Players get better, and players get worse. This is a fundamental truth, and an arc we've always understood, analytics or not, as part of the fabric of not just sports, but performance and ability in general. Sometimes you get better at your job, sometimes you fall off. But we don't really look at coaches in this way; coaches are immutable—Mike Woodson coaches ISO-ball, Phil Jackson coaches winners, Mike D'Antoni coaches offense and wears a Pringles mustache. They are what they are, and what they are is what they will be. They're either cut out for the profession or they're not. But if this is true, then how do we explain Terry Stotts?
Before being hired by Portland in the summer of 2012, Terry Stotts compiled a middling record of 115-168 as an NBA head coach for the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. A .406 winning percentage doesn't exactly scream "sideline genius," and Twitter let the Blazers know it. One more retread coach for fire pit. Stotts and the Blazers went 33-49 that first year, and didn't do much to disabuse anyone from that opinion. Then this year happened. Powered by a cascading, from-all-angles offense, the Blazers ran out to an NBA-best 24-5 record over the season's first two months, finished 54-28, and this weekend took game 1 of their opening round series against the Rockets on the road. Clearly, something's going right, and just as clearly, this was not the same Stotts that had been run out of Atlanta and Milwaukee.
To see how far his offense has come, we should start with where it started. In Milwaukee in particular, the Stotts's playbook was one you'd expect of a coach in the mid 2000s. His teams stayed big, lacked structure, and lived through the post, despite not having a low-block destroyer like Aldridge. They also didn't have anything resembling the three-point barrage the Blazers are now known for. In his first season with the team, the Bucks ranked 17th in 3-pointers attempted while attempting only 1,335. Next year, they climbed to 10th, which was an improvement, but well below where you'd expect a team with gunners like Michael Redd, Charlie Bell, and Mo Williams to fall. For contrast, in Stotts's first season in Portland, the Blazers finished 4th in the league with 1,904 3-point attempts. Clearly, the ground covered between Stotts in 2007 and him in 2014 is considerable.
After being fired by the Bucks in 2007, Stotts was brought on by the Mavericks and settled into a role as Rick Carlisle's "offensive coordinator" in the fall of '08. The two clicked almost immediately. During his time in Indiana and Detroit, Carlisle's offense was often criticized for an expansive playbook that offered players little freedom—though to be fair, those playmakers he did have were often Jamaal Tinsley or Anthony Johnson. Stotts, on the other hand, had been heavily influenced by George Karl, a coach known for allowing his players to operate in systems lacking a rigid structure. This hadn't served him overly well, with rosters that weren't equipped to deal with that kind of freedom—Andrew Bogut and Charlie Villanueva were never players you wanted freelancing in the high post, like Dirk or LaMarcus—but in Dallas, it served as a necessary counterbalance with a talented roster, especially once the Mavs swung a trade deadline deal for Jason Kidd.
The odd couple worked out a wonderful offense. The Mavs' offensive rating mostly hovered steady after Carlisle took over, but that's actually more impressive than it sounds, as the team shifted from an offense built around Dirk, Devin Harris, and Josh Howard to one that replaced the latter two with Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. Stotts brought some flexibility to Carlisle's schemes, Carlisle imposed order on Stotts's, and the two combined to create one of the league's model offensive systems in Dallas, which helped propel the Mavs to a championship in 2011. Stotts was able to take the concepts from his early coaching influences and augment them with Carlisle's perspective. And he's said as much.
Obviously, the roster in Portland is better than it was in Milwaukee and Atlanta. But it's also becoming evident that Stotts used his time with Dallas to great effect. Stotts's intent was clear from the start: In the way the Mavs revolve around the gravitational pull of Dirk, the Blazers would build their offense around an All-Star, jump-shooting power forward. Portland has multiple established ways to get Aldridge the ball in his preferred spots, which keeps the whole Blazers offensive machinery in motion, and to get there, Stotts hasn't been afraid to borrow many of the concepts created during his time with the Mavs.
Notice how this clever Dallas play—where a guard sets a pick for Dirk Nowitzki before his goes into a pick-and-roll:
Looks a lot like this one Portland uses for Lamarcus Aldridge on a sideline out-of-bounds:
Or how this option cut where Dirk can choose to go off one of two screens:
Seems like the spitting image of this play for Aldridge:
Copying a play or two is a pretty common practice among NBA coaches, especially when it's from a coach you used to work for. What shows true growth is utilizing these concepts on your own. The true evolution of Stotts shows in how well he has implemented Dallas' core offensive principles (great execution, ball movement, spacing) and specific tasks (asking their 5s to be blue-collar workers who defend, screen and rebound) into this Portland team.The Blazers rank 3rd overall in offensive efficiency at 112.03, the driving force behind their impressive revival this season.
Some of the things sparking Portland's success, like the volume of 3-point attempts, may be Stotts's original ideas. Others may be Carlisle's. However that split falls, the bottom line is that it's a far cry from Stotts's previous stints where a his team's highest offensive rating was 107 and his highest season win total was 40. The Blazers have matched their highest season win total since the start of the century and their offense is a well-oiled machine the receives all sorts of praise from blogs and Twitter, far removed from the hate rained down on Mark Jackson as Carlisle himself.
Brett Koremenos is a freelance writer and a basketball trainer and coach. Follow him on Twitter here.