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Terry Stotts The Right Fit for the Portland Trail Blazers

Friday, May 27, 2016

 

Recently, the Portland Trail Blazers and their head coach, Terry Stotts, agreed to a three-year extension, to much joy among the fan base (myself included). It may have been seen as a foregone conclusion by most followers of the Blazers, but in NBA coaching circles, nothing is ever certain unless you have a great relationship with the front office, or run the front office as president of basketball operations.

Stotts, a 20-plus year veteran of the coaching business, has done his best work in the 2010s. Not only has he presided over the most successful stretch of Blazer basketball since the early 2000s (or the early 1990s, if the Jail Blazers are something you want to forget, and no one can be blamed for that), Stotts also was the lead offensive assistant for the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks, which put him back on the head-coaching radar and helped get him the Portland job.

After getting the Blazers head-coaching position, Stotts proceeded to revamp the entire offense. A Blazer attack that was slow, stilted and predictable under Nate McMillian (who Larry Bird hired to coach the Pacers…after saying he wanted more pace from the team. Really.) became dynamic, three-point happy and one of the best offenses in the NBA. Even after losing most of his team in the summer of 2015, the great offense continued on like clockwork, thanks to Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Stotts empowering his young players to stretch their abilities.

Terry Stotts is an example of why NBA coaches are generally superior to their brethren in the college ranks. In college, you go out and recruit players that fit with what you want to do, for the most part; in the pros, while most coaches have some input on the personnel side, circumstances often force you to adapt and bend, lest you break and get fired. 

Circumstances left Stotts without a veteran team he’d been successful with, in a head-coaching career that had been forgettable before arriving in Rip City. Instead of trying to stick to what had worked with a different roster, or putting undue pressure on his youngsters, Stotts adapted to his changing circumstances and those of his roster, working in a de-facto contract year all the while. That’s very difficult to do for six months, even when the implied goal last season was to lose and try to get a high draft pick. 

Straddling that line while qualifying for the playoffs, and making it as far as LaMarcus Aldridge did this season, was nothing short of exceptional. Aldridge left to chase a championship in San Antonio, and like the Blazers, he only reached the second round this year. And if the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors keep their teams intact, it’ll be tough for Aldridge to get farther than that. But that’s a subject for another day.

Back to coaching basketball: Jack McCallum, in his book Dream Team, described the experience of NBA coaching by saying, “College coaches coach programs, NBA coaches coach games. The average NBA coach does more coaching in a week than the average college coach does in a season.” This excerpt was taken from his profile of the legendary Detroit Pistons coach, and 1992 Olympic Men’s Basketball Coach, Chuck Daly. 

Piggybacking on that point, there are very few coaches nowadays in the college ranks that truly coach Xs and Os. Coach K at Duke, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, perhaps a couple others scattered throughout Division I, and that’s it. The vast majority of college coaches, past and present, more closely resemble sleazy used car salesmen then men who coach basketball for a living; John Calipari of Kentucky is the Sleazeball King among his fellows, with slicked-back hair, a charming personality, an orator’s ability to weave words, and barely enough coaching talent to drill a group of eighth-grade girls. Calipari is also a notorious cheat; both his prior college stops, the University of Massachusetts and the University of Memphis, were riddled by NCAA sanctions during and after his time at both institutions.

Ernie Kent, former longtime basketball coach of the University of Oregon, was basically Calipari without the hair or the resources of big-time schools, a slick practitioner of the sale without any inkling of how to maximize the talent he did recruit. That’s why his teams chronically underachieved, and if he hadn’t been blessed, as Mike Belotti was, to work for an incredibly patient athletic department, Kent would have been gone a decade before his time.

NBA coaches, on the other hand, are men who know the game, men that can teach the game, and men that can deal with their players as adults and co-workers at least. The fact that NBA coaches lose their jobs like oak and walnut trees lose their leaves doesn’t change the fact that the majority of them can coach the socks off anyone else in their profession. That’s why Billy Donovan and David Blatt, immensely successful at the college and international ranks respectively, sacrificed their well-paying comfortable jobs for a chance to coach in the NBA.

Even for those who have been successful recently, the ground in the NBA has been very unsteady. Winning coaches like Frank Vogel are cut loose not because they’re not doing what they’re paid to do--which is to win games--but because they clash with the front office, or with the resident superstar (which happens everywhere, I’ll grant), or because the team needs a “shake-up,” and it’s much simpler to dismiss the coach and pay him seven figures a year for X amount of years to sit on the couch than to trade a disgruntled player, or make a change in the front office.

That’s what coaches have signed up for in the NBA, though. Those that have shown themselves to be malleable have a higher chance of succeeding and surviving in the NBA, and for longer. Gregg Popovich has taken this concept to an art form, and it’s why he’s on the Mount Rushmore of coaches in NBA history. Rick Carlisle, Stotts’ former boss in Dallas, has done the absolute best with the pan drippings and pot scrapings he’s been given alongside an aging centerpiece in Dirk Nowitzki; the Mavs doing their best 1980s-90s Blazers impression, with a brief peak that stands out among a very wide floor, is more on owner Mark Cuban than him.

Adapting to your roster and getting the very best out of them is a rare coaching skill, and while having an even-tempered star like Lillard on his side is a big help (Lillard made the All-NBA Second Team for 2015-16, being recognized as one of the 10 best players of that season. Still not an All-Star, though), Stotts has shown the ability to squeeze the best play out of two very different rosters. He’s easygoing, self-deprecating, and relatable, three qualities your typical NBA coach doesn’t have. 

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that firstly, I’m grateful that Terry Stotts is going to coach my favorite team for a long while yet, and secondly, that Stotts belongs on the tier directly below Carlisle. Pop belongs in his own stratosphere, his only rivals the likes of Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, and Pat Riley, and Carlisle is the clear number two. Below Carlisle, the list should include Steve Kerr (if he pulls out the miracle comeback against the Thunder, I might include him with Carlisle), Tom Thibodeau, Vogel, Erik Spoelstra (try surviving LeBron James for four years with your job and sanity intact), Doc Rivers, Stan Van Gundy, Steve Clifford, and Stotts.

Stotts is definitely one of the ten best coaches in the league, at best. The Trail Blazers have a good man and a very good coach in their employ. I’m just glad they didn’t lose him to the egocentric B.S. that has poisoned other parts of the NBA landscape.

 

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