Terry Stotts is in the midst of his ninth season as Head Coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. He has endured plenty of ups and downs over the years, from back-to-back postseason sweeps at the hands of the Warriors and Pelicans to a surprise Western Conference Finals appearance in 2019. His teams have made the playoffs every year but his first, which was also Damian Lillard’s rookie season.
However, with a (mostly) healthy roster and key upgrades at the forward position, simply making the playoffs will not cut it in 2021. Talent-wise, this is arguably Stotts’ best group since the 2014-15 squad, which seemed primed for a deep run before the devastating injury to Wesley Matthews derailed the season and ultimately broke up the team. In the early going, however, this incarnation of the Blazers leaves much to be desired. It’s up to Stotts to assure that the group reaches it’s full potential.
While the team’s lack of improvement defensively is concerning, perhaps more frustrating is the fact that (to this point) the rotation has remained largely unchanged, despite poor results. In fact, the argument can be made that at least some of the team’s deficiencies are happening because of the current rotation. At the center of this is Stott’s insistence on playing Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony together in the second unit.
While Kanter has had a solid season offensively, and Anthony has found success as a catch-and-shoot option from beyond the arc, the pair are unquestionably the two weakest links on the team defensively. The duo’s lack of mobility allows teams to feast off of them in the pick-and-roll, and yields a number of uncontested shot attempts. It’s likely not a coincidence that Portland’s best performance of the season, an upset over the defending champion Lakers at the end of December, occurred during the one game Anthony has missed this season—due to COVID protocols.
Against the Lakers, Kanter was paired with either Robert Covington or Derrick Jones Jr. in the frontcourt throughout the game. The defensive-minded forwards were able to make up for some of the big man’s deficiencies, much like Zach Collins during the WCF run. Kanter earned his keep with a double-double and the Blazers were able to thrive against one of the best teams in the league.
This is not to say that the team’s struggles fall solely on Anthony, but his inconsistent contributions on the offensive end, along with his continued reliance on isolation post-ups, have rendered him the odd man out. His numbers for the season are far from awful, but watching the games it’s clear that he disrupts the flow of the offense more often than not. If he can adjust his game to become more of a true role player, acting more as an outlet on the perimeter instead of a focal point in the paint (which he’s shown flashes of), there’s a case to be made that he still holds plenty of value to the team. Still, it seems to make the most sense to approach Anthony and Kanter as an either-or option.
This is where Stotts’ biggest test comes into play. The 8,000 pound elephant in the room for the Blazers this season is the role (or lack thereof) of Harry Giles, whom dominated during the preseason but his been relegated to mostly mop-up duty now that the games count. Giles won’t solve all of Portland’s defensive problems, but his mobility would clearly be an upgrade over the Kanter-Anthony pairing. Some of his deficiencies were on display in Thursday’s win over the Timberwolves, as he was bullied in the post by the much bigger Naz Reid in garbage time, and was caught out of position at times. Nonetheless, he deserves at least a chance to prove himself in meaningful minutes against a quality opponent.
Scaling back the role of a player who’s helped you succeed is an unenviable task, but a necessary one for the betterment of the team as a whole. These Blazers are clearly talented, but it falls on coach Stotts to put them in the best position to succeed, and get the most out of the group. For the team to turn the corner, they need to make an adjustment to their current approach, which isn’t getting the job done at a high enough level. A first round exit, or missing the postseason entirely, would be a devastating blow to a team with such high expectations, and would signal the need for more dramatic changes. The team is at a crossroads, and it’s up to Stotts to do what’s necessary to get them back on track.