Derailed by injuries and a re-tooled roster, the Trail Blazers season appeared to be teetering on the edge of a lost campaign. Now winners of three straight, the Blazers are within striking distance of the Western Conference postseason picture. Improved health from Damian Lillard, an engaged Hassan Whiteside, a rejuvenated Carmelo Anthony and a suddenly-friendly schedule have combined to reverse Portland’s fortunes.
There is one factor that is overlooked when examining the Blazers’ turnaround: the steady hand of coach Terry Stotts. Injuries, roster turnover, coaching changes and a road-heavy schedule are familiar hurdles for Portland’s established frontman. But his ability to juggle all those issues simultaneously has set the stage for his most impressive season yet.
Continuity is a common buzzword attached to this decade’s version of the Blazers. With this year’s squad facing a multiple hurdles, the experience Stotts has gained during his tenure will be key to Portland’s turnaround.
Past & Present
Injuries: If you are going to coach in Portland, you better know how to navigate injuries, with an emphasis on big men. Last year, triggered by Jusuf Nurkic’s absence, Stotts assisted in Enes Kanter’s seamless entry into the Blazers’ starting rotation. Utilizing a defense catered to big men that aren’t known for their speed in space, Kanter managed to hold his own against Steven Adams and Nikola Jokic in the postseason.
Long before Nurkic’s injury-induced departure from the lineup, Stotts leaned on Chris Kaman to step in for Robin Lopez during the 2014-15 season. Once again, Portland’s drop-centric defense kept the wins rolling.
With Zach Collins’ absence compounding this year’s injury issues, the transition to Hassan Whiteside has not gone as smoothly as expected. The scheme is still there, but the absence of Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless loom large in this area. Both forwards did an above-average job of staying in position, guiding opponents directly to Portland’s rim protector. Inserting Nassir Little into the lineup has helped and his placement could be a trend that builds steam when the Blazers start their stretch run.
On the positive side, Skal Labissière has embodied the style conducive to Stotts’ system while showcasing the staff’s stellar touch when developing players internally.
Yes. Collins’ early-season setback is far from ideal. On the bright side, managing injuries and turning to unlikely contributors are two areas that Stotts has shown he is proficient in.
Stat Hungry: It is tough to nitpick Whiteside following a terrifically impactful 10-block outing against the Bulls, but let’s circle back for a moment. Prior to arriving in Portland, Whiteside often mentioned his statistical output when justifying his performance. Lillard commented on this subject earlier in the season, explaining that there is a difference between stats and impact.
This is not a new attitude for coach Stotts to navigate. In his first season with the Blazers, Stotts featured JJ Hickson in the starting lineup for 80 games. The former NC State standout averaged a double-double that season, but those numbers barely impacted Portland’s win total. This is not an even apples to apples comparison, but it is an experience worth noting.
Combining Stotts’ player-driven accountability, the strength of Lillard’s leadership and Whiteside’s looming free agency should help reverse bad habits, an outcome we could already be witnessing.
Lack of Depth: Due to injuries and moves in free agency that have yet to pan out, coach Stotts is working with a thin bench. Outside of the year, is there really difference between summoning Mario Hezonja off the bench over Sasha Pavlovic?
Further adding to the Blazers depth issues is the absence of a veteran center. The Blazers turned to Pau Gasol, who was coming off an injury, late in free agency to fill that void. If this sounds eerily familiar, it should. While he didn’t enjoy the same storied career before signing, Festus Ezeli’s tenure played out in the same fashion. Ezeli’s time in Portland did feature a few awkward moments behind the scenes, a big and notable difference between the two signings.
Stotts has mitigated the hurdles attached to shallow rotations in the past, but harnessing the current Melo-driven momentum could go down as his finest work.
The Road Ahead
Facing a potentially lost season with a roster loaded with new faces, the Blazers have turned to the continuity that can only be associated with an established star player and coach. Front office buzzwords should always be taken with a grain of salt, but after this recent turnaround, Portland’s faith in continuity has risen to the forefront.
The items outlined above are worst-case examples, but they are all situations that coach Stotts has navigated in the past. If the Blazers can turn their current three-game winning streak into a full-fledged return to the Western Conference’s top tier, coach Stotts’ juggling act deserves serious recognition.