Disclosure: I have always erred on the side of being too optimistic as a Blazers fan. I thought Nolan Smith was a great use of a 1st round pick. I took LaMarcus Aldridge #2 overall in a fantasy basketball league in 2010 (okay, that one kinda worked out). I even sold myself on the idea of Raymond Felton replacing my favorite short-tenure Blazer of all time: Andre Miller. So why then, did Terry Stotts hardly raise an eyebrow when he was hired two years ago? Probably because he had a losing overall coaching record, I had hardly seen his name since he was the coach of the Bucks on some NBA video game I had for the Nintendo Gamecube, and he looks like a giant Peyton Manning who has aged reasonably well. Back then, I could get excited about any overpaid mid-level free agent addition, but Stotts just seemed so "safe." (Can hiring a coach with a losing record even be safe?) My Seattle Seahawks had just hired a big-name celebrity coach in Pete Carroll and I had hoped the Blazers would snag a household name, too. Maybe Brian Shaw, or even Phil Jackson? Remember those rumors? But despite my initial disappointment, my first foray into Blazer pessimism could not have been more misguided. I mean DAMN! Look at this coach who has trotted out an elite offensive team with the same players (basically) that he started with plus a certain Mr. Lillard, who would not be the same player under a McMillan-type. And it's not just that the Blazers play efficient basketball: It's beautiful, fun to watch, passes-flying-every-whichway art-ball. Stotts puts pure entertainment on the floor, and somehow won 54 games and a playoff series while doing it. That's why it was announced yesterday that he will coach the Portland Trail Blazers for three-plus more years.
So what are Stotts' flaws? What does Portland's roster need to compensate for? The Blazers have made a long-term commitment to play his brand of ball, but what needs change in the next few seasons? This team, obviously, needs to be better than it was in our doomed date with SAS.
Some have claimed that Stotts lacks the "get rich or die trying" grit that can motivate underdog teams (which Portland may always be) to improbable performances. This isn't necessarily off-point. Stotts is a laid back dude. He doesn't yell often, he treats his players with calm respect, and though he has the occasional and requisite tiff with certain officials, he never seems to lose his head. That's not a bad thing: he out-coached Kevin McHale handily in Round 1 of the NBA playoffs this year with calculation and composure. Even though we didn't see the same in Round 2, I think the basketball community can forgive him for falling to the greatest to ever coach the game. Both Stotts and his players are adept at battling huge deficits and pulling off hail-Mary endgames, but timely execution and clear-headed finesse cannot always take the place of persistent toughness. That may never be this team's identity. Despite hustle-players like Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, The Blazers like being skilled and sneaky-good: the ninjas of the NBA. Portland's soft spoken stars, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, resonate with Stotts' easygoing style, and the roster as a whole seems to enjoy playing for him. But there is a reason that the Blazers find themselves down 15 points on a regular basis, and maybe there are some fires to be lit under the asses of this team if we are to hope for any further success.
Perhaps not unrelated to the question of Portland's tenacity, the team's defensive issues have also been called into question. Rightfully so. Consider the ease at which a less-athletic Spurs team was able to penetrate, dish, and generate open jumpers against Portland's primary and secondary units. Stotts has never pretended to be a defensive mastermind. Quite the opposite, he was dubbed the "offensive coordinator" during his time with the once-World Champion Dallas Mavericks. And since we're being honest here, Portland's current bench features a serious dearth of defensive capability. But these are conditions that fail to excuse a team from allowing such sexy offensive play from a postseason opponent. To Stotts' credit, Lopez has been used very effectively at times, but his rim-protection-only assignments place a great deal of responsibility on Portland's wing defenders. Matthews and Nicolas Batum are forced to cover both shooters and drivers with little help from Lillard. Given that Stotts is now ensconced into a multi-year contract, I don't expect the gameplan to change much on defense over the coming seasons, but improvement is vital.
Rip City can look forward to several more years of Terry Stotts' exciting basketball, but it is apparent that the team's weak areas need to be addressed. Though he can count on Matthews and Lopez to play hard, and hopefully Lillard to improve on D, It would be unintelligent for Neil Olshey to assume that the Blazers will become tougher and more defensively imposing without an addition or two to the roster. With few non-vital trade pieces, no draft picks, and an obvious commitment to Stotts and his core starting players, we can speculate that the most likely route to new bodies in red and black will come by the mid-level exception and veteran's minimum contracts. With any luck, there will be a couple gritty, defensively-stout players on Portland's bench next season. Because I hope to see Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland continue bring their energy and improvement to the court, I am most interested in free agents at the 1-2-3 positions,* but a backup big that could actually contribute some scoring would be welcome here.** Feel free to share your thoughts on how the offseason will play out in light of Stotts' extension.