD: ``You what is really interesting from a coaching perspective when you evaluate why did certain things happen the way that they did? The two guys that I get credit for helping – Ross and Vucevic – I actually did very little for them. Both of those guys are quick to say, `(Clifford) did this, he did that.’ But, they both came in here having great offseasons, being in great shape and being in a good place. Vooch and I communicate a lot and I know he’s had a good summer, but T-Ross has been here, and he’s had a terrific summer. He’s in good shape and you can tell he feels good physically. I’ve been in this league a long time and he’s a big time shot-maker. I know he makes shots that make people say, `Wow,’ but when you watch him work out, he makes those shots every day. He rebounded the ball well, he was a better pick-and-roll player than I ever realized and at the end of the year he faced a lot of double-team schemes and he did a good job of moving the ball out of them.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Aaron Gordon was at an event recently and he mentioned wanting to become a more efficient post-up player. Is that an area that you pinpointed for him to train his focus on this offseason?
CLIFFORD: ``He’s been in here working. He’s done a lot with Pat Delany and he’s done a lot of shooting with Bruce Kreutzer. I think he’s in terrific shape and he was here for both optional workouts this week. He’s done a lot, working on his iso-game, working on his post-up game and working on his range shooting.
But, also, people got to see his ability last year to be a good passer and he was a much better passer than I ever realized. It will come as we become more consistent and relevant, he made strides as a two-way player. He had a great year defensively and I was really disappointed that he didn’t get votes for the All-Defensive team.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Jonathan Isaac has added some very noticeable muscle and bulk to his frame this summer while growing his game. How do you see his role growing in the season ahead?
CLIFFORD: ``To me, he’s had a phenomenal summer. He’s in the weight room and on the court all the time. His experience with USA Basketball was so positive and Jeff Van Gundy was so impressed with him. The way he practices, his versatility is great and he’s in a good, good place going into the season.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Did last year show everyone how valuable and important it is having a steady point guard like D.J. Augustin? How much comfort does it give you having a trustworthy veteran such as him at lead guard?
CLIFFORD:``Tom (Thibodeau) and Stan (Van Gundy) had coached him, so I wasn’t surprised at what he did. Those are two guys who have no false praise coming out of their mouths, so after talking to both of them I knew that he was going to be good. Playing against him, when I was in Charlotte and (Augustin) was in Denver and it was a huge game late in the year when we were fighting for a home seed in the playoffs, and I think D.J. put like 15 (points) on us in the fourth quarter. He’s a pro’s pro, he keeps himself ready, he’s highly competitive and he’s team first. It’s so good to have him with us.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: With Mo Bamba and Khem Birch, you have two backup centers who are highly capable and getting better. How do you handle that competition between the two of them for minutes behind Vucevic?
CLIFFORD: ``Mo will be the backup to start. I’m a believer that you don’t lose your position because of an injury, and Khem understands that and we’ve talked about it. That doesn’t mean Khem isn’t going to play. Khem’s a very good player and he was a big, big part of our team last season. When you have a situation like this, you look to find ways to keep (Birch) ready.
``As for Mo, he’s had a good summer, he’s a lot stronger and he’s shooting the ball with confidence. As is the case with most young guys, he has a better understanding of what this whole thing is about and that will help him a lot this season.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: With Markelle Fultz, what is he able to do at this point in terms of five-on-five play. And when he’s fully ready, do you almost treat him like an NBA rookie considering that he’s still only 21 years old and has played just 33 games at this level?
CLIFFORD: ``The thing for me is that he’s been great, and he’s been in here working. For me, it’s the same thing – we’re taking it day by day and when he gets to the point where he’s ready, we’ll make decisions about all of that. But I’ve been happy with him and he’s great to have around and he has a love of the game.
``When I watch him and when I watch some of his (University of) Washington games and when he played last season in Philly, he plays like a D.C. kid. With the D.C. area, they have great coaches, they play with an edge and if you watch his games at Washington and in Philly, you can see it right away. I recruited there for years, and that’s how he plays.
``He’s so talented, but just because of the situation (with his injured shoulder), it’s just about him taking it day by day. Seeing how things have progressed have helped him and that’s just the smart way to go for now.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: With training camp set to open on Oct. 1, how satisfied are you with where the team stands with two weeks left in the offseason?
CLIFFORD: ``Right now, as you can see here in the office, we’re still meeting and there are things that we have to decide, but for sure there’s an excitement. But, like with anything as a coach, you’re always evaluating, `Where are we at?’ It’s all about us having two good weeks to get themselves ready for training camp and figuring out which guys need to take a couple of days off. But I feel like with all of our guys, we’re in a really good place right now.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: A couple of your players have already mentioned that this season is about wanting more and expecting more both from themselves and from the team. Is that a message that you have passed along to the team, that expectations and demands will be greater this season? How do you think they will respond to those higher expectations?
CLIFFORD: ``It’s all about having that mentality of wanting to get to the next level. It always gets back to the same basic things – how you work every day and how committed we are to playing a (style) that can win. There’s so much that goes into that obviously, such as the shot-making and the creativity of players. But because the guys in this league are so good and so smart, your level of execution is so important. We’re going to have to be better at that and more consistent with that. That leads to winning more.
``I think we have a good work team and they’re committed. And I think they also understand that if everybody makes that necessary commitment, we are a very talented team that can accomplish some things.’’