The Orlando Magic were supposed to have gotten a day off on Jan. 30. Instead, an incensed coach Steve Clifford brought his team in to watch film and make them see all the mistakes they made the night before in a loss to Oklahoma City.
Plenty of teams would have grumbled about such a move.
In this case, it paid off.
Clifford showed them the error of their ways, and their ways changed. They took some days off over the next 3 1/2 months, sure — but they didn’t take any more games off. A team that was 20-31 after that Thunder loss wound up going 22-9 down the stretch, earned its first playoff berth in seven years and set the tone for what Clifford is going to expect from the outset of next season.
“As the season went on, we played better and better and toward the end of the year we played some of our best basketball,” Magic center Nikola Vucevic said. “We were just very well organized and it comes from the culture that coach Clifford installed, put in for us. As the season went on, we all bought into it and started playing the way he wanted.”
So now, where do the Magic go from here?
A 42-40 record and a five-game ousting by Toronto from the first round of the playoffs is hardly defined as a great season, but it’s a major step forward for the Magic. Over the previous six seasons, no NBA team lost more times than the 335 defeats the Magic endured.
But they hired Clifford last May, and the turnaround was on. Over the coming days and weeks, he’ll be more reflective. For now, he’s just dealing with the sting of a season ending.
“It’s disappointing,” Clifford said after Orlando’s season ended Tuesday night in Toronto. “It is. I felt like we had a team that could make it harder on them than we did.”
The Magic have talented wing Aaron Gordon locked into a contract, have high hopes for center Mo Bamba — whose rookie season was derailed by injury — and acquired former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz this season with the belief that he can resurrect his career. But much like last summer was about getting the right coach in Clifford, this summer is going to be about trying to retain Vucevic.
The free-agent-in-waiting said he hasn’t thought about what could happen July 1 yet.
The Magic, though, obviously hope this season’s playoff run wasn’t his last in Orlando.
“We brought back some hope for the city of Orlando,” Vucevic said. “I think the Magic fans will be proud of what we achieved. … After the rough couple years that we had, I think they’re going to be proud of the team and support us. It was definitely a good season for us to build something special.”
Some of what to know going into Orlando’s offseason:
The Magic will hang a banner for winning the Southeast Division championship, but the real thing for the long-struggling franchise to celebrate going into this summer is that it had the biggest win-total improvement in the NBA this season. Orlando went from 25 to 42 wins; Milwaukee went from 44 to 60. The plus-17 leap is the second-biggest improvement in Magic history: Orlando went from 21 wins to 41 in the season after drafting a promising rookie named Shaquille O’Neal.
Vucevic is the key to Orlando’s summer. Decisions must be made — both by the Magic (how deep are they willing to spend?), and by Vucevic (does he want to stay or go?). He’s spent virtually his entire career with the Magic, put up career-bests in points (20.8), rebounds (12.0) and assists (3.8) per game and was an All-Star for the first time. He wasn’t great in the playoffs, though in fairness, Toronto deserves some of the credit for that.
Clifford is going to get some coach of the year votes, for good reason. Orlando had 10 wins this season in games where it trailed after three quarters, second-most in the NBA behind Detroit’s 12. “Cliff did a hell of a job,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said, adding that he believes the Magic have a bright future.
WHERE TO IMPROVE?
Clifford is always going to emphasize defense, and his formula is proven, but expect the Magic to try and score more next season. They finished 24th out of 30 teams in scoring this season — but when they did put up points, they were so tough to beat. Orlando was 26-9 when it scored more than 110 points this season; 16-31 (and 1-4 in the playoffs) when it did not.
This is also part of the Clifford effect — doing the simple things well. Orlando set a franchise record for free-throw percentage this season, connecting on 78.2% of its tries. And the Magic took care of the ball like no other team in the club’s 30-year history, committing only 13.2 turnovers per game.