Today's Blazer's Edge Mailbag covers Terry Stotts, the man that podcast co-host Phil Naessens and I have been championing for Coach of the Year since before the season even began.
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Youve been bullish on Stotts all year. Ive come around to him. I wonder what you like about him specifically. What makes him that good? Seems like he turns scraps into gold every time.
You've hit on the crux of it. Stotts' superpower is getting the most out of the players he's given...not just one or two, but seemingly most of them, as individuals and as a team.
Obviously preparation, communication, and knowledge form the foundation of his portfolio. Dane Carbaugh, Evans Clinchy, and Eric Griffth have made a cottage industry of showing you successful Portland plays this year, breaking down the X's and O's of a beautiful offense. We need to accept those qualities as the basis for Stotts' success, just as they are for every coach.
But that's also part of the point. On the drawing board every play works, every system too. Coaches don't get NBA positions because they're bad at what they do. Not every coach has the requisite attention to detail and communication abilities to make it work. Inadequacies get revealed quickly on the professional level. But most NBA coaches will have a decent playbook and have some sort of strategy to convey it. Those qualities alone aren't sufficient to explain what makes Stotts different.
People's opinions on the subject will vary depending on their viewpoint. To me, Stotts' distinction lies in four factors that distinguish good leaders from great:
1. Terry Stotts designs systems that put players in position to succeed.
Next time you watch the Blazers on offense, watch how much time each player spends outside of his effective play-making zone. The answer is going to be, "Not much". When plays do break down, the gaffe is obvious for its rarity. When you see Al-Farouq Aminu dribbling 7 times into traffic (as opposed to the dozen other things he does well) you know it's not Blazers basketball.
Stotts appears to understand what all great managers do, that success comes when the leader provides a sound framework, then tweaks the specifics to allow individual gifts to shine.
This approach is not instinctive. Most organizations start by asking, "What kind of programs do we need to be successful?" Once they've defined their cubbyholes, they shove people into them. Successful organizations say, "Here's what we're all working towards and here are the core principles that guide us no matter which path we take towards success. Now let's look at the people around us and see how we can get them walking toward our goal, allowing each to forge the path that best suits their abilities as they lead us to success." Great leaders don't design programs then fill them with people, they survey their people then design programs around them.
Stotts has done exactly this with the 2015-16 Blazers. The summer reboot didn't leave him a full cupboard by NBA standards. He picked his core values: moving the ball, keeping all five players as threats, valuing three-pointers, looking for the first quality opportunity. Fielding a pair of quick and crafty ball-handlers, he made splitting defenders off of high screens a staple. He allowed the screen-setters to roll to the bucket for offensive rebounds or dunks instead of spreading with the pick-and-pop as LaMarcus Aldridge did. With superb athletes on the roster, backdoor cuts are common occurrences. The ball heads towards the basket first even if the eventual shot comes from beyond the arc. That Stotts vowed not to abandon his approach when facing four new starters is one thing. That he was able to tweak that approach to suit the gifts of a new, and in some ways limited, roster is another entirely.
Many coaches founder on the rocks of their own system. They shoehorn players into roles that don't suit them or don't encompass the entirety of their game. That's another way of saying, "This is all about me and the way I think basketball should be played," instead of, "This is about you and your gifts." In all the time Terry Stotts has coached here, hearing every interview and watching every sideline move possible, I have never once gotten the sense that this is about him. It's about playing well, getting the win, supporting the team, and giving the players the best chance to shine.
2. Stotts gives his players agency.
Every playbook has options. Portland's offense is less about memorizing the book than reading the floor. Assuming that all five players will be in position to do damage, it's up to the guys on the court to figure out who gets to drop the hammer on a given possession.
Players determined the outcome of every game. Few coaches are as obvious about investing their trust in that maxim as Stotts is. He gives power rather than reserving it. You don't have to wait until after the game to find out if you were a valuable part of the process. If he puts you in, you've made it. Now go play.
3. Stotts trusts in the process.
When each game subjects you to the court of public opinion, with plays run endlessly on SporsCenter and YouTube, the temptation to live and die by momentary results has to be huge. If Terry Stotts feels that, it doesn't show through his players. If his charges make the right pass and take the best shot, they've done their jobs. Whether an individual shot falls or not is almost beside the point. Over the long haul, correct process will produce good results.
Every outing brings the Blazers hot quarters and cold streaks. Threes fall, then they don't. Portland's approach stays fairly steady, give or take a few adjustments. Somehow the scoring always comes around.
Some would claim that Stotts trusts in the process too much, failing to make adjustments quickly enough. When his coaching career has extended beyond the horizon we'll be able to make that judgment better. For now, the Blazers aren't going to win every game no matter how sound the process is. Some would consider winning half the games with this roster a minor miracle. Stotts has done that and more, not only earning the room to trust, but trust in his process from us as well.
4. Stotts does all this without sacrificing standards.
One look at him on the sidelines will tell you he's no loosey-goosey, "Everything's OK, man..." guy. Stotts has high standards; he just bases them on different criteria.
Many coaches take the approach, "If you fail, you're out. I'll just keep rotating in players until I find one who can do the job." Stotts says, "If you don't engage in the process and take the opportunities it provides, then you've failed. But if you're playing within the framework and taking your best shot, you're good no matter what the outcome."
The difference comes when a player lines up for a three-point attempt. Disciples of the first school think, "I better hit this or coach will yank me. Maybe that means I shouldn't take it?" Stotts' entire system is designed to get them that opportunity. If they pass it up they've blown it far worse than if they took the shot and missed it. "Green Light to shoot" is an inadequate summary. If they don't shoot they're stalled in the intersection, taking the whole offense with them.
Obviously if a player goes 0-7 Coach might figure it's not their night. (Notice those players often get their full allotment of minutes though.) If the same player goes 0-0 while passing up two shots on possessions that end up in turnovers because he didn't seize his moment, he's going to sit. He's hurting the team far worse than he would if he bricked good attempts. Succeed or fail, you have to take the open shot when life places it in front of you. If you follow the system and dare honestly you have a chance. If you only go halfway because of fear or uncertainty, you're doomed to fail no matter what.
In general, leaders can correct mistakes far more easily than they can get people to make them. Terry Stotts appears to be one of the rare coaches who understand that. As soon as their sneakers hit hardwood, his players have a mandate to step up.
Consider the importance of this stance to players like Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh. I imagine each gets chastised now and then. I doubt it's for missing open threes. If they're not understanding or following the team path to success that's one thing. If they're following it and stumble trying to take a step, that's another. Trying is the default state for Portland's players. Their goal is to do something that their coach can then correct rather than figure out all the correction before they can actually do something. That's how confidence is born. That's how young players develop...or fail. Either way, it's honest.
Everyone reading this has experienced bosses who fail to follow these principles. Working for them is a pain. You've also known bosses that evidence one or more of these traits. Working for them is, well...sometimes a joy and sometimes still a pain, but it's productive and real and gives you a chance to become more than you were, to succeed or fail on your own terms and learn from it. What else could you ask of a career in the NBA or elsewhere?
Terry Stotts has exceeded expectations every year of his Portland tenure. He deserves a round of applause for creating a fantastic environment in which his players succeed, develop, and bond. Part of that credit should be expressed via a Coach of the Year trophy. The obvious follow-up would be a long-term contract. These traits aren't going to get old no matter who's on the roster and Stotts has shown no sign of getting anything but better with age.