Despite the tedium of the start of offseason, it's been a busy week at Blazer's Edge, as always. Sam wrote about Portland's need for veteran players on the bench. Chris pondered whether Victor Claver has a future in the Rose City. Dave debated the free agent options that may be available for the Mid-Level Exception.
Meanwhile, Dane discussed whether Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts is a steal at the suddenly-inflated coaching rates. That's a very important question, because it's Stotts himself that ties all these debates together.
Upon his arrival two years ago, it would have been easy to dismiss Stotts as the "temporary coach", the man who led the Blazers through their rebuilding phase, to be replaced by someone else once the tanking was completed. The classic "just happy to have a job" coach. While the Blazers outplayed expectations, coaches are typically judged on wins. And with just 33 wins in his first season, he could only hope there was a Mr. Congeniality award.
However, Stotts wasted no time shaping the team in his second preseason. Coming into the season, Meyers Leonard was the de facto backup center for the team. But as preseason progressed, his fellow sophomore Joel Freeland wanted to make the rotation. Freeland declined practice with the British National Team so he could focus on his floundering NBA career. He came into camp rebuilt, both physically and mentally, and showed it on the court. He brought the "dirty work": positioning for rebounds, setting screens, and improving his defense.
Even with the summer improvements, Freeland is generally considered a "known commodity". He was reaching middle-age by NBA standards, and while he looked much more NBA-ready in preseason, he wasn't a 21-year old 7-foot-tall lottery pick. The Blazers wouldn't have been the first organization to tell the coach "Play the kid." But they didn't. Stotts had full control of his team, and by the last preseason game, Freeland had unexpectedly leapfrogged Leonard into the rotation. Leonard, previously destined for backup center minutes, faced what turned out to be an season of bench-warming, practice time, and injury-replacement time.
Some coaches work out a rotation at the start of the season, and want the players comfortable in that rotation. Nothing short of an Act of God would force a change. On the other hand, Stotts had no problem with regular changes. Dorell Wright was assumed to get regular minutes off the bench as a stable hand who could hit the three. His consistency was the opposite of stable, and despite being signed over the summer, he enjoyed a front-row seat as the season progressed. CJ McCollum made his way back from injury, and showed off his three-point stroke. However, his consistency also wavered, and worse, veterans had no problems taking advantage of his rookie defense. More bench time followed.
While those events unfolded, Will Barton took an opposite direction. He continued to struggle to play a controlled team game in preseason. So while his regular-season game minutes were limited, the coaching staff worked with him in practice. And as Stotts noted after the season, Barton made the most progress of anyone on the team. As the season wound down, Barton earned time in the rotation, even as Stotts was preparing for a playoff run. Yet another reminder that Portland's coach was unafraid to make changes if players earned it.
Stotts' carrot-and-stick techniques were just one part of a system that left the Blazers with 54 wins and a second round appearance. And he was rewarded with a new contract, and a reminder to the players that the front office is on board with the coach, who can make whatever changes deemed necessary, even for recently-signed players and lottery picks.
So what does this mean for the offseason? That's the question I pose to you.
Will veterans be more (or less) interested in joining a team run this way? In a perfect world, you want every player to be hungry and earn that role. But veterans can come to a team with expectations, something the Blazers saw with Andre Miller. Most veterans have less energy than younger players, but bring experience and savvy. They also typically don't want to sit on the bench for 48 minutes. Should the Blazers actively avoid players who don't like the system?
Are there any types of players who would seek out this environment? There are always players who feel they have been previously overlooked, and feel they need a fair shot. While his season was up and down, Thomas Robinson has said that he felt Portland gave him the opportunity he needed, and he knows from personal experience that his role can increase this fall if he shows he deserves it. Should the Blazers seek out these players, and use Freeland and Barton as an example of why Portland is a good destination to turn your fortunes around?
Lastly, how do you feel about Stotts' handling of rotational changes? Were these changes distracting or helpful? Were they a reminder that players have to earn their minutes regardless of status, or simply a way of preventing 8-9 players of finding their maximum potential together? Does his contract renewal truly mean he has management support in these matters?
Have at it in the comments. Perhaps discuss the fact that Mo Williams wasn't even mentioned once. Oh, never mind, so close. -- Tim