Well…we didn’t expect that.
The New Orleans Pelicans and their two-headed dragon of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday certainly had a good chance of winning their first-round playoff series with the Portland Trail Blazers. The teams were nearly identical in record, were carried by two stars with underwhelming supporting casts, and had to rely on hot streaks and insane play by their best players to make something out of otherwise middling seasons.
But, as I got back into the groove of watching hours of basketball, there were two fundamental truths I forgot, and relearned the hard way: matchup disadvantages decide playoff games, and Playoff Rajon Rondo, 10 years removed from a championship with the Boston Celtics, is still a thing. The Blazers got swept in ignominious fashion, a humiliating defeat that will stain the careers of everyone involved in Rip City for a long while.
Rondo did all the Rondo things, and actually looked to score once in awhile to boot. While Holiday will get lots of love for his part in obliterating Damian Lillard from the court with long arms and wiry strength, Rondo was able to hold down CJ McCollum by himself as well, only relenting when Dame was out of the game. Rondo shooting 43% from three-point range and dishing out a total of 53 assists in four games were contributions that went a long way towards destroying Portland, and will be needed once the Golden State Warriors defeat the San Antonio Spurs.
And let’s not forget the Alpha Unicorn, the Bull of These Here Woods, Inspector Gadget himself, Anthony Davis. 33-12 with 4.6 blocks/steals per game, shooting 57%, and stuffing Lillard repeatedly at the rim and snatching that swag Dame’s so famed for away. His rim protection was as fierce as I’d ever seen from him; he stuffed a Lillard layup attempt so brutally, so disdainfully, that I started to fear for Dame’s safety.
The series is not what I want to talk about, though. The question running through everyone’s minds right now is “What do the Blazers do now?”
The players we will get to in future articles, but that can wait until the league opens for business again around Draft time. One question we can tackle right now relates to the suddenly embattled coach of Rip City, and whether or not he remains in the land of trees, beer, and hipsters.
The Terry Stotts Conundrum
NBA legend Larry Bird is best known among older folks for his transcendent play on the Boston Celtics 1980s teams that won three championships. Younger sorts like myself know him most as the shrewd executive that remodeled his home state Indiana Pacers team into a tough, scrappy, physical squad that provided LeBron James the only legitimate challenge to his last eight years of Eastern supremacy…other than the current iteration of the Pacers, that is.
But, did you know that in between his runs as a player and as a front-office guy, Bird was a coach? Yup, he coached the Pacers to their only NBA Finals appearance in 2000, won Coach of the Year (the only man to win MVP ad Coach of the Year, I believe), and then promptly quit.
Wait, he quit?
When he accepted the head coaching job in Indy before the 1998 season, Bird told team president Donnie Walsh that he would resign after three years. “After three years, the players tune you out,” Bird said. And true to his word, right after reaching the Finals, he said goodbye.
Three years. True, the modern NBA player is different from the spoiled, overpaid, drug-addled players of the ‘90s, but Bird’s three years theory still holds water, especially when a coach lacks people skills. Terry Stotts has now coached in Portland twice as long as Bird’s tenure in Indiana, and while Stotts has overseen the most successful runs this franchise has had since the Jail Blazer era, it might be time to go.
To be clear, I don’t blame Stotts as much as most for this humiliating series defeat. Sure, some schematic things could have changed, but Davis is a monster no team is going to be prepared for, much less a team that employs a big man with all the grace of a polar bear sliding on an ice floe as its primary rim protector. Holiday outworked and outhustled everybody on the floor, constantly battering his way through picks to cling to Lillard and McCollum like a barnacle.
Stotts can’t wave a wand and turn Evan Turner into Prime Wesley Matthews, or influence whether Al-Farouq Aminu (who played great in Game 4) and his moonshot jumpers swoosh through the net or knock an old lady unconscious after bouncing off the backboard, or make Jusuf Nurkic more viable to play against Davis.
I place more blame on President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey for this roster. Young guys can improve given time, but after six years, Meyers Leonard is making $11 million a year to play six minutes a game. Turner’s contract was called one of the worst in the NBA before we found out that the salary cap wasn’t going to keep ballooning, and is now an albatross, a tumor that can’t be excised until Evan Turner becomes Evan Turner’s Expiring Contract next summer. Ed Davis, one of the most useful backup bigs in the NBA, is pretty much gone unless he wants to continue playing for dirt cheap. He deserves a bigger payday.
Unless he can swing a trade that likely won’t happen, or decides to change his mind about trading McCollum, Olshey will have to continue scrounging around for bargain-bin players to try to stay above water in a Western Conference Sea that is rapidly rising, and looking to drown the Blazers with a bunch of high-powered, hyper-athletic squads with stars that are younger and have higher ceilings than the 28-year-old Lillard. Discovering the next Al-Farouq Aminu or Shabazz Napier (who did squat diddly when it mattered most) isn’t going to move the needle towards title contention. And Nurkic is an issue that deserves its own 1500-word column. Despite his deer-in-the-headlights look at the exit interviews yesterday, Olshey may be safe for now. The man sitting on his right during the press conference, though…
A time-honored trope in NBA history is that the coach is always the scapegoat when things go sideways. Fairly or not, he is the easiest member of the basketball side of things to dispense with, since the players on the team have guaranteed contracts except for the guys on the fringes, and firing the general manager means basically punting a year or two while his replacement remakes the roster to suit his own personal ideology. The seat that Stotts is sitting on has become very warm.
It doesn’t seem like Stotts has lost the players per se, but there was some demoralization and long, long faces on the bench Saturday night. It felt like the players had suffered a crushing blow, and Stotts felt it right along with them. He and Lillard remain as professionally close as ever, and Lillard is a great chemistry builder, but Lillard is still just one guy. And all the team-building they did didn’t matter at all when the chips were in the middle, and frankly, hasn’t mattered in the postseason ever. The two series wins Stotts has were due to one of the greatest shots in NBA history, and Blake Griffin and Chris Paul getting injured. His offense was snuffed out, his solid relationships with his players were struck a blow in New Orleans, and his tenure has stretched to the limits of the usual NBA coach’s shelf life.
Stotts, again, is not as deserving of blame as some of the players below him, or the men above him that gave him this overpriced hodgepodge of stuff and told him to make a killer berry pie with it. It still might be time to move on; the Orlando Magic have already sent out rumors that they’d be interested in Stotts, according to the New York Times’ Marc Stein. A genial guy and a skilled offensive tactician like Stotts might be able to do some good there, if the trigger-happy Magic can give him some time to cook.
Stotts isn’t the type to quit; most NBA coaches hang on till the end, when the job they’ve worked so hard to obtain is ripped out of their cold dead hands. If these rumors of his job being in jeopardy persist, and Olshey or Blazers owner Paul Allen give him a nudge or two, I hope that Stotts defies conventional coach thinking, pulls a Chuck Daly, and realizes when the jig is up. There will always be another job for a guy who’s proven himself in the coaching fraternity.
Whatever happens, Terry Stotts will go down as one of the best head coaches this franchise has had in its nearly 50 years of existence. We never really deserved him.