Orlando Magic hire Steve Clifford as new head coach

Steve Clifford is headed back to Orlando, charged with being the new face of a long rebuild. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)
Steve Clifford is headed back to Orlando, charged with being the new face of a long rebuild. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

The Orlando Magic have hired former Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford to the same position, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Clifford signed a four-year deal Wednesday morning, becoming the team’s fifth head coach in the last seven years.

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Clifford was fired by the Hornets in April.

Charlotte fired Clifford after his five years at the helm featured mixed results. In his first season, 2013-2014, he led the then-Bobcats to the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, but the LeBron James-led Miami Heat swept them in the first round.

Charlotte won 33 games in Clifford’s second year, 10 fewer than his first year, and missed the playoffs. But the team bounced back in Clifford’s third year, winning 48 games and nabbing the No. 6 seed in the East. The Hornets lost in the first round again, though, in a back-and-forth, seven-game series with the Heat.

Clifford’s last two seasons — both playoff-less 36-46 teams — have been disappointing due to injury and inconsistency. Even with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker at the helm, the team never took care of the basketball under Clifford — Charlotte finished with the most turnovers in the league in four of Clifford’s five years — and struggled to find the right pieces to fit alongside Walker. New GM Mitch Kupchak relieved Clifford of his duties on April 13.

Clifford was an assistant coach with the Magic from 2007-2012.

Clifford served as an assistant coach under Stan Van Gundy for Van Gundy’s entire tenure with the Magic (2007-2012), earning a reputation as a defensive wiz for one of the league’s toughest defenses. Anchored by an in-his-prime Dwight Howard, the Magic led the league in defensive rebounds in three of the five years.

During his first stint in Orlando, Clifford was part of the franchise’s best stretch ever. The team went to the playoffs in the first year and the NBA Finals the next year, falling to the Lakers in five games. The Magic returned to the playoffs in each of the next three years, going to the conference finals in 2010 before first-round exits in 2011 and 2012. Van Gundy and, in turn, Clifford were let go following the 2012 season. The Magic haven’t been to the playoffs since.

Clifford served as an assistant with the Lakers for a season before Charlotte hired him.

The Magic have some nice young pieces for their long-term rebuild.

To say Orlando has struggled in recent years would be an understatement. The team has reached 30 wins just once — in 2015-2016 — since Van Gundy’s departure. It has also employed four coaches — Jacque Vaughn, James Borrego, Scott Skiles and, most recently, Frank Vogel — in the past six seasons.

While the rebuild has taken a long time, Orlando has some young pieces that could inspire confidence. Athletic forward Aaron Gordon set career-highs in points, rebounds and assists per game this season, and lanky wing Jonathan Isaac should be back to full health after missing much of his rookie season due to injury. And Clifford not only knows the franchise well; he knows how to rebuild. Charlotte finished 21-61 the season before he arrived, and he took that team to the playoffs the following year.

It’s certainly an uphill climb for a team still struggling to find its identity, but Clifford has led rebuilds before, and his defense-first approach will help a team that finished 20th in defensive rating last year.

The 2018 NBA draft is next.

Orlando holds the sixth pick in the 2018 NBA draft and could go many ways as it hopes to expedite its return to contention. There’s a bevy of big men at the top of the board, and Orlando could hope it can groom a superstar big much like it did with Howard. The Magic could also bolster its backcourt — the team traded away former point guard Elfrid Payton mid-season — or add another wing alongside Gordon and Isaac. The Magic also have two second-round picks.

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