Steve Clifford was there the last time the Orlando Magic were a playoff contender.
He’s being asked to make them one again.
Clifford was announced Wednesday as the new coach of the Magic, a team that has missed the playoffs in each of the last six years. Clifford — who spent the last five seasons as coach of the Charlotte Hornets — was an assistant coach on Stan Van Gundy’s Magic staff for five years, including during the team’s most recent playoff run in 2012.
“I’ve had 18 great years in this league and I’ve enjoyed every year, but none more than the five years here,” Clifford said.
Magic president Jeff Weltman said the team used a “deliberate approach” and took its time, but insisted that the franchise made the right hire.
“We are very excited to welcome Steve back into the Magic family,” Weltman said. “Steve is widely regarded throughout the NBA community as an elite coach and developer of players at all stages. His teams have always been disciplined and prepared, and have embraced the concept of playing for each other.”
Clifford is replacing Frank Vogel, who was let go after two seasons. Clifford, who missed 21 games this past season while dealing with severe headaches brought on by sleep deprivation, was fired by Charlotte at the end of this season after going 196-214.
Hiring Clifford is easily the biggest move made so far by Weltman. He took over the club a year ago after the team fired Rob Hennigan and ended his five-year run that never got on solid footing.
Weltman made the decision after this season to part with Vogel, who was a proven winner in Indiana but simply didn’t have a playoff-caliber roster in Orlando.
Neither does Clifford, at this point anyway. It will take more than a coaching change to improve Orlando’s fortunes.
“The old saying in the NBA, and it’s so true, is you never know a player until you coach them,” Clifford said. “I’m going to start to try and establish the right kind of relationships with these guys tomorrow, or tonight. I want to be able to impact each one of these guys in the right way.”
Clifford was ousted in Charlotte after a front-office shakeup. Owner Michael Jordan fired general manager Rich Cho and eventually hired Mitch Kupchak to replace him in April. Kupchak fired Clifford not long afterward.
The Hornets went to the playoffs twice in Clifford’s five seasons, never winning a series.
“The NBA isn’t about winning — the NBA is about winning in the playoffs,” Clifford said at the end of Charlotte’s season.
Clifford is coming to a franchise that has lost more games than any NBA club over the past six years, 335. That’s four more than Philadelphia, a franchise that was openly tanking for years before turning things around this season.
The Magic weren’t tanking. They’ve just been bad.
Orlando hasn’t had longer than a five-game winning streak at any time over the last six seasons. But over that same span, the Magic have had 23 losing streaks of at least five games. On their way to a 25-57 record that left them 18 games out of a playoff spot, the Magic had two seven-game slides and two other nine-game skids.
Since Van Gundy left, the Magic have gone through a series of resets.
There have been 62 players in uniform over the last six seasons — none an All-Star while in Orlando — and now five coaches. Van Gundy was replaced by Jacque Vaughn, who was let go after 2 1/2 seasons and replaced on an interim basis by James Borrego. Scott Skiles then took over for one year, and Vogel ran things the last two seasons.
Weltman said Clifford is the one who can stop the revolving-door look to the coach’s office.
“I think it’s crucial,” Weltman said. “Fifth coach in seven years, it’s very important that we start to establish our identity and be able to build on something that doesn’t get turned over every season.”