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Terry Stotts Was Not the Only Issue for the Trail Blazers

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A Blazer’s Edge Reader asks how we assess Stotts’ firing. Here’s the answer.

Portland Trail Blazers All Access Practice Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers fired Head Coach Terry Stotts last Friday. Much of the weekend was taken up with rumors of who would replace him. Lost in all of the back-and-forth was a deeper question: how much will a coaching change affect Portland’s fortunes? Or, more simply, was coaching the problem here? That’s the topic of this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

I want to hear your thoughts on Stotts getting fired. I know you supported him. Do you still feel the same or are you ready for a fresh start? And the big question is was Stotts really the problem in your view?

Tony G

For me, it’s “both and”. I don’t think Stotts was the problem. Like everybody, I’m also ready for a fresh start. I would not have dismissed Terry, but the point is moot now. Since he’s gone, it’s time to look forward. Or at least look around a bit.

To me, it’s important to admit that the process in Portland is not complete. Coaching is one factor in a team’s success. Personnel moves are another. You can’t examine one without examining the other.

As a partial answer to your question, we’re going to take a long look at the Blazers’ moves since 2015, when LaMarcus Aldridge departed in free agency. That summer provided a clear breaking point between the legacy Blazers and the version we know today. Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez all left in short order. We’ll leave alone the whole Aldridge mess, how much the Blazers knew, should have known, or didn’t. That’s a whole ‘nother discussion. We’re just going to examine the time after that, when control of the franchise was solely in the Blazers’ own hands.

In preface, we should acknowledge Portland’s moves between 2012 and 2015. General Manager/President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey hired Stotts, drafted Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and brought in Lopez to fill Portland’s long-shaky center position. With this lineup, under Olshey and Stotts, the Blazers prospered, reaching the playoffs in two out of their first three years, advancing to the second round once.

Here’s a look at what’s happened since. We’ll list Portland’s draft picks, players that were available at their draft positions for comparison, major contract extensions and transactions, and the effects of each. For ease, when we say the Blazers “extended” a player, we mean they gave an extension to or re-signed that player.

All data comes from basketball-reference.com

2015-16

Draft

Drafted Rondae Hollis Jefferson with the 23rd pick

Also Available: Larry Nance, Jr., Montrezl Harrell, Norman Powell

Transactions

Signed Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis

Extended Damian Lillard

Traded Steve Blake and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to the Brooklyn Nets for Mason Plumlee and Pat Connaughton

Traded a conditional second-round pick to the Orlando Magic for Moe Harkless

Traded a second-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a 2018 first-round pick and Anderson Varejao

Summary

2015 was the Year of the Frontcourt. The foundations for the late 2010’s were laid here. The bywords for the year were “blue-collar, defensive-minded, and affordable”. The Blazers signed Al-Farouq Aminu to a modest contract, traded a draft pick and Steve Blake to Brooklyn for starting center Mason Plumlee, and purloined Moe Harkless from the Orlando Magic essentially for free.

Portland also picked up a first-round draft pick in a subtle move with Cleveland, agreeing to take on the cap hit of Anderson Varejao in exchange. The Blazers would stretch that obligation...the beginning of them accumulating dead cap space for assets.

None of the 2015 assets—not even all of them in aggregate—made up for losing Aldridge, but at least the Blazers came out fighting. They scraped and clawed their way to value-based deals without compromising the cap space they were accumulating for bigger moves in 2016. Doing so, they purchased players that would hold down their frontcourt positions for the next 3-4 years. The moves weren’t revolutionary, but they were a start.

Also of note, the Blazers locked down Damian Lillard for five years in the Summer of 2015, guaranteeing he wouldn’t be following Aldridge out the door anytime soon.

2016-17

Draft

No picks.

Traded cash and a future second-round pick to the Orlando Magic for 47th selection Jake Layman

Also Available: No players of note.

Transactions

Signed Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli

Extended CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless

Traded Mason Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick midway through the season

Summary

2016 was supposed to be the year the Blazers filled out their roster, utilizing long-awaited cap space to build around their star backcourt. When the moment arrived, their moves had all the sizzle of Cheerios in a kiddie pool.

Evan Turner turned out to be their big signing. They snagged him early in free agency, with no particular interest from other teams in evidence. After that, they set about re-signing lower-level players already on their roster: Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, and Moe Harkless. All of them looked good when they were draftees and/or targets of inexpensive value trades. Expectations rose when they started making real money. This was doubly true since, once again, the Blazers mostly appeared to be outbidding themselves for the services of these players.

Festus Ezeli would continue Portland’s trend of signing players who would soon be cut, with contracts stretched, creating cap obligations over multiple years. In this case, that was not intentional; Ezeli got injured and couldn’t play. It happened nonetheless.

The Blazers also extended guard CJ McCollum this summer, signing him to near-Lillard numbers. This would cement their backcourt for the coming years. It would also create a large salary obligation into the latter parts of the decade, pinching Portland’s future cap space. This continued the theme. The Blazers were going all-in on the players they had under contract, sacrificing future flexibility for continuity.

The Blazers made one huge trade in 2016-17. Mid-season, they flipped Plumlee to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick. In doing so, they turned away from their defensive, blue-collar frontcourt ethic in favor of young potential. Plumlee was a popular player and the move wasn’t without controversy, but that evaporated quickly as Nurk Fever took Portland by storm. Nurkic and Lillard brought on a blizzard of high screens that led to a deluge of points.

The Nurkic trade papered over any misgivings about the ill-used cap space. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this one move saved the season. It remains to this day the high point of this six-year span.

2017-18

Draft

Drafted Justin Jackson (15th), Harry Giles (20th), and Caleb Swanigan (26th)

Traded Jackson and Giles for 10th pick Zach Collins

Also Available: Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, John Collins, Jarrett Allen, OG Anunoby, Kyle Kuzma

Transactions

Traded Allen Crabbe to the Brooklyn Nets for Andrew Nicholson

Signed Wade Baldwin III mid-season

Summary

If 2016 was the year of misspent cap space, 2017 was the year of the no-good draft. Holding three picks among a class laden with talent, the Blazers ended up with forwards Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan. Collins has since demonstrated defensive instincts, but has yet to become a part of Portland’s rotation due to chronic injuries. Swanigan is no longer with the team.

At the time, Lillard name-dropped Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell as a potential target for Portland. Mitchell has since become a 26 PPG scorer and two-time All-Star with the Utah Jazz, who are among the favorites for the NBA Title this season. PF/C Bam Adebayo has also earned an All-Star nod, plus he helped the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals in 2020. Those two players are now all but untouchable. Power forward John Collins could be touched in Atlanta, but scoring 18 points per game while shooting 40% from the arc, he’d be expensive to acquire.

The Blazers could have had Mitchell or Adebayo for the pick they spent on Zach Collins. They could have had John Collins and Toronto small forward OG Anunoby had they not traded up into the Zach Collins spot. Either way, they also could have added Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma with the pick they used on Swanigan.

For a team currently dying for forwards to fill out the roster, dreaming of a third star besides, the results of the 2017 draft are hard to take. The NBA draft is a crap shoot; nobody expects perfection. But missing on all of these names, especially when they weren’t exactly mystery candidates at the time, is a significant fault.

Portland’s other “big” move during 2017-18 was to bail out of the Allen Crabbe contract they had just signed. They moved the shooting guard to the Nets for forward Andrew Nicholson. Nicholson would be waived, joining Varejao and Ezeli as stretch contracts gumming up Portland’s cap.

For perspective, Varejao just came off of Portland’s books this summer. They’re still paying for Nicholson and will be doing so through 2024.

2018-19

Draft

Drafted Anfernee Simons 24th overall

Traded cash and two second-round picks for 37th overall selection Gary Trent, Jr.

Also Available: Mitchell Robinson

Transactions

Extended Jusuf Nurkic

Signed Seth Curry

Traded Wade Baldwin III and Nik Stauskas to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Rodney Hood

Signed free agent center Enes Kanter mid-season

Summary

The Blazers redeemed themselves somewhat in the 2018 NBA Draft, finding a pair of young, value guards in Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent, Jr. Give or take a Shake Milton, Knicks center Mitchell Robinson was the only obviously-productive alternative to Simons and Trent, and he wasn’t a huge name at the time. The Blazers did as well as could be expected in their position.

They also bolstered themselves for a strong run at the playoffs via a couple of mid-season moves: trading minor players for Rodney Hood and picking up center Enes Kanter after the Celtics waived him. Kanter would become incredibly important, as Nurkic would suffer a catastrophic injury in March of 2019, keeping him on the shelf for more than a year.

Hood and Kanter would hold the Blazers in good stead in the post-season. Portland would make a run past the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the Golden State Warriors.

It’s worth noting, though, that prior to this season, in the Summer of 2018, the Blazers were coming off of their second-straight first-round sweep in the playoffs. Under those circumstances, you’d expect bigger moves than just signing Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas to short-term deals. Where were they?

The answer was simple. Prior contract extensions and signings were starting to pile up on the cap ledger. The Blazers were confined to the margins of the free agent market. Even then, dead cap space was eating up wiggle room.

Cap exceptions and minimum signings weren’t just a strategy for Portland, they were quickly becoming the only strategy available to them. From this point onward, every contract signed threatened to push them into (or farther into) the luxury tax. That’s almost impossible to justify for a team that isn’t in serious contention. They had to pinch pennies and hope internal improvement—plus mid-season deals on expiring-contract players—would be enough to get them through.

In that respect, the 2019 playoffs run became a critically important turning point for the franchise. Had the Blazers flopped that year, the combination of high cost, lack of success, and flat-lined roster growth would have cast the team in an unflattering light, perhaps causing them to change course sooner. Instead the Conference Finals appearance gave a brief flare of hope that their strategy was going to pay off, that the team could grow into a contender.

2019-20

Draft

Drafted Nassir Little 25th overall.

Also Available: Bol Bol? Nobody of note.

Transactions

Extended Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Rodney Hood

Signed Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja

Traded Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless in a four-team deal for Hassan Whiteside

Traded Evan Turner to the Atlanta Hawks for Kent Bazemore

Traded Kent Bazemore and Wenyen Gabriel to the Sacramento Kings for Trevor Ariza mid-season

Signed Carmelo Anthony mid-season

Summary

The Blazers made a value investment in University of North Carolina forward Nassir Little with the 25th selection of the 2019 NBA Draft.

That summer, Portland locked up Lillard and McCollum for the remainder of their primes, negotiating contract extensions that would drift into $35 million per year territory for McCollum, $45 million for Lillard.

The Blazers would also re-up Hood for another season plus a player option, basking in the glow of his playoffs performance the year prior. Hood would soon be injured and would not fulfill that promise again.

The big move of the summer was trading Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless for Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside. 2-3 years prior, Whiteside had been among the biggest defensive names in the league. Wear and tear physically, plus a lifetime’s worth of soap opera drama in Miami, had left his stock diminished. As a result, the Blazers found themselves able to buy a huge statistical increase at the center position for a modest price. Like so many other Portland acquisitions, Whiteside was on the tail end of his prior contract. In this case it didn’t matter; he was holding the fort until Nurkic returned.

The Blazers also played the wing-man shuffle during this season, moving Evan Turner to Atlanta for Kent Bazemore, then trading Bazemore mid-season to the Kings for small forward Trevor Ariza. Ariza would fit well as a 3-and-D small forward.

Another significant move came mid-year, when Portland reclaimed Carmelo Anthony from exile after his performance in Oklahoma City and Houston had left him out of the league. The renewed ‘Melo would give Portland a scoring boost at the starting power forward spot, vacant due to Collins injuries.

A league-wide shut-down due to COVID-19 would give the injured Blazers a chance to heal. They’d make a good run in the Orlando Bubble as the season resumed in the Summer of 2020, rescuing their disappointing showing early in the year. In the end, despite all the moves, they earned an 8th seed and an 1-4 series loss to the eventual champion Lakers.

2020-21

Draft

Drafted CJ Elleby 46th overall

Also Available: Kenyon Martin, Jr.

Transactions

Extended Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood

Signed Derrick Jones, Jr. and Harry Giles III

Traded Mario Hezonja in a three-team deal to acquire Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter

Traded Trevor Ariza and a first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for Robert Covington

Traded Rodney Hood and Gary Trent, Jr. mid-season to the Toronto Raptors for guard Norman Powell

Summary

With the no-good, really-bad contracts of 2016 finally off the books, the Blazers had a little cap/tax space to play with in the Summer of 2020. They extended Hood and Anthony. They also signed Derrick Jones, Jr. out of Miami and Harry Giles III from Sacramento. Trading Ariza and a first-rounder to the Houston Rockets for defensive-minded Robert Covington provided the starting power forward the Blazers had been missing since Al-Farouq Aminu left.

Combined, those signings and trades were supposed to complete Portland’s roster. For the first time since 2019, and maybe more than at any point since 2014, the Blazers had a viable rotation from 1-8, maybe 1-10.

Hopes got even higher when Portland traded Hood and starter-in-waiting Gary Trent, Jr. to the Toronto Raptors for 20-point scorer (and lunch-bucket guard) Norman Powell. This was supposed to be the move that solidified their run towards, and through, the playoffs.

A funny thing happened on the way to redemption, though. Nurkic and Collins labored through even more injuries (this time joined by McCollum), the defense went south, and the Blazers ended up having to scramble to earn a 6th seed. Instead of contending, they narrowly avoided the league’s new play-in tournament that made the post-season a tightrope gamble for the 7th and 8th seeds.

Matched up against an injured Denver Nuggets squad in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the Blazers were expected to show well or win. They halfway did the first, but not the second, falling in six games.

As series and season concluded, a miasma fell across the franchise. Long-time Head Coach Terry Stotts was fired the day after the Game 6 loss. As they head into the off-season, the Blazers are facing Powell’s free agency, discontent (financial and otherwise) from Nurkic, and frustration from Lillard over the lack of progress. Rumor has them looking to move what now looks like a slightly-bloated contract for McCollum...a contract that they went out of their way to ink him to.

Conclusion

It’s neither fair nor accurate to judge the franchise by their state on a Monday morning, 72 hours after they got ousted from the playoffs. But if you look at the overall arc of the last six years, I think it’s more than fair to make this conclusion.

Letting go of Terry Stotts may have been the right decision, but if we say that, we also have to admit that Stotts did a better job as a coach than Neil Olshey has done as an executive.

Even if you take the most charitable interpretation towards the franchise’s moves in the last half-decade—and it’s pretty hard to be charitable about 2016 and 2017—and couple that with the worst lens on Stotts, you’d at least have to say Stotts and Olshey were equal in performance.

I am not advocating, nor will I ever advocate, for someone to lose their job. I didn’t when Stotts was here. I didn’t when Nate McMillan was here. Heck, I didn’t when Mo Cheeks was here. I don’t think that’s fair from someone behind a keyboard who has neither the power nor the responsibility to make that call. It’s too easy to say, and the justifications are invariably over-simplified.

But if we are going to read columnists claiming that Terry Stotts’ coaching was the main issue with the Blazers all these years, we also need to take a long, hard look at the other factors. Injuries are certainly one, but the transaction, draft, and cap history laid out above is not pretty.

I did not think Terry Stotts should lose his job. I think he did well with the material he had. But if we apply the logic that Stotts was a problem and that this summer is time to address same, I’d put forth that coaching was not the only thing ailing this team. If we’re going to look at these things, let’s at least look at them honestly and completely.

Stotts and Olshey belong together. Their strengths often matched, but their weaknesses did too. Whatever this team has struggled with, it goes on the ledger of both, not just one.

That’s for the question. This is probably the longest Mailbag response we’ve ever had! If you have questions, send them to blazesub@gmail.com and we’ll try to get to them over the summer!