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Don’t Hang Portland’s Troubles on Terry Stotts

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Plenty of causes contribute to the Trail Blazers falling below expectations, but blaming the easy target isn’t the answer.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question deals with a topic that’s slowly bubbling to the surface given the relatively uninspiring 13-16 start to the Portland Trail Blazers season. If you have a question like Matt’s, send it to blazersub@gmail.com.

Dear Dave,

Ok I gotta ask it. The Blazers are having trouble this year and it doesn’t look like its getting better. Is it time for Stotts to go? Has he lost the team? I know you’re going to say that it isn’t built right in the first place and I’m ready for that smackdown on my question but I gotta know. Could it be the coach?

Matt

When situations like this arise, everybody has a part. Is some of it the coaching staff? Sure. They lost a couple guys over the last two years. Maybe the new think tank hasn’t hit its stride. Both messages and messengers go through cycles. A revolutionary concept during one season becomes an eye-rolling statement a few years on. To say the coaching staff plays no part in the Blazers’ current performance would be disingenuous.

BUT...

And this is a huge BUT...

That part is dwarfed by other considerations. Changing coaches would certainly change the complexion of the team but it would not cure what ails it.

We need to look a little deeper at that roster-construction “smackdown” you see coming. No need to belabor it; we’ve said it for a while now. The Blazers aren’t built solidly. They have too many one-dimensional players and easily-solvable lineups. Their alternatives are untested or sub-par. In a video game you can look at a defensive weakness, acquire a shot blocking specialist, and the algorithm will count it to the good. In real life players have to work together, not just meshing but actively supporting each other’s strengths and making opponents pay for their weaknesses. That’s not happening in Portland and hasn’t since the LaMarcus Aldridge squad left town. The Blazers have been selling mediocrity as near-greatness for a while now and those expectations are catching up with them.

We could—and probably will at some point—do a whole extra article on the definition of leadership. I believe the players on the current roster are smart, genial, and are generally doing the best job they can. I believe Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are competent captains and someday will become great. The fact remains: when you clear an entire roster to make one or two players “leaders”, especially when those players are young, they’ll learn by trial and error. I have no doubt Lillard and McCollum can deal with everything they see. The team still lacks veterans. Neither of those guards have been through a deep playoff run or even a serious roster spot battle. That will limit what they perceive. Their low-beams are bright but high-beam anticipation may be lacking, leaving the locker room playing catch-up.

Circling back to actual coaching, we need to remember a few things about Terry Stotts.

  1. The “not a defensive coach” label is overblown. When he took over the team in 2012 their previous defensive rating had been 106.4, good for 23rd in the league. They took a dip in Stotts’ first season but then rose to 107.4 (16th out of 30) in 2013-14 and 103.7 (10th out of 30) in 2014-15. Those were the lineups featuring Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, and Wesley Matthews around Lillard. To the shock of absolutely zero people, when Stotts had decent defensive players to coach, his defensive plans worked better.
  2. Nate McMillan took the Blazers to 3 playoff series in 7 years, exiting in the first round each time. Injuries robbed his teams of the chance to show what they could do...fair enough. Stotts has taken the Blazers to 3 playoff series in 4 years, gaining the second round twice, and has posted regular season win totals to rival any Portland coach since Mike Dunleavy. He’s done this in the midst of seismic roster upheaval. Right now people are scratching their heads going, “How is a team that did so well last year falling apart this year? Is it coaching?” The better question is, “How has Stotts gotten his teams to perform so well, so consistently that even with serious roster flaws everyone now expects excellence?” The guy could have been coach of the year twice, including last season.
  3. Portland’s record last year was 44-38. Don’t let the above-expectation win total and precarious second-round playoff appearance fool you on that. It wasn’t .500 ball but it was close. The Blazers have all the consistency of a rotten banana right now and their record is 13-16. That isn’t .500 ball but it’s close. And don’t forget defensive cog Al-Farouq Aminu is sidelined. This stretch isn’t pleasant and serious cracks are starting to show, but this is not even close to a coach-dismissal situation.
  4. Stotts isn’t coaching these players to blow rotations, recover slowly, and stare at rebounds. Unless you’re Doug Moe in Denver or Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix (both going 1000 mph up and down the floor) it’s hard to scheme yourself into a league-worst defensive rating and 113 ppg given up. That takes plenty of cooperation from your players. Is it a coach’s job to motivate said players? Sure. But when people are failing at the most basic levels, something is going on that a fancier pep talk or better diagram won’t solve.

Blaming Terry Stotts for Portland’s slow start would not only be off-target, but deeply unjust. Bringing in a new coach wouldn’t resuscitate their chances this year. (Which remain alive, by the way . They’re still in 8th place in the conference.) It would only mask the real issues. This team hasn’t really been good since Aldridge left. There was no way to make up for that loss quickly. Portland’s acquisitions since have ranged from overrated to underwhelming. A mish-mash depth chart with similarly-talented players isn’t allowing every contributor to maximize his gifts. This is particularly disastrous on a roster that is uniformly young...an explanation for inconsistency that rings far truer than an excellent coach suddenly forgetting how to do his job.

You can blame plenty of people for the Trail Blazers malaise. The coaching staff would be among those, but they’d be at the bottom of the list.

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

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—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @blazersedge / @DaveDeckard