I don’t write a lot about Terry Stotts. I evaluate general team trends, the abilities and styles of specific players, and front office decisions, but I mostly steer clear of coaching. This is mostly because I don’t have the playbook acumen of a Dane Carbaugh or a Zach Lowe, and because I tend to maintain an attitude of skepticism toward things like momentum and chemistry. They exist, probably, but most of what we say about them is speculative and cliched.
But this post is an exception, because Terry Stotts’ position gets more fascinating by the day. The team is 13-15 since January 18. Players have gone down with injuries, where previously the team was a liquid metal T-1000. There haven’t been any grumblings from the players and I doubt there will be. Stotts also clearly has the backing of his general manager, who is well aware that the team’s 29-9 start was unsustainable. He basically said as much in a letter a few weeks back:
There is an inherent risk in getting off to the hot start that we did. It can lead to unrealistic expectations, because if there is one thing we know about the NBA, it’s that there are ebbs and flows to every season. However, I choose to look at it as a great jump start to becoming an NBA Playoff team again. That is the first significant milestone in our quest for sustainability.
So Stotts knows that Olshey’s not overly concerned with success this year. But he is worried, as he (constantly) puts it, about sustainability. This could put Stotts in a nervous position. Let me put it this way: There’s a basically a consensus that Nate McMillan was the right man to usher out the Jail Blazers era and make the team a playoff contender, but lacked the coaching chops to go further than that. I’m sure that’s the same way management felt about Kaleb Canales–great job keeping the team together, kid, but you’re not quite a coach yet. Stotts wants to avoid being a transitional coach, which means convincing Olshey that he doesn’t have some glaring, prohibitive flaw.
We already know that Stotts is a bit of an offensive wizard. He’s managed to create a top-four (or top-one, depending on whose version of offensive rating you use) offense while keeping LaMarcus Aldridge happy despite largely removing him from the spot that made him an All-Star–the left block. Nicolas Batum has turned into an excellent distributor in the Stotts offense, a development no one expected. The Portland system is a bizarre mix of individual initiative and team-above-all structure. Applauding a team for unselfishness is often missing the point. Most players are selfless, or at least aware that teams these days are smart enough to recognize selfish play. It’s mainly a team’s offense that opens up the passing lanes and allows unselfishness to shine through, and it’s been a huge part of Portland’s success.
Slick’s willingness to let his players create and take chances (“Yes, Mo, that PUJIT’s fine by me”) is in direct contrast to his approach to defense. As Zach Lowe has pointed out, the Blazers play a historically (no, not “an historically”, you anarchist) conservative style of defense. Lowe is talking about fouls and turnovers, but it goes deeper than that; next time the Blazers play a team that can set hard picks, watch the Blazers guards. They go up and around the pick nearly every time. Last night against the Warriors, Steph Curry got eight-plus feet of separation on Williams or Lillard as they struggled past the absolutely massive Andrew Bogut. The players, I’m sure, recognize that at a certain point it would be more effective and easier to go under, but they don’t, because Stotts’s system de-emphasizes initiative for structure. The same applies for jumping in passing lanes, trapping, and leaking out.
Stotts needs to prove that either 1) the issues with his defense are issues with implementation and execution, rather than the defense itself, or than 2) he can adjust if it continues to not work. That might be part of the reason we’ve seen, for instance, more switches on screens and more lineup experimentation lately. Stotts is aware that there is pressure on him to improve and that management isn’t terribly invested in the end of the season, so his creative energies are largely going to defensive changes. The offense looks about like it did before, but less successful. The defense is different, if not radically so. And it’s kind of worked! Portland’s defense is eighth in the league since the All-Star break, which has brought them from 20th overall way up to…19th. Oh well. Journey of a thousand steps, and so forth.
As Olshey put it, every NBA season has its ebbs and flows. That’s why he’s not giving Stotts a pass because of those first 40 games. Mathematically, an unweighted coin is bound to go on a run at some point if you flip it 82 times. That’s why this season needs to be evaluated as a whole. Yes, there are significant differences between the team now and the team in December. But there is also a huge amount of variation in any given basketball season, and the team’s performance at the beginning of the year is no more representative of the Portland Trail Blazers than its performance since.