Let's Stop Eating Our Coaches

Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

A discussion of the rumblings surrounding Portland Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts after the team's 3-5 start to the 2012-13 season.

The New Era of the Portland Trail Blazers is exactly 8 games old and already I'm starting to hear rumblings in the comment sections of game recaps and in the e-mail inbox (blazersub@gmail.com):

"Coach Stotts' substitutions are messed up. He's playing the wrong guys off the bench."

"Why doesn't Coach Stotts make LaMarcus Aldridge get down low again?"

"Why hasn't Coach Stotts invented a low-fat cheesecake that tastes good and cures diabetes and heart disease instead of contributing to them? What's wrong with the guy?!?"

I'm all for game evaluation and spirited debate surrounding it. We've actually been accused of having some of the smartest, most accurate evaluation around. It's no accident that people come here to find out what's going on with the Blazers.

I'll let you in on a little secret, though. At least 40% of our smart, sane evaluation rests on a couple of pillars:

1. We don't blame things on the refs.

2. Unless a coach faced a critical and obvious decision point which either illustrated his tendencies or won/lost a game--which happens maybe 4-5 times a year--we evaluate coaches once each season, right at the end, giving you the big picture of strengths, foibles, faults, and their effect on the team.

Evaluating coaching isn't horribly difficult as long as you can see the whole forest. Trying to gauge it when you're amid the trees requires an incredibly sharp mind and the kind of access that nobody gets except for the coaches and players themselves. The number of variables is huge. The forces of cause and effect are as complex as the human equation. Nobody's going to be able to make sense of it in a given moment, the same way nobody can tell you exactly why two spouses love each other. No given day between two people can describe a relationship, all the motivations that go into it, and all the effects that stem from it. Even repeated patterns give an incomplete picture, as you don't know what's behind them without a ton of work and revelation. The only way you can measure is by distance traveled over time...lots of time.

Let's hop in the not-so-Way Back Machine to Portland's last coach. Let's look at the big picture. Take away the Trail Blazers name and uniforms. Take away all specific players and coaches. Let me just describe a situation to you.

A team has a fantastic run of high draft picks over the span of a couple years. They draft three star-level players, one of those being a once-in-a-lifetime center drafted first overall, another a guard who scores 20 in his sleep and makes All-NBA and All-Star teams with regularity. The entire franchise is built around these players, as it should be. Offenses, defenses, drafts, contracts...everything revolves around this amazing core. Then one day the guard's knees turn to mush and he can't run or score anymore. Meanwhile the center gets injured before Game 1 of his career and never really recovers.

What's going to happen to this franchise?

If you said, "Undergo a bunch of confusion, try their best to cope, but spiral downward," give yourself a cookie.

If folks were evaluating any other team but their own they'd state it, accept it, and move on. That's what's going to happen! End of story.

It's not that simple when you have to walk through the blasted forest every day, though. Even if you understand the big picture, looking at those gnarled, shriveled trees gets pretty old. Why aren't we going right instead of left? (The whole forest looks like this. It doesn't matter much.) Haven't we seen this hill before? (They all look pretty much the same. Besides, what if it is? You in a hurry to see the next set of gnarled trees?) I think I hear water over there. Why aren't we headed for the river? (It's not a river. That's an auditory mirage caused by wind whistling through leaves. All the rivers are plugged up with ash anyway.) Whose idea was it to go on this stupid trip???

Who takes the blame for all of this? That's right, the guide. He didn't blow up the forest. His course probably isn't any better or worse than anybody else's would be under the circumstances. But somebody has to take the heat. So we get stuff like...

1. Nate McMillan's offense was ineffective and an assault on the eyeballs.

Of course it was when the guys it was designed for went down with crippling injuries. When he had a healthy crew that offense was actually one of the most efficient in the league.

2. Nate McMillan stunted the growth of every rookie the Blazers drafted during his tenure.

If by "stunted their growth" you mean "insisted on playing them behind more experienced, talented players instead of in front" then yeah, he stunted their growth. Every coach in the NBA would have. If you mean "Didn't change his whole system for their benefit," again this is true. But which of them showed they merited that? Answer: Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, both of whom became All-Stars under his watch and both of whom were incredibly efficient scorers in his system. If you mean "Didn't turn them into NBA starters," who did? The Blazers' talent pool was overrated during those years...not nearly as deep as it seemed, as several departed players have shown since. But somehow that gets blamed on McMillan as well.

3. Nate McMillan was too rigid in his thinking and with his players.

Interesting that part of the complaint now is that Terry Stotts is not being rigid enough with his star player. But be that as it may, McMillan coached young teams for almost all of his tenure. He had to grow his talent. He was never free to just let his players loose and say, "Do what you think is best" because most of them didn't know what was best. By the time he got a significant number of veterans the injuries had already decimated the team. Then he was playing catch-up with no really good solutions. Even so he eased up considerably during his final year when Roy was gone and the roster included Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby, Gerald Wallace, and Jamal Crawford. He let the players run the show and call the plays much more. Ironically enough, those same players got him fired then proceeded to go into business for themselves entirely, killing the team and the season.

We could go on, but you see the point. The criticisms, though understandable from a particular point of view, don't hold water when the whole picture comes clear. The specifics are wrong and the linkage between cause and effect specious.

Now flash forward back to our time, 8 games into the new season with a whole new team. What did you know about the Blazers going into the season? If you read at all carefully here, or even took a casual look at the roster yourself, you knew that this team was incredibly thin, that even the major players were unproven in their new roles, that the minor players were completely untested, and that the only consistent skill up and down the roster was the ability to shoot from the perimeter. What would you expect under those conditions if this team were not the Trail Blazers, if you didn't have to walk with them through the trees every day? If you were sensible you'd expect a poor performance from the bench, lots of growing pain and failures, some guys not panning out at all, an inconsistent offensive attack predicated on jump shots, and mounting losses as the season progressed.

Look at what we're getting in the early part of the season. Is it not exactly that?

Then why in the world would you think a coach was causing this? Do you blame Isaac Newton for gravity? Had he formulated an equation differently, would the apple have fallen up?

"Coach Stotts' substitutions are messed up. He's playing the wrong guys off the bench."

Straight up...whoever Stotts plays off the bench right now is going to put in a seriously flawed performance. The only choices involve which flaws, when, and for what purpose. There is no right answer here. There is no magic bench move that makes the team look better.

Complaining about "substitution patterns" is a cottage industry among NBA fans. It's easy. Playing "what if" is tantalizing, especially when you favor particular players who aren't seeing the floor much. 97% of the time when the "what if" substitution becomes reality you see exactly why the guy wasn't playing in the first place.

I've never heard people complain about Phil Jackson's substitution patterns much. You know why? He had Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. THAT'S the answer to winning games, not who he's bringing in for 5-minute shifts in each half. When Jordan and Bryant are on your team, you know this. When they're not, folks need to pretend that lesser players are more important than they are and lesser (coaching) decisions right along with them.

This is especially seductive with rookies, as backup quarterback syndrome runs wild. The NBA style greases the wheels because the single, spectacular move a guy makes registers more than the six plays he blew on the way there...even though that spectacular play only made your team 2 points and the blown plays cost them 7 plus two personal fouls on other guys.

Equally easy (from the outside anyway) is the, "The whole season is going to suck so why not just play the young guys?" argument.

A coach has to take into account 15 players, not just 3. What message would this argument send to the other guys, particularly if those other guys are playing better than the rookies you're "giving" time to? "Hey, bag the season. Who really cares?" isn't exactly from the Knute Rockne lexicon.

This isn't just about wins and losses. This is about habits, morale, and building a unified culture. Send the message that neither they or the season matter and those 12 other guys are going to quit on you, not just for now but for your entire tenure and perhaps as long as they remain with the franchise. You've just established a stance that you're never going to be able to reverse.

Plus you have to think of the rookies themselves. Contrary to popular belief, playing time alone does not make a player better. With young guys you have to target, teach, guide, and help them gain experience in manageable doses. If they're not ready, if they can't follow a play, if they don't have the fundamental skills or understanding, all the playing time in the world won't do anything but mess them up and their team right along with them. Good coaches say, "Here's two(-ish) things I want you to do on offense and two(-ish) more on defense. Show me those and you'll see the floor." When the player shows those consistently in practice, they get some game time, provided their overall talent level is also up to snuff and provided there's not a clearly better player in front of them. When those things are also demonstrated with regularity in games, more requirements are added. The process repeats until the player becomes reasonably aware and complete. If at any time the player falls short of goals, he probably shouldn't see the floor. This isn't playtime out there. This isn't "throw stuff around and see what happens". Those are losing habits. The ultimate goal is winning and a secondary goal en route is to get as many players to a professional level of competence and teamwork as possible. If you're not competent yet then you're going to inhibit the team instead of helping and you could cost your teammates a chance at winning. Under those circumstances playing time makes no sense. It's not doing you or anyone else any favors.

Therefore it makes perfect sense, especially this early in the year, for guys like Jared Jeffries and Sasha Pavlovic to see playing time ahead of some of the younger deep-bench players. For all their flaws, those veterans know how to play. They understand the fundamentals, their roles, and the ultimate goal.

"Coach Stotts' offense is inefficient, especially for Aldridge."

Yeah, it is. It's going to be inherently less efficient than the iso offense was at its peak. I suspect that eventually Stotts will be ushered out of town on that basis once the talent level rises again. But right now this offense has the best chance of taking advantage of this lineup's strengths. They can all shoot. They can all pass. Not one of them is a ball-hogging star. In fact disaster ensues when any of them try to be. They need the floor spread wide and the ball moving to accomplish anything besides strained chucking.

For this team in this year that inefficient offense is as good as you're going to get. It looks pretty when it works. More to the point, there's no other offense that will turn this lineup into much more than a 3-5 team. Any offense run by this team is going to look less than ideal. Living with less than ideal is part of the contract devoted observers have with the 2012-13 Portland Trail Blazers.

"Coach Stotts is playing the starters way too many minutes!"

Yup. And look at this roster. Wouldn't you? Even those who carried serious hope for guys like Will Barton, Joel Freeland, and Nolan Smith pre-season had to look at that lineup card an at least suspect this could happen.

Eventually the huge minutes will have to stop, as the starters will become less efficient as the season wears on and their bodies wear down. But big minutes for the main guys is not surprising early on when player are fresh, when the coach is looking to for them to gel into his system, and when the season is still up in the air with winning the strongest priority.

Again, we could go on with the Stotts complaints just as much as we could have with the ones against McMillan. Here's the point: Maybe we should stop eating our coaches. You can have the best laid plans in the world but certain systemic issues will overtake you no matter what. No amount of walking and talking will turn a wood full of weeping willows into a strong oak forest. That takes a big, long journey to another part of the world. When the Scoutmaster screws up and has his charges drink unsanitary water, that's worth talking about. That the road is rocky, the trees windblown, and half of the little scouts can't put up their tent right because they just got here? Nothing he does or doesn't do will change those things. There's no magic oasis around the next bend that he's somehow keeping you from. Nothing will get Jimmy and Johnny woodland-proficient except going through the process. This requires patience from the hand-wringing parents who are all sure that their particular son is a genius. He may be, but before he can invent that self-sustaining energy device that'll revolutionize the world he needs to learn to tie his shoes just like all the other kids.

Coaching isn't as easy as blaming. Eventually we'll all find good reasons to criticize Coach Stotts. The things we're hearing so far ain't them.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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