Steve Clifford and the Orlando Magic took some time after the season to rest, recover and contemplate the future.
And after a couple weeks, they decided the fit wasn’t right anymore.
Orlando’s rebuilding project will no longer include Clifford, after he and the Magic completed an agreement Saturday to end his three-year run with the club. Magic President Jeff Weltman stressed that it was a mutual decision and he respected Clifford for being able to “assess where he is in his career.”
“Obviously, we’ve repositioned our team,” Weltman said. “And so, there has to be alignment. There has to be alignment in everything you do in this league. And if there’s not alignment, it’ll undermine everything.”
That alignment clearly didn’t seem to be there. Weltman indicated that Clifford — who will turn 60 before next season starts — decided he wasn’t the right coach to lead the Magic through what may be serious growing pains with a young group.
“The ‘why’ is quite simple here: alignment,” Weltman said. “And if Cliff is questioning whether the positioning of our team kind of aligns with his own career positioning, then he’s probably not the right guy at that point. I appreciate the fact that Cliff can look himself in the mirror and have those conversations with himself because I don’t think a whole lot of people can do that.”
Orlando becomes the third current coaching opening in the NBA, following Brad Stevens being promoted to president of the Boston Celtics and Portland’s move Friday to seek a new coach after Terry Stotts held that role for nine seasons.
Jobs coming open didn’t affect the Magic timetable, Weltman said. He also didn’t say if the team has a target date for a hire. For now, the assistant coaches — a group that includes Ty Corbin, Steve Hetzel and Pat Delany — remain in place, and it wouldn’t be surprising if some got at least a meeting with the Magic during the interview process.
Clifford was 96-131 in those three seasons, though that record is a bit misleading given how many injuries the team dealt with this season. Orlando went to the playoffs in 2019 and 2020 under Clifford, its first postseason trips since a run of six straight ended in 2012.
“Both sides wanted to do this the right way for one another, and I think that we moved as expeditiously as possible to this conclusion,” Weltman said.
But this season was trying in no shortage of ways. Injuries gutted the Magic, and then the team’s core — All-Star forward Nikola Vucevic, guard Evan Fournier and forward Aaron Gordon — were all moved at the trade deadline as Orlando went younger and stockpiled draft picks for the rebuild.
“It’s the toughest season I’ve ever been through,” Clifford said as the season ended.
Orlando was 21-51 this season, and Clifford missed some games near the end of the season after testing positive for COVID-19. He had been vaccinated just as the positive test results came back, was asymptomatic and returned for the season’s final few days.
Clifford dealt with health issues in the past. He missed 21 games during the 2017-18 season when he coached in Charlotte after problems caused by sleep deprivation presented themselves, and he left a game at Minnesota in March 2020 after experiencing dizziness caused by dehydration.
“It’s been an honor and privilege to coach this team in this community,” Clifford said.
After the trades, the Magic went with young and different lineups over the season’s final six weeks and will likely have two lottery picks in this year’s draft. But the task of forming a winner from that group will fall to a different coach.
The next coach will be Orlando’s sixth since February 2015, following Jacque Vaughn, James Borrego, Scott Skiles, Frank Vogel and Clifford.
“We won’t leave any stone unturned, I can tell you that,” Weltman said.