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Terry Stotts is a Better Playoffs Coach Than You Think

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Stotts’ post-season record is an eyesore, but there’s more to the story.

Philadelphia 76ers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Terry Stotts has coached the Portland Trail Blazers to rousing playoffs victories, many during their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019. He’s also been on the sidelines for plenty of gruesome defeats. Today a Blazer’s Edge reader wants to know what we think of Stotts as a post-season coach...a fine topic for the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Hi Dave-

The Blazers have 5-29 Playoff record in whatever round they have been eliminated within the Dame/Stotts era.

Do you think this is a Stotts,

Olshey or Dame/CJ problem? Combination of the above? What do you think of Stotts specifically as a Playoff Coach?

Rudy

Everyone will have a sub-.500 record in the rounds from which they’re eliminated. Also several of those exits came courtesy of the Golden State Warriors, Judging a coach by his playoffs record against the dynasty of the decade isn’t exactly fair.

We don’t have to go that far to make your point, though. The Blazers are 20-36 in the post-season under Stotts. That’s a .357 winning percentage. It’s abysmal.

Even under the most favorable optics, there’s no evidence that Stotts is a good playoffs coach. That doesn’t automatically make him a bad one, though.

One’s perspective on Stotts’ lack of playoff success will depend on expectations. If you believe the Blazers are stacked with talent every year, a championship run within their grasp, then Stotts’ bad post-season record is going to seem inexcusable. If you believe the Blazers have been undermanned for most of Stotts’ tenure, the number of playoffs appearances do credit to his coaching even if the win rate doesn’t.

In the latter case, Stotts is like an All-Star shortstop carrying a ton of errors on his stat sheet. The black marks make him look horrible until you realize that he’s getting to plays that average fielders can’t. An automatic base hit in the gap against a normal shortstop becomes a near-miss off of his glove as he dives for the ball. Each near-miss results in an error on the score sheet. Those errors then stand as an ironic testimony, indicating how good he is rather than how bad.

That’s what Portland’s playoffs record becomes if Stotts is taking teams to the post-season that other coaches would have ridden into the lottery. They wouldn’t get clobbered in the playoffs because they wouldn’t have made it with a questionable team in the first place.

The truth probably lies in between. Stotts has guided teams that had no business in the post-season to modest success. (The 2015-16 squad comes to mind.) The Blazers have also come up empty with talent-filled rosters during his tenure (in 2014-15 and 2017-18, for example).

When evaluating Stotts’ work, we also need to discuss the two basic archetypes for playoff teams. Some rosters revolve around a small core: a single superstar or exalted Big 3. Other squads function more as a team. They field stars but don’t rely on them as heavily. The Los Angeles Lakers are a clear example of the former, whereas the Miami Heat functioned more like the latter this year.

Although superstar-laden teams tend to find success most easily than diffused rosters, either can succeed. Their methodology is different. Superstar teams tend to be as good as their best players. Diffused teams tend to be as good as their worst. Obviously we don’t mean the 15th man—or even the 10th—but the most limited player in the starting lineup or eight-man rotation has a far greater effect on a diffused team than on a superstar-based unit.

Damian Lillard is capable of a 50-point outburst or game-winning three at any given moment. When he plays like a superstar, the Blazers become a different team. But on balance, they’re more of a diffused group. Their most successful seasons in the Stotts era have come from graceful starting lineups with skilled reserves, not from singular monster performances.

But regular-season success does not automatically translate into the post-season. 4th-10th men in the rotation may shine on an average Wednesday in February, but they look much different in the laser target of April playoffs series.

All diffused rosters must face this reality. Negotiating it doesn’t fall solely on the coaches. Sometimes a lack of adaptability in the roster—due to individual players or lack of useful depth—leaves a coach choosing between different weaknesses instead of exercising different strengths.

That pretty much sums up Stotts’ experience with the Blazers in the playoffs. Nobody worries about Lillard, CJ McCollum, or Jusuf Nurkic. All things being equal, Portland’s best players are going to come through. But diffused teams trip on their limits as much as they sail on their stars.

When opponents double-teamed Portland’s starting guards and left Al-Farouq Aminu or Moe Harkless free, those forwards couldn’t shoot or score well enough to make a difference. And opponents did this every single year. Stotts usually had bench options—three-guard lineups and the like—but employing those meant losing Aminu’s defense, which also hurt. That wasn’t sustainable for a whole game, let alone a series.

Even though Stotts’ Blazers always had talent at the top and almost always played well as a team, their mid-rotation players and/or bench pinned them beneath a ceiling they couldn’t shatter, Opposing playoffs teams weren’t toiling under those same limits, either because their teams were better constructed or because they had singular superstars leading the way.

In this scenario, the best coach in the world and the worst are going to look roughly the same. Is it better to not make any changes and live with a particular set of weaknesses or make changes and struggle with a different set of weaknesses? Whether you come to the table with a pair of Jacks or a pair of Queens, they’re still going to lose to a straight. You need better supporting cards to make a real hand.

Stotts’ coaching played a part in the good and the bad, every season. That said, Portland’s opponents have played a much bigger role in playoffs success than the head coach has. Sometimes the Blazers run into teams they can beat, other times they face insoluble problems.

As you pointed out in the beginning, Stotts’ Blazers have never lost a playoffs series 3-4. They’ve never lost one 2-4 either. Every time a series is close under Stotts, they win it. Every time they’ve been eliminated, they’ve won just once or not at all.

I don’t see anybody’s coaching being enough to turn a 0-4 loss to the Warriors into a series win. I suspect the marginal benefit of coaching shows up more in the close victories than the large defeats.

In that way, I’d say Stotts has at least a little bit of post-season credit, even if the overall record remains an eyesore.

Thanks for the question! Keep sending them to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll do our best to answer!

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