The Portland Trail Blazers are heading to the playoffs for the eighth year in a row—the longest active streak in the NBA. They’ve generally exceeded expectations during that run, winning more games than Vegas oddsmakers predicted in six of the last eight seasons.
Only two men have been in Moda Center for that entire run: superstar guard Damian Lillard and head coach Terry Stotts.
Obviously, Lillard, a medium-shot MVP candidate, is beyond reproach at this point. But Stotts has caught a lot of ire despite the team’s ongoing success.
A particularly vocal contingent of very online Rip Citizens have accused Stotts of constructing an uninspired offense, refusing to modify an atrocious defense, and failing to match the in-game adjustments of opposing coaches. Combine that with seven(!) consecutive years of being summarily drummed out of the playoffs in four or five games and it’s fair to say Blazers fans are as restless as a rush-hour commuter on I-205.
Twitter is not real life—but sometimes it oozes into the tangible world. The overwrought Stotts haters saw reality surpass them earlier this month. The Athletic reported that, barring a “playoff miracle,” Vulcan brass would fire Stotts. The candidates to be his replacement included an admitted domestic abuser and multitime failed head coach (Jason Kidd), a talented Blazers retread whose best work has been disciplining young, raw talent (Nate McMillan), and a couple guys with no head coaching experience at all (Brent Barry and Chauncey Billups).
That dire list of random dart throws highlights a problem: It’s very easy to fire a coach, but it’s harder to guarantee the replacement is an upgrade.
The Blazers’ search for consistency
This season has served as a microcosm of Stotts’ failures and successes since 2015. The Blazers played weeks of uninspired basketball, looking like also-rans with a historically bad defense. But since April 25, they won nine of 11 games. Over that time, they have the best offense in the NBA and a respectable 14th-ranked defense. The Blazers are a good basketball team that could compete with most of their Western Conference rivals in a playoff series.
But they could be better.
Strategically, Stotts’ insistence on sticking with an outdated, conservative defense as opponents cakewalk to the rim or knock down open jump shots may have cost them games earlier in the season. The Blazers have also, repeatedly, followed this pattern of poor early season play, compensating with a frantic late-season surge, for five years now. It’s getting tiring, to say the least.
Whoever coaches the team next year, be it Stotts or a replacement, must address these two flaws. And this is where things get tricky.
How much can an NBA coach fix?
NBA coaches aren’t magicians. Unless we are talking about ditching Mark Jackson and hiring Steve Kerr, replacing the head coach won’t do much to raise the ceiling of a flawed roster. For every case of McMillan with the Hawks, there are 10 disasters like Nate Bjorkgren with the Pacers.
The Blazers are not in desperate need of a coaching overhaul. They have reliably outperformed expectations for nearly a decade and continue to be a sure bet to contend in the first round of the playoffs.
For all his foibles, Stotts has coached the Blazers to more playoff series wins than the Clippers since 2014, never had a below-average of offense despite a wide range of playing styles, and kept the defense at least mediocre until last season. The celebrated Celtics coach Brad Stevens couldn’t even find a spot for Enes Kanter in the rotation; Stotts had the big man anchoring a lineup that made it to the conference finals. By all accounts, the players, including Lillard, are fond of Stotts and trust him as a coach.
To force an analogy, replacing Stotts with someone like Kidd or McMillan would be like trading in a Subaru that needs an oil change for an as-is ’80s Corvette that “needs a little work.” Yeah, you might get an all-time classic for cheap, but it’s equally likely the transmission falls out.
Ultimately, an NBA coach’s job is to maximize the talent on the roster he’s given. It’s hard to imagine the Blazers could have had significantly more success over the past eight seasons given the players on the team. To put it more concretely: Who could have coached the Blazers past the Warriors in a playoff series over the past few years? As long as that’s true, firing Stotts for an unproven replacement will be a risky proposition. And given the list of possible replacements, it reads like a cop-out from a front office that wishes to dodge responsibility for failing to construct a sufficiently talented roster.
Which brings us back to Lillard, the only player who has been around as long as Stotts. There’s something sour about asking your best player to remain loyal to Portland on principle, only to betray that principle by firing a coach without a superior candidate waiting in the wings. At best, it feels like an admission that the front office is flailing to upgrade the on-court personnel. At worst, it’s self-serving and reeks of hypocrisy.
Lillard and the Blazers have built something special and are, hopefully, a few tweaks from finishing the job with an NBA Finals run. Maximizing the back end of his prime playing years will mean making some hard choices, not scapegoating an easy victim.