Only one coach in NBA history has gone his first nine full seasons in his tenure without making the NBA Finals and kept his job (Don Nelson with the Bucks in the 70s/80s).
Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts is unlikely to become the second.
Nearly nine years after Stotts became Trail Blazers head coach, sources say his time in the role is increasingly expected to come to an end after this season, in large part, because this team just can’t find a way to truly become elite.
If Stotts can’t “pull a rabbit out of his hat” with a playoff miracle of sorts, as one source put it, the Blazers are expected to opt for a new coaching voice.
Stotts, who sources say has less player support now than he did in years past, has one season left (upwards of $6 million).
Among the potential coaching candidates for the Trail Blazers, sources say: Lakers assistant Jason Kidd, Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan, 76ers assistant Dave Joerger, Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups and Spurs vice president of basketball operations Brent Barry.
Stotts entered the season amid increased pressure and did what he usually does – guide Portland to a good, not great, level. The Trail Blazers are 36-29 and seventh in the Western Conference. They’ll probably make the playoffs for the eighth straight year.
But that’s seemingly no longer enough to satisfy.
A run to the 2019 Western Conference finals elevated expectations. A second straight first-round loss – the fifth first-round exit in Stotts tenure – would be disappointing. Damian Lillard wants more. People believe Lillard deserves more.
But it’s difficult to break into the Western Conference elite. As good as Lillard is, the last several West champions had two players better than him (Lakers: LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Warriors: Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant).
Lillard’s presence now makes it more difficult for the Trail Blazers to upgrade around him. They obviously can’t tank with a player of his caliber. His super-max contract also limits roster flexibility.
Which is why a coaching change could make sense.
Teams are chasing their Steve Kerr and Nick Nurse, coaches whose imaginative strategies lifted already-good teams to titles. Mark Jackson (who preceded Kerr with the Warriors) and Dwane Casey (who preceded Nurse with the Raptors) did solid jobs, but Kerr and Nurse were the right coaches for reaching the next level.
Stotts deserves more credit for helping make Portland steadily good. The team’s defensive problems are more about personnel than anything. Though some of Stotts’ playing-time decisions this season have been questionable, he’s a good coach on balance.
But if Portland want to maximize its championship odds, a coaching change could be the best option.
The Trail Blazers just ought to realize it probably won’t get them further in the playoffs and could lower their floor.