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Are the Trail Blazers Getting the Best Out of Their Players?

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Terry Stotts determines roles and minutes, but are the players able to follow?

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are experiencing another up-and-down season, cruising through a 4-1 Eastern Conference road swing only to return home and drop straight games to the Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Pelicans in humbling fashion. One reader is tired of the confusion and fluctuation, laying both at the feet of Head Coach Terry Stotts. Take a look.

Dave,

Why on this team do guys not know their roles?

I have long been a fan of Stotts. Thought he was one of the best coaches in the NBA. Pop sets the bar for great coaches. He sees guys strengths and puts them in a position to use their strengths.....felt like Stotts was good at this too.....until this year. What the heck is going on? Our dysfunctional hero ball offense comes down to guys not knowing their roles, not knowing where they are supposed to be on the court....at least until Shabazz enters the game.

Hope I gave you something there you can again edit for me again and turn it into a decent question. Thanks!

—Steve

Let’s talk about the Gregg Popovich assumption first. He is, indeed, one of the greatest coaches ever to prowl the sideline, in part because of the very quality you mention: the ability to get the most out of his players. He also had Tim Duncan—one of the top players in the history of the NBA—for 19 seasons. Duncan’s supreme talent and dedication were the key to translating Popovich’s excellent coaching ability into superlative records and titles.

Duncan’s production declined significantly in 2015-16, after which he retired. That year the Spurs lost in the second round. Last season they went to the Conference Finals before getting obliterated by the Golden State Warriors...which basically means they drew the opposite side of the conference playoffs bracket from the Warriors or they would have been out in the first or second round again. This year they’re off to a 15-8 start but they’re clearly a tier behind the Warriors and Houston Rockets, probably at the top of the nondescript mid-conference teams.

Had Popovich never had Duncan and the titles he brought—acknowledging that San Antonio also fields a more experienced, more balanced lineup that is probably worth a few extra wins over the Blazers right now—would we be able to draw as clear of a distinction between Pop’s current 15-8 coaching and the 13-10 pace of Terry Stotts?

I say this not to compare the two directly. Popovich is more accomplished and deserves more credit in every way. Still, how do we know that Stotts isn’t getting great, or even near-Pop, production out of his own players under completely different circumstances?

Personally, I believe Popovich maybe could get a little more out of Portland’s roster provided he could work with them in his native environment. But I also believe he would have flat refused to sign off on some of Portland’s acquisitions and/or would have filtered out some of the re-signings that they’ve made. Part of his presumed success would be predicated on him not having this exact roster; they don’t fit his style and this lineup never would have been assembled in San Antonio. Stotts doesn’t have that luxury.

Remember also that Popovich carries the authority of multiple championships with him...again, products not just of his genius but of Duncan buying into and reinforcing same for two decades. If Pop didn’t have that history and you plunked him down on Portland’s bench, I’m not sure the results would be much better than Stotts’.

For these reasons, I’m hesitant to say that Stotts is doing an inherently worse job of “getting the best” out of his guys than Popovich would.

I do agree with the idea of putting players in a position to succeed, but one also has to ask what that position is and how those various positions and definitions of success fit together.

Putting Al-Farouq Aminu in position to blossom fully probably means letting him defend and rebound, never asking him to do anything offensively that doesn’t involve a straight-line drive or a wide-open shot (the shorter, the better). But does that really help the team succeed? How about Meyers Leonard? He needs copious minutes, free shots, and a long leash regardless of minute-to-minute output. Would giving him that kind of developmental time put more points on the board and wins on the record? Let’s not even talk about what getting the most out of Evan Turner would to do to Portland’s offense. (Hint: It’d bleed shots from the starting guards and Shabazz Napier, whom you favor.)

Here’s the clincher: the Blazers could get the most out of Aminu, Leonard, Turner, Napier, Moe Harkless, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Pat Connaughton, and both rookies and still end up on the low side of mediocre. All of them together barely matter at this point. Nothing we’ve seen from any of them, even at their best, would push Portland into contention.

The “dysfunctional hero ball offense” you cite is another way of saying Stotts is trying to get the best out of the three players who actually matter: Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic. They’re the key to success right now, and thus are first in the chow line. This has been made obvious by Portland’s failure to get over the hump against serious competition any other way. Teams oust Portland from the playoffs by forcing them to rely on players other than the starting guards. They have to ride the players who give them the best chance to win.

Leftovers remain, but the players who scoop them up are going to have to fit the space, and roles, left by the Big 3. Since one of those roles is outlet three-point shooter, either Aminu or Harkless will need to fill it. They’re not adequate, but that’s not a lack of understanding as much as a mismatched skill set. If Stotts defined their role as “dribble to the basket through traffic instead”, they still wouldn’t succeed. It’s not about knowing where to be on the court. Instead their weaknesses show forth wherever they end up. The only workaround is to keep the ball out of their hands in all but the most obvious circumstances. This will remain true until the roster changes no matter who the coach is.

P.S.

If I were in charge for your entertainment

Starters

Shabazz - Best true point guard and runs the offense

Dame - the all star

Aminu - Defense!

Meyers - Spaces the floor, keep his role simple and his low BBall IQ wont kill us and his offense will open up the court. And I bet Shabazz puts it in his hand where he knows what to do.

Nurk - We are bad boys....

Its all about fit and guys playing their roles

Bench Rotation

CJ -

Turner

Vonleh

Davis

Thanks for your time!

This is a good example of it being easier to identify issues (yes, the Blazers have some) than to find solutions. I’m no Nostradamus, but let me take a stab at likely side-effects were your proposed lineup put into place.

  • CJ McCollum would immediately wonder why he’s not starting when he’s clearly the second-best player on the team, has put in the work, and has his career and sneaker deals on the line. You’ve immediately disrupted his mojo and put yourself way out on a limb. Your new lineup better win NOW or he’ll have every right to complain. And not just him...discontent will spread to Lillard and Nurkic quickly if they don’t feel you’re fielding the best lineup around them. Then you’re wasting their work too.
  • Shabazz will take the promotion and might even do well there, but he’ll find it much tougher to be a second (or even third) scorer against first-rate opponents who have scouted him ahead of time than he currently finds it to play third guard in a limited-minutes bench lineup when the defense is paying attention to Lillard and McCollum alone. But the real loser here may be Lillard, who will face extra pressure from opponents who once cared deeply about McCollum but are lukewarm about the Napier threat.
  • Meyers Leonard isn’t quick enough, let alone intimidating enough, to guard modern starting power forwards. Plus he’s become the poster boy for underachieving Blazers. Opposing broadcast teams are going to greet every tip-off with the words, “Surprising insertion of Meyers Leonard into the starting lineup”. Other teams are going to go right at him in the first quarter. And I hope you like Benihana because the entire fleet of local sportswriters just walked in the door and that chef is sharpening his knives right above your head. Even worse, every guy now below Leonard on the ladder who feels they’re more qualified than he will question your criteria for starting. Whatever your winning game plan is, it doesn’t include starting your best players, nor the ones who have earned it. They’re either going to conclude that your vision is skewed or that you hate them and there’s no future on this team.
  • Nurkic is going to keep playing Bad Boy for you, but even worse will be all the fouls he’ll pick up with Lillard, Napier, and Leonard letting players into his house.
  • Vonleh and Davis might be OK coming off the bench, but they semi-duplicate each other. The two names appear together but once in Portland’s Top 20 most-used 5-man units. It’s the worst offensive production of the 20, sporting an ungodly Effective Field Goal percentage of 28%. If you can’t play them together, you’ll need to choose between them.

“Why do these guys not know their roles?” is, if not the wrong question to ask about this team, at least far down the list beneath bigger and more obvious issues. Whatever ails the Blazers, it won’t be solved with a pep talk and a flow chart, nor is it entirely—or even primarily—a coaching issue.

Thanks for the question, Steve! Hope I wasn’t too hard on you. Those who’d like to step up to the plate, send your questions to blazersub@gmail.com or tweet them @DaveDeckard.

Also, we currently have 1260 kids from around the Portland area reserved to go to Blazer’s Edge Night, with more signing up every week. Could you please help us say YES to all these young folks and their teachers/principals/caretakers by donating a ticket or two? Click here for the info. You can get nifty socks if you wish and donate a ticket automatically, or go whole hog and donate several tickets on your own!

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