Strong reaction to the Blazers' loss in Phoenix Wednesday was inevitable. "Roller Coaster" not only describes individual seasons but Blazer fandom in general. Nobody rides it better, nobody stays on longer than does the Blazer fan.
However I couldn't help but notice that the first bump on the ride caused a significant swell of blame to fall upon the head of Head Coach Terry Stotts. We printed nothing like that in the game reviews but the comment sections blossomed with calls for everything from a different scheme to the coach's head on a platter.
A discouraging opener to a (presumably) tanking team won't be greeted with flowers and flute ballads by any fan base. But in light of the already burgeoning Stotts-centric response to things that go wrong with the team, I wanted to reprint a Mailbag question I answered on October 15th. We almost never reprint articles here, but here it is, in its entirety. I feel it has bearing on the Stotts discussion.
It seems like this season NOW comes down to player development. Does this coaching staff have the ability to take any of these players to the next level in their respective tiers as players? I guess I am nervous after suffering through previous coaches in Portland.
Portland does not have a coaching problem. The Blazers really haven't had any serious coaching questions since Maurice Cheeks was here. The Blazers have had performance expectations higher than their talent could deliver which then got blamed on coaches because that's the easiest "out".
In the case of Nate McMillan the Blazers had enormous talent and were making good on same. No team that young had ever won 54 games in the history of the league when the Blazers did it in '08-'09. Injuries to major stars cut the legs out from under those teams. Simultaneously players who weren't able to handle the load got exposed. Guys like Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, and Jerryd Bayless were massively over-hyped. Nicolas Batum needed time to develop (and apparently still does). When they didn't become instant contributors--in the case of 2 of the 4, even when they eventually dropped out of the league altogether--somehow this became Nate's fault. Those players just weren't going to have the impact that people hoped. No coaching technique was going to change that. When the knees of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden went to heck, that ship was going to sink no matter who was holding the wheel.
Now we have a similar expectation bubble with new players and young players, just with a different coach. The incoming players are decent but have been over-sold. The team will improve but not by as much as people hope. Mark my words here. When Robin Lopez starts playing like Robin Lopez (decent but not transformational), when those bench guards make some nifty plays but ultimately suffer for a lack of defense, when the limitations of Portland's roster as a whole (lack of consistent rim attack, lack of defense) start showing...people are not going to ask the questions they should be asking. They're not going to ask whether the Blazers are laying too much on Lopez's shoulders. They're not going to ask whether bench additions would have made that much difference to a situation that was odd in the first place. They're not going to start questioning the limitations of the players nor the strategy that put this group together. They're going to point right at Terry Stotts and say, "He can't coach defense!" and "He can't develop players!"
Stotts has been put in a position where he pretty much has to win 50 games (with a team that almost certainly isn't capable of getting close to that) in order to get validated. 45 wins would be an ultra-heroic effort with this team--Coach of the Year material--but that would be taken as "normal". Rather than riotous celebration, the immediate question would be, "What next?!?" 42 wins would be the high end of normal and even 39 would be a decent job. The former would be greeted by a chorus of "Meh." and the latter with accusations of incompetence. God help Coach Stotts if an injury or lack of chemistry makes the team bomb. He'll be skewered.
Stotts will also get skewered if he makes the season about player development, as you suggest. As soon as he throws Thomas Robinson out there instead of LaMarcus Aldridge, Leonard instead of Lopez, C.J. McCollum or Allen Crabbe instead of Wesley Matthews, the Blazers are going to start to lose games. Ironically the focus you most want to see from him is also the focus most likely to get him fired, at least if it's expressed through court time.
This is part of the problem with the phrase, "This season is about player development AND winning" as opposed to setting expectations for one or the other and then following through. That phrase is easy to say, near impossible to live out...else every team in the NBA would be doing it. If Stotts plays his veterans heavy minutes while going for maximum wins he'll be accused of not developing his young players. If he puts the young guys in the rotation he'll get lambasted for not winning (or at least not winning as much as folks perceive he could in an ideal world). No matter what happens--outside of a dazzlingly perfect season--the only guy who won't win on the other side of it is Stotts. That isn't because of his coaching ability or lack thereof. It's how the expectations have been framed in the public eye.
Something to think about anyway.
Don't miss Chris Lucia's preview of tonight's game in Denver!