The Trail Blazers are a solid organization, though, so it is worth giving the benefit of the doubt to Stotts, whom the Blazers have hired as their new head coach. The 54-year-old Oklahoma alum lost a lot more often than he won at his previous head coaching stops in Atlanta and Milwaukee, so it was little surprise that his hiring Tuesday was met mostly with alarm and disgust. The Blazers proceeded deliberately this summer, insisting they wanted to find the "right coach," and nearly four months after the Blazers' season ended, they came up with a guy who owns a 115-168 coaching record and is five years removed from his last NBA head coaching job.
Level-headed observers should give Stotts a chance, though, because sometimes the third time is a charm. Plus, interim coach Kaleb Canales reportedly will stay on as a "defensive coordinator" to assist Stotts, whose has a reputation as an offensive specialist. Against all evidence, this hiring could work out.
Then, one of Stotts' defenders emerged to counter the critics and, well, the defender actually made you rethink the whole "give him a chance" thing.
"They didn't look at his record and say, this guy had his shot and his time has passed," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, under whom Stotts oversaw Dallas' offense for the past four seasons, told The Oregonian. "They looked at him and said, here is a guy who has continued to study the game and … who is identified as a terrific teacher, particularly with young players. You've got to have the wherewithal to look at his history in the league and not judge his success or impact on this league solely by record, because he did not have a great personnel situation in either place. In those types of situations, you gain perspective and you become more innovative."
Carlisle is one of the top five coaches in the game today, so his opinion carries weight. But the more he talked, the more Stotts might have been gritting his teeth and wishing he would shut up. Because the harder one thinks about this hiring, the less sense it makes.
Carlisle made two specific assertions in his comments, one of which appears above: that Stotts never had the personnel to succeed, and that Stotts never had a competent big man to play the elite-level defense. Taking Carlisle's advice to "have the wherewithal to look at his history," one easily comes to the conclusion that both assertions are sadly mistaken.
Stotts' Hawks teams in 2002-03 and 2003-04 were surprisingly talented given their 53-85 combined records. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who is at least a second-teamer on Guys Who Were A Lot Better Than You Remember, averaged more than 20 points per game over those two seasons. Jason Terry, forced to play point guard simply because he was the best backcourt player in the roster, was also a dependable scorer. Glenn Robinson and Stephen Jackson were more trouble than they were worth, but other coaches had ample success winning with both players elsewhere. To claim those Hawks teams were short of talent is incorrect. If anything, they underachieved. Perhaps the players' skills were not quite compatible, but the responsibility of a good coach is to make the pieces fit.
In Milwaukee, Stotts' Bucks teams were not quite as talented overall as his Hawks squads, but he did have a tremendous scorer in Michael Redd and serviceable supporting guards in T.J. Ford and Mo Williams. Stotts also had a luxury not every first-year coach enjoys: The first overall pick in the draft, which gave him Andrew Bogut. By Bogut's second season (which coincided with Stotts' second, and final, season in Milwaukee), the Australian big man was one of the best defensive centers in the league, defying Carlisle's claim that Stotts "never had size or physical defensive players." During Bogut's rookie season, Stotts even had 27-year-old Jamaal Magloire, a rugged low post presence whose sole responsibilities were to rebound and defend.
The Blazers are sort of an amalgam of Stotts' Hawks and Bucks. They have a first option in LaMarcus Aldridge who, like Abdur-Rahim, is a lot better than many casual fans realize. They have a rookie center in Meyers Leonard who could turn into a top-notch defender and a young guard in Damian Lillard, a la Terry, who may be more of a scorer than a true point guard. If Stotts fails this time around, there can be no excuses, if there are any now.
Stotts' hiring may raise questions, but until anyone sees his Blazers in action, condemnation might go too far — as long as Stotts' defenders do not keep hurting his cause.