March 13, 2018, 2:01 pm
It’s easy to understand why Terry Stotts isn’t getting enough credit for the Portland Trail Blazers’ success.
He coaches a team that plays in the national obscurity provided by the Pacific Northwest. Despite winning a league-high 10 straight games and tightening their grasp on the three seed, the Blazers have only just begun to distance themselves from seven teams fighting for the final five Western Conference playoff spots. Portland’s success, at least offensively, seems to stem more from star power than its sum being greater than whole of its parts; the beautiful flow offense that made Stotts one of the most celebrated coaches in the league several years ago has been replaced with an approach more isolationist than egalitarian.
For basketball nerds, it’s safe to say that last fact looms largest. The Blazers’ 49.1 assist percentage is 30th in the league, per NBA.com/stats, and the difference between dead last and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 29th-ranked mark is a whopping four percent – comfortably more than the amount separating Billy Donovan‘s team from that of the New York Knicks, ranked 21st. Portland makes fewer passer per game than every team but the Thunder and Houston Rockets, and leads the NBA in both average dribbles and average seconds per touch. The Blazers finish plays via pick-and-roll action 22 percent of the time, highest in the league.
If it seems like the vast majority of Portland possessions involve Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum using a ball screen in early offense, probing for a shot, and passing away if it’s not there before the ball eventually finds the other, it’s because that’s an accurate representation of the style Stotts’ team is forced to play. The Blazers don’t have the personnel to share the wealth the way they did when LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews were in town. That’s not Stotts’ fault, of course. A more rigid coach might have forced square pegs into round holes, sticking with the ballyhooed offensive scheme that made him one of the most respected coaches in basketball.
Stotts deserves praise for allowing the strengths and weaknesses of his roster to dictate his offense. Portland relies more on its stars than other teams because doing so is its surest means of success, not because Stotts wouldn’t prefer playing another way – nor because he doesn’t have the X-and-O chops to do so.
Each of those realities were on full display as the Miami Heat staged an ultimately futile fourth-quarter comeback on Monday during the Blazers’ 10th straight win. Portland had jumped out to a seemingly insurmountable double-digit lead by virtue of attacking the Heat with ball screens between Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic. The latter took full advantage of Hassan Whiteside‘s absence by scoring on roll after roll, most of which came with help from the former. When Lillard wasn’t finding Nurkic with pocket passes through traffic on one side of the floor or the other, he was using screens going middle, stopping and popping triples as Miami employed conventional “drop” pick-and-roll coverage – a death-knell against Lillard if his primary defender is unable to stay attached.
By the time Stotts’ hopes of keeping Lillard on the bench for the fourth quarter’s duration were dashed, the Heat trailed just 93-87, and would come even closer on a 3-pointer by Tyler Johnson one minute after the Blazers’ superstar had returned. On the game’s previous possession, Miami forced a turnover by trapping the ball after Lillard used a screen and put his head down, the first time it had employed that type of coverage since tipoff. Lillard missed a deep three immediately following Johnson’s triple, too, pushed farther from the arc than he had been all night due to Kelly Olynyk meeting him at the level Al-Farouq Aminu set his pick – called an “aggressive drop” in NBA vernacular.
With the score 93-90, Stotts barked a new call from the sidelines following a travel by Olynyk. Lillard brought the ball up the floor, per usual, but hit Evan Turner coming off a pindown on the right wing. As Pat Connaughton cleared the other side of the floor with a cut along the baseline, Lillard continued his momentum away from the ball after making the pass, while Nurkic prepared to set him a flare screen on the left wing.
Winslow, defending Nurkic, wasn’t anticipating Lillard popping behind Nurkic and receiving a looping pass from Turner, a staple of the Blazers’ offense for years. That’s all the space Lillard needed, as he caught in perfect rhythm and drained his sixth and most important 3-pointer of the game.
That isn’t groundbreaking stuff, obviously, and coaches should indeed be counted on to push the right retaliatory button in response to their counterpart making in-game adjustments. But the nature of Portland’s success, driven so heavily by Lillard of late and the combination of he and McCollum since the season tipped off in mid October, makes it easy to overlook the nightly influence of Stotts.
That’s a mistake. He won’t win Coach of the Year and probably won’t finish among the top-five vote-getters, but Stotts remains one of the league’s most impactful coaches – as evidenced by letting his stars live up to that billing by monopolizing the offense, forging a top-10 defense with limited personnel and, on Monday, freeing Lillard for a huge shot that propelled his team to yet another win.