New Magic coach Steve Clifford begins rebuilding effort

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — First-year Magic coach Steve Clifford is aware that the most consistent them about his new NBA team over the last few years has been losing.

Consider this: Four head coaches and dozens of players have come and gone since Nikola Vucevic arrived in Orlando six years ago in a four-team trade.

The 7-foot center has been one of the positive constants, averaging 15.6 points and 10.5 rebounds in 405 games with the Magic. But Vucevic has never been in a playoff game, and this season could be his final shot in Orlando.

“Trade rumors have been part of my last three years and I’ve kind of grown used to it,” Vucevic said. “I know it’s the last year (of his contract) but I also don’t focus on that. If you focus on things you can’t control, it doesn’t really work out for you.”

Vucevic prefers to focus on the young help he will have this season in the frontcourt.

Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba, the Magic’s first-round picks in the last two drafts, are the centerpieces of the team’s new direction under Clifford. The young 7-footers will have to make giant strides for the Magic to be playoff contenders.

“They’re both going to be on the floor, but Jonathan is much further along, physically and mentally, than Mo is,” Clifford said.

The defensive potential of Isaac was apparent last season, but injuries limited his rookie season to 27 games.

“I feel stronger. I’ve put on weight, I’ve grown a little bit,” Isaac said. “I do feel more at ease and more prepared this year. I feel I can talk to anybody about staying mentally tough through a tough season.”

Vucevic can talk about playing through six tough seasons, during which Orlando has averaged only 26 wins.

“The guys who have been here for a couple years, no one knows more than us how hard it is to go through these losing seasons,” Vucevic said. “It’s very hard to play toward the end of the year when you know you’re going home early.

“I’ve never asked to leave or anything, and I take a lot of pride in that,” he added. “Like I’ve said often: If only we’d win, everything else would be great.”

Some other things to know about the Magic this season:

GORDON THE ENERGIZER

F Aaron Gordon, entering his fifth season after signing a four-year, $76 million contract at the age of 23, has assumed a leadership role. “I feel like I need to set the tempo, the energy,” he said. “I have an energy that I’ve always carried with me as a basketball player, and it’s contagious.”

INJURY-PRONE

Isaac is one of four projected starters with a need to prove he can stay healthy. Gordon missed 24 games last season, and Vucevic and G Evan Fournier each missed 25 games. “I don’t see toughness being an issue here,” said Clifford. “I think that when there was a full team and they were healthy, there was plenty of intensity and toughness on the floor.”

CAST ASIDE

G Jonathon Simmons, who started 50 games last season, missed the last 12 games with a fractured wrist and had surgery in June. “The summer was terrible, man, being in a cast. I’m just excited to be able to play basketball again,” he said.

NO SHORT CUTS

Jeff Weltman, the Magic’s president of basketball operations: “It’s a hard transition to make, to go from bad to good. It’s heavy lifting, and a lot factors into that. We have urgency to get this thing going the right way and build a sustainable winner here, but we’re not going to short-cut it to try to put a playoff team on the floor if it costs us future assets.”

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