The Portland Trail Blazers are not supposed to be 16-3 and leading the NBA’s Western Conference. They are not supposed to be beating the Spurs and the Thunder and the Pacers. So what is Head Coach Terry Stotts secret?
He has a very young team that has talent, but almost anywhere else in the NBA that talent would be giving up minutes to develop nice young prospects like rookie Allen Crabbe and sophomores Meyer Leonard, Will Barton and Victor Claver. Not in Portland, however, none of these players has even seen 23 minutes of court time yet after 19 games.
“Last year was much more about developing the young guys,” Stotts said. “We are still a young team. We have 8 players that are either in their first or second year. We do have a young roster, but the guys who are playing and contributing are primarily guys who have been in the league for a while.”
Even this year’s 10th overall draft pick C.J. McCollum is not guaranteed playing time when he finally gets back from his foot injury.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Stotts said.
Stotts has been letting his key guys develop chemistry by maintaining roles and playing them big minutes, something a number of other teams could be doing if they were really putting winning games ahead of player development.
“It’s been a 9 man rotation,” Stotts explained. “It is important that the guys out on the court have a good rhythm and play well together. We have a nice flow going and a good rhythm with everyone that is getting in the game.
“It is hard to play more than 9 guys, but the emphasis is we are in it to win games and continue to improve.”
Stotts has been able to use this strategy in part because General Manager Neil Olshey acquired the veteran pieces needed for Stotts to implement it. Point Guard Mo Williams and center Robin Lopez filled 2 very big holes in last season’s rotation.
“(Williams) is a great playmaker, a scorer, but he’s a facilitator,” Stotts said. “He can come in and be a primary ball handler, but he can play with Damian (Lillard) as well so you get 2 playmakers on the court at one time. Having scoring and having the ability to maintain a certain level of play when your starters are on the bench is really important.”
“(Lopez) has brought a defensive mindset. He is very much a team guy. He is about winning and he is a selfless player that competes every minute he is on the court and that kind of attitude just permeates the team. He has the respect of his teammates. Obviously, we are a better defensive team this year in part because of him and the mentality that he brings.”
Also, it’s obvious Olshey hasn’t been breathing down Stotts neck to ‘find out what he’s got’. Olshey is letting his coach play the guys he thinks he can win with. Those young guys nailed to the bench will just have to wait for their opportunity to happen.
“It is a long season and opportunities crop up,” Stotts said. “Whether its injuries or matchups or foul trouble or whatever it is – a losing streak – so the message to anyone who is not in the rotation is to just keep playing hard and improving and be ready when that opportunity comes.”
Stotts could be considered lucky that everything has come together for the Trail Blazers and his team is exceeding expectations, but luck had nothing to do with it. Stotts gave his team – his players – the opportunity to show they could be this good. Other teams that are losing close games while developing young prospects instead of playing their best players might want to take notes.