ORLANDO – Steve Clifford lives his life much the same way he coaches the Orlando Magic – he fully believes that hard work can solve most issues, he’s quick to challenge conventions and loathes the status quo and he’s seemingly constantly in pursuit of individual and team growth.
With the NBA on hiatus since March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clifford passed some of his unexpected free time by re-watching Magic game film and reading books such as “Organize Tomorrow Today’’ to quench his thirst for self-improvement. In recent weeks, Clifford has delved into much more serious and pressing topics such as the history of racism in America and the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept the country following the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
Working alongside of the NBA Coaches’ Association and the Magic, Clifford has been involved in some grassroots’ movements to try and enact change in the Orlando area in terms of social justice. Now, Clifford said, is too important of a time to be a bystander with so much on the line for people of color in America.
“You have to figure where you’re at as a person and for me, right now, it’s not a time to be neutral,’’ Clifford said on Tuesday in a video call with media. “You’re either going to be a part of positive change where you are going to be proactive, be involved in it and work toward it and spend part of your day with it or you’re not. I’m probably like a lot of people where in the past there have been things that have bothered me, but in self-reflection of looking back, I never did a lot to make it any better. Now, I’m determined to be a part of that positive change.’’
Clifford took time out of workouts with Magic players on Tuesday to discuss the restart of the NBA season at Disney World in late July and the league’s need to use its global platform to try and influence change regarding racial injustices. Clifford recently took part in a Zoom calls with social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, leaders of the Obama Foundation and Desmond Meade, the Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition who led a successful campaign to restore the voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians with prior felony convictions. Those activists, Clifford said, helped greatly broaden his knowledge on the current problems at hand and have him thinking about ways that he can enact social change.
Clifford’s thirst for knowledge hasn’t stopped there as he been active in talking to coaches from various sports about the NBA’s plan to restart its season on July 30 following a four-month layoff because of the coronavirus pandemic. After already soliciting the advice of Pittsburgh Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin in a conference call arranged by the NBA Coaches’ Association, Clifford turned to professional friends such as Washington Redskins head coach Ron Rivera, Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, former NBA coaches Jeff and Stan Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau and former two-time MVP Steve Nash for advice in how to get his team ready for the re-start of the season following such an extended layoff.
The Magic, 30-35 and a half-game out of the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference, play eight “seeding games’’ prior to the start of the NBA playoffs in mid-August. On July 31, the Magic open with the Brooklyn Nets – the team a half-game ahead of them in the standings and one that potentially could be without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Wilson Chandler for the restart of the season because of injury or illness.
Clifford said he is already wrestling with how he will get the best out of a Magic team that will be trying to recapture the rhythm, flow and chemistry it had accumulated in late March when it won three games in a row and six of nine prior to the stoppage of the NBA season. While he was highly complimentary of the work that Magic players put in to stay in shape over recent months, Clifford said his team is a ways away from having the conditioning level and sharpness needed to thrive in a NBA game.
“There are more unknowns for all of us than any NBA situation than I can ever remember,’’ said Clifford, who has worked at the NBA level for the past 20 years. “We’re trying to plan our first few days of practice for the (Disney campus) and, frankly, I watch our guys every day and I change my mind every day on how much we can do. Normally, on most staffs, you can (plan out) the first four or five days of training camp and have a good feel for how much contact you can do, how long you can practice, how much offense you can put in and how much defense you can put in, and right now I have no feel for that. Our first day in training camp (back) in September, we played three full quarters with officials because guys were in that kind of shape. But (now) there’s no way that with our guys that we can even play five-on-five in the first couple of practices.
“We’re way behind where we’d be to start training camp (in normal situations), so you have to progress as a team in terms of conditioning level and having enough offense and defense in to play well in an NBA game,’’ added Clifford, who noted that teams also have to almost plan for the fact that they could lose a key player who might test positive for COVID-19. “But there’s also the injury factor. So, how we pace our team in those 21 days is going to be critical and I don’t have a good feel yet for how that’s going to go.’’
Clifford admitted that he plans to add some new sets to the Magic’s offense and defense when play resumes. He also added that he will likely have to abandon his preference of sticking with a nine-man rotation for games and he instead hinted that as many as 10 or 11 Magic players could see action from time to time. “Everyone is going to have to stay ready,’’ he said.
Still, Clifford feels that the Magic have a chance to be a team that could do some damage in the playoffs because of the uniqueness of the NBA’s restart. Fans won’t be allowed to attend games at Disney’s three arenas, likely negating any sort of homecourt advantage that higher-seeded teams usually benefit from come playoff time. Also, with so many unknowns of how teams will respond to the restart and deal with injuries and being confined to a campus-like environment, Clifford said the field could be more level than ever once the postseason begins.
“This is a unique opportunity where it’s been what, 10 or 11 weeks since we’ve played, and guys have had basically like an offseason,’’ said Clifford, whose adjustments to the offense during the break for the NBA All-Star Game greatly helped the Magic become one of the league’s highest-scoring teams in late February and early March. “It’s a unique situation and that’s the way you have to look at it.
“We’re going to go back with eight games left in the season and for our team it will be the eight most important games that we’ve played,’’ Clifford said. “For some of the teams that know they are already in the playoffs and there’s no homecourt anyway, those eight games are almost like an extended preseason for them. … As we sit here today, the playing field is a much more level playing field and you can’t sit here today with eight games to play and say with any certainty that any team is playing a lot better than any other team. So, for a team like ours, it’s a great opportunity.’’
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