Steve Clifford is excited. He has spent the last week meeting with his Orlando Magic players. Clifford has only coached one of them, center Bismark Biyombo, who he coached with the Charlotte Hornets a few years ago. The NBA regular season doesn’t start for four months, but the work Clifford puts in now will be key in setting the tone for his debut season on Orlando’s bench.

“I’ve just been trying to get out and connect with everybody,” Clifford said via phone Tuesday afternoon. “We have some guys here in town working out. I’ve pretty much been able to speak with everybody.”

At 56, Clifford is not an NBA lifer, but he’s close. The University of Maine at Farmington graduate’s journey to the NBA was the long way over nothing but back roads. Clifford’s scenic route took him from Farmington to Woodland High School to college coaching stops at St. Anselm, Fairfield, Boston University, Sienna, Adelphi and East Carolina. Clifford joined the New York Knicks as a scout in 2000, and has been on an NBA bench since 2001. First as an assistant coach with New York, Houston, Orlando and the Los Angela Lakers, and for the last five seasons as head coach of the Charlotte Hornets.

The health scare that kept Clifford away from the Hornets much of last season has been resolved. Headaches that were the result of sleep deprivation are gone.

“This is the best I’ve felt in a long time. It was tough to go through that, unfortunately, for my team,” Clifford said.

Clifford was fired by Charlotte on April 13, but unemployed for approximately six weeks before hired by Orlando in late May. Clifford is taking care of himself, and he’s ready for the challenge of rebuilding the Magic. He was on Stan Van Gundy’s staff from 2007 to 2012, when the Magic were at their best, reaching the playoffs five times and the NBA Finals in 2009. Since then, the team has been consistently awful. Since 2012, Orlando’s best was a 35-47 record in 2015. Last season, the Magic were 25-57. Only Atlanta had a worse record in the Eastern Conference.

In that record, the team Clifford inherits in Orlando is similar to the one he took over in Charlotte in 2013. The season before Clifford arrived, the Hornets won 21 games. In Clifford’s first season, the Hornets won 43 games and reached the conference quarterfinals. Clifford’s high point in Charlotte was the 2015-16 season. The Hornets won 48 games and lost a tight seven games series to the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. The last two seasons didn’t go as well, however. Back-to-back 36 win seasons and playoff misses. The defensive intensity that helped define Clifford’s Hornets wasn’t there this past season. Charlotte was 19th in the league in points per game allowed after finishing in the league’s top 10 in each of Clifford’s first three seasons with the team.

Did his illness play a part in Charlotte’s slide back? Probably, but Clifford won’t use it as an excuse. Now, he looks at his time in Charlotte as a learning experience, something he can use to his advantage in Orlando.

“One thing for sure is, you can’t take anything for granted,” Clifford said. “Last year in Charlotte, I thought we’d be strong defensively, but we struggled. Obviously we didn’t have as a group the same defensive mentality and commitment we had the other four years.”

A key to the Orlando rebuild is this Thursday’s NBA draft. The Magic have the sixth overall pick, as well as a pair of picks in the second round. A handful of players are linked to the Magic in the annual guessing game of the mock drafts that lead up to the actual event. Players like Mohamed Bamba of Texas, Trae Young of Oklahoma and Michael Porter, Jr. of Missouri have been linked to Orlando and the sixth pick. If Clifford has a preference, he isn’t saying. That high in the draft, the Magic will have options. The team can get a cornerstone player on which Clifford can build.

“We have a lot of guys coming in (for predraft workouts). I have some input. The personnel people watch these guys for years and know a lot more than I do from a few weeks,” Clifford said.

Clifford signed a four-year contract with the Magic. In considering his next coaching job, Clifford knew he wanted stable ownership, which Orlando has in the DeVos family. He wanted to work for a front office that shared his philosophy of building a defensively-sound basketball team. Clifford found that in Jeff Weltman, Orlando’s President of Basketball Operations, and General Manager John Hammond. Clifford spent a lot of time with Weltman and Hammond during the hiring process, and said the collaborative connection felt right.

As Charlotte’s coach, Clifford knew how to beat Orlando. The Hornets won all four meeting with the Magic last season and 11 straight. But over the last few seasons, the entire league beat Orlando. Clifford knows he has to change that like he did in Charlotte.

“We’re getting the chance to develop a way to communicate with everyone. I need to become an expert on their games. I’m watching a lot of film, because I need to be more aware of their strengths and weaknesses,” Clifford said.

With a team to rebuild, those four months before the start of the season don’t seem long at all.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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