Following last Friday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets and a weekend of speculation about the status of center Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers fans found themselves in a dither about the state of the team. The angst eased when Portland dispatched the Denver Nuggets on Monday night, but the residual heat falling on Head Coach Terry Stotts still glows, despite Nurkic stating that his premature departure from the locker room on Friday night was not coach-related. Latent frustration from a 7-6 record will do that to you.
Unsurprisingly, my inbox is full of Mailbag questions regarding Stotts and Nurkic. We covered the Nurk angle yesterday. Today, let’s look at the coach.
Dear Blazers Edge,
I think it’s a fitting time to assess Terry Stotts’ influence on the team. Very rarely do fans debate so heavily over a single decision made by this coach, as more often than not these decisions do not so directly influence the outcome of the game. It’s quite the anomaly that Stotts has incited stirs within the Portland fan base with his late game decisions in the two most recent games. I think a coach is judged by his ability to turn talent to wins. That’s Stotts’ primary function to me, and I’m interested in what you guys at Blazers Edge have to say about his ability to do that in light of the events the past two games.
I’ll admit, I poured myself a stiff drink before sitting down for this one. I’m not sure what’s burning worse: the back of my throat after Patron and Vodka, losing to the Nets at home, or the fierceness and rapidity with which fans turned on Stotts after Friday night.
I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that “a coach is judged by his ability to turn talent to wins”. Your window of two games is a little short, though. Let’s zoom out for the wider picture.
2012-13: Terry Stotts took over the helm in Portland in the summer of 2012. He was fresh off of a strong run as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, winners of the 2011 NBA Championship. Things were not so rosy with the Blazers. After losing Brandon Roy and Greg Oden to permanent injuries, they hobbled through a stinky sloth’s armpit of a 2011-12 season, marred by lockouts, disjointed play, and copious doses of Raymond Felton. Long-time coach Nate McMillan had been fired mid-season, a tacit admission that the team was at rock-bottom, headed nowhere.
The two bright spots in Stotts’ lineup were returning All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and rookie Damian Lillard. Neither was a sure thing. Aldridge had been disgruntled and was openly wondering whether the Blazers and he were a match. Lillard was exciting but the “small college” label dogged him and nobody knew how he’d adjust to the next level. Around those two hopefuls stood Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Will Barton, and ten players who would not matter to anyone the second the season was over.
Portland’s 33-49 record that year was not sterling, but Stotts made several significant adjustments. He put Aldridge in a more natural position on the wing, giving him options to face up (in isolation or pick-and-pop), turn around baseline, or drive down the center. He bestowed on Lillard enough freedom and encouragement to earn him the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. Stotts sent Matthews and Batum to the perimeter with a blinding green light. These moves foreshadowed success in the years to come.
2013-14: Portland’s major off-season acquisition in the summer of 2013 was Robin Lopez, a big, but otherwise fairly generic center with limited offensive range. With Lopez in the fold and Stotts’ offense taking hold, points per game and offensive efficiency evolved from terminally mediocre to 4th and 2nd in the league, respectively. Lillard and Aldridge would earn All-Star berths this season. The Blazers would win 54, defeating the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the San Antonio Spurs.
2014-15: With the mighty signing of Steve Blake (no, seriously), the Trail Blazers were set to do battle again. Their starting five were now considered a major force...among the best in the league. Development of young guards Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum, plus a mid-season trade for Arron Afflalo, provided room for bench improvement. Injuries would scuttle those plans, but the Blazers still won 51 behind a lineup of Aldridge, Lillard, and a bunch of players who haven’t made a serious impact anywhere in the league except Portland.
2015-16: In the summer of 2015, Aldridge jilted the Blazers for his hometown San Antonio Spurs. Bereft of their All-Star veteran, Portland dumped everybody over the age of 24. Lopez...gone. Batum...gone. Matthews and Afflalo...gone. They sewed bargain-basement, long-shot players into a crazy patchwork quilt of youth and hope. Lillard was the sole bankable commodity on the roster. It was as if someone started “Saved by the Bell: The Next Generation” with Zack Morris and a bunch of community college drama students.
At that point the Blazers were done, fenced into rebuilding hell. Except they weren’t. With the depth chart cleared out ahead of them, McCollum and Crabbe became significant forces. Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu found footing as well. With a broken shell of a roster, Portland continued to generate the 6th-best offense in the NBA. Instead of winning 30-something games, as most predicted, they won 44 and made the playoffs again. They had now gone from the ridiculous to the impossible.
2016-17: The Law of Averages, and bad defense, would catch up to the Blazers in ‘16-’17 as they stumbled to “just” 41 wins. Once again their lineup was shoestring. Noah Vonleh, Aminu and Moe Harkless split time at the forward positions. The “big” off-season signing was Evan Turner, a reasonably-accomplished veteran but an odd fit in Portland’s offense and hardly a savior. Salvation would have to wait for mid-season when the Blazers moved Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets for reserve center Jusuf Nurkic. To that point Nurkic was known for underachieving and being grumpy. Ten seconds in Portland transformed him into All-Star form. For the six millionth time, Stotts took someone else’s lemons and made caviar out of them.
2017-18: This season the Blazers have sputtered early and lost a couple of bad games at home. In the process Stotts has tried to to teach Nurkic and the team that if they want to be great instead of just “better than expected”, they’re going to need to play defense and give consistent effort. Blazers fans promptly call for the coach’s head.
Remember that late scene in The Great Escape where Steve McQueen rode his motorcycle to the border of Switzerland? He faced two barbed-wire fences barring him from freedom. The closer was tall, but he leaped it in an incredible feat of riding prowess. The second proved insurmountable. All McQueen could do while being shot at was slide the bike into the bottom of the fence, take the cuts and bruises, then throw his hands up. He was a damn good rider. He got farther than anyone could have expected given the circumstances. He just couldn’t do the impossible.
Terry Stotts is Portland’s Steve McQueen. A double-fence stands between him and NBA glory. The first defines the line of respectability. He has leaped this fence over and over again...sometimes on a stolen motorcycle, sometimes on a rusty old trike. He has gotten more speed and distance out of his cycles than anybody has a right to expect. But that second fence—the border separating the Blazers from elite status—cannot be jumped without a better vehicle.
Early-season losses to the Grizzlies and Nets aren’t atypical for Portland, nor are they a product of coaching. That’s what happens when you field guards who don’t defend, centers who vary in effort and stamina, and forwards who do two things well and a host of others poorly.
Season after season the Blazers play on the edge, riding late-season feats of derring-do into minor playoff runs and calling it good because of the relative thrill. Game after game they fail to shut down their opponents, leaving close margins in the fourth. They glorify the shots that put them over the top half the time, downplaying the other half when they end up losing.
Somehow this all has been translated as “good”. It is, in a sense. Making the playoffs is better than not. Swish or brick, buzzer-beaters are better than losing by 20. But it’s time to face the fact that the Blazers are not, and never have been, as good as their highlight reels suggest. It’s also time to acknowledge that Portland fans wouldn’t even have the opportunity to pretend they were that good unless Stotts had coaxed pretty much the maximum number of wins possible from these rag-tag lineups over the years. The Blazers have been dead in the water twice now during his tenure, yet this summer people were still speculating they could contend for an upper-tier playoffs seed.
Stott’s extended run is an accomplishment that no single week of games (or player run-ins) can belie. Blazers fans don’t owe the coach a free pass. If the scales are going to even out, or even come close, they should rightfully give him a free season or two. If that’s too much to ask, benefit of the doubt until the All-Star break should be mandatory.
Whatever is wrong with this team has been going on for years, not for a week. Fixing it will involve much more than a simple coaching change. Terry Stotts has turned less talent into more wins than any coach who’s ever walked the Blazers sidelines. He may not be the coach to take the franchise to the promised land, but if he can’t win 50 with this team, this team probably isn’t 50-win capable.
Keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!