You know what they say, three strikes, and you’re out.
That was how it went for the Orlando Magic and their now-former head coach Steve Clifford after three disappointing years at the helm of the franchise. On Saturday, the two sides agreed to a mutual and cordial parting of ways, the team announced.
Clifford had led the Magic to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2019 and 2020, but both forays into the postseason resulted in first-round exits. Then, the Magic really fell off in 2021, dropping to 21-51 as they clearly turned the corner towards rebuilding and away from contending.
Rookies, guys on 10-day contracts, anyone could get a shot in Orlando’s rotation down the stretch after they unloaded every asset they could at the trade deadline. Veterans shipped out included All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, scoring forward Evan Fournier, and high-flyer Aaron Gordon, for which Orlando got back a boatload of picks.
On a side note, Gordon’s new team, the Denver Nuggets, are currently offering +160 NBA odds as an underdog in their Game 1 clash with the Phoenix Suns on Monday night. That value could turn this moneyline wager into one of the best bets for today.
But I digress, the trio of deals netted Magic brass a three first-rounders and a pair of second-round draft choices in the coming years. Considering they had the third-worst record in the association this season, Orlando will also have a great chance at landing a top lottery pick in the upcoming 2021 NBA draft, which is supposedly loaded with talent, led by OSU’s Cade Cunningham.
After Clifford’s miserable season mercifully ended, the bench boss and the team brass had several frank conversations on what the future of the franchise looked like. Following those discussions, it was clear that the two sides were not in sync, and therefore came to the decision to part ways “mutually,” as Magic president Jeff Weltman put it.
“Obviously, we’ve repositioned our team,” Weltman said during a presser on Saturday. “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.
“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,” Weltman continued. “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.”
Clifford leaves northern Florida with one year left on the four-year deal he originally signed back in 2018, sources told ESPN. The 59-year-old native of Island Falls, Maine went 96-131 while he had the reins of the Magic, reaching the playoffs twice but failing to win a series.
The Magic now join the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics in the search for a new head coach, though Weltman said that those vacancies had no effect on Orlando’s timetable for the Clifford decision.
“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. In reference to their search for Clifford’s replacement, Weltman assured that they, “won’t leave any stone unturned, I can tell you that.”
Orlando’s top assistants—Ty Corbin, Steve Hetzel, and Pat Delany—are still with the team for the moment, but we’ll see how much of that changes as the franchise goes through the process of finding a successor. It’s certainly not a process that the Magic are unfamiliar with considering whoever the new guy is will be the franchise’s sixth head coach since 2015.
That is some Cleveland Browns, Chelsea FC level turnover at the head coaching spot, but hopefully it works out for Orlando this time around. They’re in the best position they’ve been in a while with a solid group of promising youngsters and a cache of draft picks to help them supplement that group.
They will likely have two lottery picks this season, as they finished third-worst and the Chicago Bulls, who sent them 2021 and 2023 first rounders for Vucevic, finished tied for the eighth-worst record in basketball. On top of that they have exciting youngsters like Cole Anthony, who looks to have the makings of a superstar after draining two buzzer-beating game-winners in his rookie campaign.
Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, RJ Hampton, Dwayne Bacon, Mo Bamba, Chuma Okeke, Jonathan Isaac. The list of young talent goes on, so if the Magic can find a good player-development type of coach, they could be very dangerous in three to four years.
Clifford, meanwhile, enters the job market boasting a 292-345 overall record across eight seasons as an NBA head coach, five with the Charlotte Bobcats, three with the Magic. Clifford has gone 0-4 in playoff series, so he might need to take an assistant job before getting back in the big chair