USA TODAY Sports
A Blazer's Edge reader asks how Portland Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts is doing so far this season. Dave gives him an answer.
It's a day off for the team, thus time to dip into the Mailbag! I appreciate everyone who has sent questions in so far and I'll do my best to get to all of them. If you'd like to see a topic addressed, mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org Please put "Mailbag" somewhere in the subject line to keep sorting easy.
2012 is done. It is still early in the season but give us your evaluation of Coach Stotts. How has he done so far? What are your impressions? What grade would you give him?
Let's address the last part first. I've tried to do season grades for players and coaches a couple times over the years. Each time I felt icky. Granted, the grades generated plenty of conversation but it was mostly people arguing with a letter (or a plus or minus) rather than discussing finer points of basketball. "How can you give him a C+ based on such nebulous criteria??? He totally deserves a B- for these totally solid assertions!" More than that, me giving "grades" to professionals when I am not a professional in their field myself seems presumptuous. I'm not Terry Stotts' teacher. As the saying goes, he's forgotten more about basketball than I know. I feel comfortable offering observations, debating points, engaging in conversation. That's just adding my part to a process we're all involved in, including Coach Stotts. Hopefully he, too, could engage fairly and productively if he were to so choose. But, "Stotts, you're doing pretty good. Here's a B+ from me!" just seems wrong. If I walked into Portland's locker room and used that as an opening line (or even a closing one), what would that make me, other than a jerk?
So anyway, no grades here. Also keep in mind that the only way I like to judge coaches is by full seasons and with heavy emphasis on wins and losses. With that caveat in mind, though, here are my thoughts.
First of all, had you told me at the beginning of the season that the Blazers would be over .500--even by a game--heading out onto this road trip I'd have thought the assessment optimistic. I didn't think they'd be here. Even if they end up tailing off towards the end of the year, that doesn't change the quality of this start and how it will affect the final record. If the basic metric of coaching success is wins and losses, Stotts has done great work so far.
When you get a whiff of success it's hard to avoid assuming it as the norm and wishing for more. In other words, when a team is 15-14 instead of celebrating we tend to say, "Why aren't they 18-11 and ensconced in the playoffs? Lousy coach..." Do you know how many things could have gone wrong with this roster up to this point? Stotts is meshing players together in a new way, dealing with an impoverished and young bench, making do at center, trying to raise up a star rookie point guard, trying to keep an established All-Star happy in a less-than-exciting season. This team is the equivalent of a Rubik's Cube with three pieces loose. So far he has managed all of that skillfully, if not solving the puzzle completely at least making 2-3 sides look good.
This team also developed a clear, strong, consistent style of play early and, with a few adjustments, has held to that mode throughout most of the season. It's a radically different style than they were accustomed to. Again, this is not a simple achievement. How many players have to buy in? How many players have to hold fast through losses and personal bad games to make this work? You can tell that this is a Terry Stotts team every time they take the floor. Look at the confusion surrounding many mid- and low-level teams in this league, even ones with supposedly powerful coaches. Stotts has done a marvelous job in this vein.
Whether that style will bring long-term success is open to debate. The Blazers are not getting high-percentage shots, nor are they shooting high percentages relative to the rest of the league. The defense needs major work. But the long-term isn't here yet. Today, with this roster, Stotts is doing what he can. I suspect he and the team will have to evolve--first in personnel but after in style of play--in order to establish themselves as contenders. Based on the current results Stotts deserves the chance to defend and/or evolve his style, though. It would be unfair to condemn him for things that haven't happened yet, or to try and parse out which of the team's issues are due to coaching and which are due to not having the right guys in place.
Also impressive to me: Stotts seems to have fostered a certain agility in roles among his players. The only sure thing coming into this season is that nothing was set.. Many times in the NBA you see players shoehorned into a role that the system needs then left to sink or swim. In other words the coach imposes certainty on the uncertain situation via rigid definition. But look at how this team has responded to uncertainty: experiment and evolution. We've seen a couple different incarnations of LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum so far this season. We've seen J.J. Hickson and Damian Lillard develop to their advantage. We've seen Luke Babbitt develop more confidence in his game than he's ever showed. Will Barton and Victor Claver are coming up for air occasionally as well. Terming this "player development" is a misnomer of sorts, as you also have to look at the players who aren't developing so rapidly: Nolan Smith, Meyers Leonard, Joel Freeland. It's not like Stotts has a magic touch with each player. Rather he seems to have created an environment of experimentation and flexibility wherein players--old and new--can operate with confidence as they (and he) figure out who they are.
Some folks will immediately respond to that assertion with, "Thank God, because our old coach was so oppressive!" I hasten to add that the flexibility is valuable precisely because the Trail Blazers are young, unsettled, in transition. Given a roster of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden, Nate McMillan's job was to make the playoffs, period. Everybody and everything else was properly secondary to those three stars and the win-loss total. Under those circumstances Stotts finding a way to make Babbitt click would have been a nice little green bean on the side of the turkey, mashed potato, stuffing feast...cute, but not the point. In fact the same characteristics that makes Stotts good for this team right now might have made him the wrong guy four years ago. (And might make him the wrong guy four years from now. Who knows?) But that's the point: Stotts is operating quite well with the team he's got and in the situation they're in. That's what you ask from a coach.
A final, more personal observation. One of the things I've liked about watching Stotts coach so far is that even though he seems intense sometimes, he never seems dramatic or out of control. Whatever comes at him he seems to absorb, process, and deal with. Nate McMillan had a ton of authority. You knew when you walked within 30 feet of him. He was almost like a statue. It was like walking in the presence of the emperor. Stotts has a different type of authority, like the wise guru you're not going to tip over. He doesn't radiate his presence outward as much as give the calm sense of his own internal authority and ability to handle things. This, in turn, gives other folks the impression that though he's concerned: A. He's always thinking, and... B. Things are alright, and... C. They, too, can handle it. This year's team reflects those premises, especially in how they've dealt with adversity.
I mention this because I perceive this particular style of authority to be fairly rare among NBA head coaches. The money, the hype, the pressure, the cutthroat nature of the job...how does one stay calm and true to oneself in the face of all that while still being able to command, make tough decisions, lead? Nate McMillan had one very good answer to that question. Stotts has quite another. The style he favors doesn't always work. Seeing him succeeding with it is fascinating, even from afar.
Long story short, my answer to your question is that Terry Stotts has done quite well so far and it's been interesting to watch him problem solve these difficult challenges. Let's see what the rest of the season brings.