TErry Stotts' Long and Winding Road
By Jonah Hall
o you eat the same thing for breakfast every morning? The San Antonio Spurs do. They have a plan. They stick to the plan. That plan involves precision, strategy, and mental toughness. They know how to get the best shots. They get the best shots. Also, they have two of the most dynamic athletes in the NBA. The creativity of Tony Parker propels the offense. The athleticism and agility of Kawhi Leonard leads the defense. Gregg Popovich presses “Play,” and makes wise decisions every so often.
The Portland Trail Blazers do not eat the same breakfast every morning. They play with a free-wheeling spirit that echoes their 1977 championship team. The ball moves. And keeps moving. While possessing the flexibility that leads to endless offensive options, they know that the best defense is a low-turnover offense. In this analytics era, they have the best mid-range shooter in the game in LaMarcus Aldridge (yes, Dirk Nowitzki passed the torch recently). And for the analytically minded, they understand the value of three-point shooters and penetration that surrounds Aldridge. They have the preternaturally poised Damian Lillard running the point, and fantastic complementary pieces in the ever-lovable Wesley Matthews and the Scottie Pippen-clone Nic Batum. They have cult hero Robin Lopez, who could make things messy for the ageless Tim Duncan.
The lopsided Spurs victory in Game 1—these things happen—may have dimmed enthusiasms a bit, but this series should be beautiful to watch. Both teams play an aesthetically pleasing, up-tempo style that emphasizes passing. The ball doesn’t stop. The players are in constant motion. Instead of watching the ball, watch the baseline. Watch the furious running along that line, amidst the smattering of camera guys. Batum and Matthews for the Blazers, while Parker, Leonard, and Danny Green run obstacle courses for the Spurs.
Many of the so-called experts decided that Portland’s early season dominance would be short-lived, asserting that the three-point shooting was bound to cool off and the defense was too flawed to label them “contenders.” After Game 1, those same pundits might claim that Houston’s isolation play allowed the Blazers defense to limit the damage and that Houston’s lack of a playmaking point guard was their undoing. These are valid points, but they underestimate the one-on-one defensive abilities of Batum, Matthews, and Lopez. Matthews made life hell for Harden, while Batum shackled Parsons, and Lopez was enough of a nuisance to create problems for Howard.
Immaculately-dressed Blazers coach Terry Stotts has undoubtedly been having nightmares of Tony Parker’s clever, penetrating spins and scoops, though. No coach has found a way to stop Parker, when healthy. Speaking of Stotts, can we take a minute to appreciate this man?
The Long and Winding Career of Terry Stotts: World Traveler
In the shadows of the NBA are the relatively unknown assistant coaches. The former NBA players are recognizable to many, but the other guys, the ones who have elaborate connections to global hoops and interesting career paths, those are the ones that make me curious.
Stotts, a Cedar Falls, Iowa, native, spent parts of his childhood all over the Midwest and Guam. After a solid college career at Oklahoma (16.9 ppg, 4.6 reb, 3.9 ast as a senior), Stotts was a second round pick in the 1980 draft, but was released. His hoops career led him to Spain and Italy before ending in France.
Continuing on as an assistant coach, Stotts certainly paid his dues, spending the next twelve years as an assistant. He was given his first head coaching opportunity in 2002, with Atlanta. After an up-and-down stint with Glenn Robinson as his ball-dominating scoring leader, Stotts was released. It’s worth considering that his roster wasn’t capable of playing the style of offense he had envisioned as an assistant. The NBA in 2002 was isolation-heavy, and players like Glenn Robinson represented that style in the worst way. When the hand-check rule was changed in 2004, the game opened up considerably. Stotts was hired by the Bucks in 2005, though the NBA hinterland of Milwaukee leaves much to be desired. Taking over a 30-win team, Stotts led the Bucks to a 10-win improvement and a playoff appearance. After a rough start to his second season in Milwaukee, Stotts was fired/freed from the Milwaukee gloom.
Over the next four seasons, Stotts helped Dallas coach Rick Carlisle design an offense that emphasized Nowitzki’s strengths and enabled the complementary three-point shooting that surrounded him. He surely assisted in making those Mavs teams offensive juggernauts, but the extent to which a team of coaches makes things run is tough to pinpoint. The credit gets spread out. Nowitzki’s superior shooting is praised. Carlisle is given praise. The rest is unknown and unquantifiable.
Stotts’ system allows All-Stars Damian Lillard (pictured) and LaMarcus Aldridge freedom to operate.
Stotts, hired to replace longtime coach Nate McMillan when new Portland GM Neil Olshey came onboard in 2012, has embraced the moment, steadying the Blazers with his positivity and celebral approach. He has a calm demeanor that meshes well with his two most important players, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, and he gives them the freedom to operate within the system. Wesley Matthews’ speech following an ugly loss to the Orlando Magic has been credited with emboldening the team and lifting them to a 9-1 regular season finish. Does a coach with a louder personality give Matthews the room to become that leader in that pivotal moment? This is the type of locker room puzzle that goes overlooked when people point to Popovich and Thibodeau as great ones. It’s one thing to be a brilliant strategist or a film analysis savant, another thing to be a great motivator, like Rivers and Mark Jackson. But it takes a different approach to allow your players to lead each other. Perhaps what prompted Terry Stotts’ firing in Atlanta and Milwaukee were learning experiences. Maybe his approach was different as a first-time head coach. Or maybe he’s always been able to leave the unifying elements to the players themselves. Great teachers know how to get out of the way after giving students the tools to succeed.
Many point to the 2011 Mavericks as the blueprint for the current Trail Blazers team, due to the Stotts connection. Those Mavs had the elderly Jason Kidd running the point. These Blazers have Lillard. To me, the Blazers starting five more closely resemble last year’s Spurs team as an offensive unit, with perhaps even more balance. Their biggest weapon is that they have five weapons and endless options. Batum’s under-the-radar offensive game was critical in the Houston series (though he struggled from deep in Games 5 and 6) and his off-the-bounce vision led to 6 or more assists in three of the four wins.
Whatever happens in this year’s Western Conference Semifinals, the Portland Trail Blazers have proven the power of a unified collective. This series pits them against the team that every NBA fan admits is the epitome of a cohesive franchise, with a system in place that enables each player to contribute and support the whole. Portland and San Antonio are both smallish media markets. Without major league baseball or NFL football, the Blazers and the Spurs have equally devoted fan bases. The cities transform during these playoff games. The unity is not limited to the locker room, or the 94 feet that run baseline to baseline.
They may or may not eat the same breakfast every morning, but they will be sharing the same court for the next two weeks. Let’s hope it goes seven.
Jonah Hall writes about the NBA and many other things at www.darkoindex.com. On Twitter @darkoindex. In March, he wrote about reading Saul Bellow's Herzog.