The Portland Trail Blazers had a volatile, interesting year in 2021. After nearly a decade of stability, the Blazers experienced seismic shifts that redefined the terrain under their feet, changing the outlook heading into 2022 and beyond. On New Year’s Day we’re going to look back at the most significant events defining the franchise over the last 365 days. These are the stories that made their year.
The second-biggest story of the year involves transition in one of the most stable positions: Head Coach.
For nine seasons between 2012 and 2021, Terry Stotts guided the Blazers through 720 regular-season games, plus eight post-season appearances. Only twice had the team failed to reach .500 under him. He took Portland past the first round three times, a feat heretofore accomplished only by Jack Ramsay, Rick Adelman, and Mike Dunleavy. Stotts inherited a far worse roster, and franchise set-up, than any of those coaches. He was, as the kids say, alright.
But no NBA head coach lasts forever. Portland’s first-round loss to the Denver Nuggets in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, coupled with a league-worst defense, spelled an end to Stotts’ run. With LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, he had created offenses beautiful enough to hearken back to the glory days of the franchise. Neither wins nor defensive play followed. That became his epitaph.
Stotts’ exit was not accompanied by gratitude as much as finger-pointing. Jusuf Nurkic, a frequent target for improvement, made not-so-subtle statements about not being used correctly. President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey was even more direct, claiming Portland’s defensive deficiencies were a “coaching issue” rather than a product of roster construction.
Under the barrage of criticism, any mourning for Stotts was brief. Blazers Nation turned almost immediately to the question of who would replace him.
Though several big names were floated in rumors, it became apparent that the lead candidate would be defined by his relationship to Olshey rather than record or proven ability. Chauncey Billups, Olshey’s old Clippers comrade, surfaced early and late in the process. He had never served as a head coach at any level, let alone the NBA. His record as a player and his respect from inside NBA voices would have to serve.
Billups’ hiring was not without controversy. In addition to the lack of track record on the bench, he was followed by an out-of-court settlement for sexual assault from his playing days back in 1997. While the legal matter had been long-settled, questions from the community had not. When Olshey and the Blazers bungled those in an infamous press conference introducing Billups, his tenure was off to a rocky start. A 13-22 opening to the season, and the coaching staff’s seeming inability to coax defensive—or sometimes any—effort out of the roster, have added to the difficulties.
The book has not been written yet on Billups. He’ll have plenty of opportunity to pull himself and the team out of the downward spiral they’re currently engaged in. But two things remain sure: Portland’s problems, whatever they were, weren’t a matter of bad coaching alone. And the one on-court position that remained stable, rain or shine, throughout the Damian Lillard era is now just as unstable as the rest of the franchise.
The Blazers may not be getting hurt from the head coaching position as Olshey once claimed, but they’re not getting helped right now either.