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Blazers Should Cautiously Approach a Defense-First Coach

ESPN NBA analyst Kevin Pelton explained that the Trail Blazers might want to carefully consider hiring a coach with a defensive background.

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The Trail Blazers will enter the 2021-22 season with a new head coach for the first time since Terry Stotts’ opening campaign in 2012-13. Under Stotts, with a roster constructed by President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, the Blazers have struggled to put forth a competent defense. With that in mind, Portland’s next head coach could feature a defense-first approach in order to counter those issues.

According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, that approach might not yield immediate improvements. On Friday, Pelton explained that countering an output imbalance with a coaching hire doesn’t always lead to the desired outcome.

In theory, the idea is simple: Because an offensive-minded team already has the pieces in place to score efficiently, it can just hire a defensive-minded coach to improve at the other end of the court. In practice, it hasn’t worked out quite that way.

Pelton went on to use Nate McMillan as an example.

Among Portland’s six predecessors to make coaching changes after an imbalanced playoff season, five of them had a worse net rating the next campaign. Remarkably, only half of them even improved on defense. When Nate McMillan left the Seattle SuperSonics after reaching the second round of the playoffs in 2005 to then coach the Blazers, Seattle’s defense slipped from below average to one of the worst in NBA history under replacements Bob Weiss and Bob Hill.

Of the four potential coaching candidates that were mentioned in Friday’s report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Pelton explained that Mike D’Antoni presents an opportunity for the Blazers to lean into their strengths.

We can point to D’Antoni’s time with the Rockets as a case of a team using the opposite thinking. When Houston sought to replace interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff after the 2015-16 season (+3.3 bias), the expectation was they’d hire a defensive-minded coach to pair with a strong offense led by James Harden. Instead, the Rockets hired D’Antoni and leaned in to their strength, improving from seventh to second in offensive rating with the help of newcomers Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon and winning 14 more games.

The Blazers finished the 2020-21 regular season with a defensive rating of 115.3, which ranked as the second-worst rating in the NBA. Offensively, Portland finished behind only the Brooklyn Nets for the top rating.

You can read the full story from Pelton at ESPN+ (subscription required).