Tualatin, Ore. – Most didn't expect the Portland Trail Blazers to be a team in contention this soon. It was suppose to be a retooling period, but so far, it's been anything but that.
You can credit LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, JJ Hickson or the top rookie thus far in Damian Lillard for the recent success the Trail Blazers are experiencing at the moment.
And rightfully so. Each player has played an integral role in why the Trail Blazers are four games above .500 and why they are currently sitting in the seventh spot in the Western Conference standings.
But let us not forget who has made these pieces fit...Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts. And according to his players, he should be a serious early Coach of the Year candidate.
“I definitely think he is [an early Coach of the Year candidate] because of the way he handles our team,” Lillard said. “What everybody expected from us, it wasn't this. I can remember when people were saying 'We don't expect much' and 'It's going to be a rough year,' and in my head, I believed in our team and he did, too. As long as we continue on the same road as we are now, I think it's definitely a possibility he could win the award.”
It's been well documented what the Golden State Warriors have been able to accomplish under second-year Head Coach Mark Jackson. Last season the Warriors were 23-43 (lockout year). This season they are one win away (22-11) from surpassing that win total and are holding down the fifth spot in the Western Conference.
While not trying to take any credit away from Coach Jackson, Batum just wants everybody to keep in mind the differences between the Warriors and the Trail Blazers.
“Mark Jackson has the same team as last year. Our team is a totally different team,” Batum said. “We got a lot of young guys and people didn't expect us to be 19-15 in January and to be in the seventh and eighth spot after 34 games. You got to give credit to the coaching staff and Coach Stotts because he's doing a great job with us.”
The Trail Blazers have won 11 of their last 14 games and haven taken eight straight at the Rose Garden. They are 5-0 in overtime periods and in games decided by six or fewer points this season, they are an amazing 10-2. That speaks to the late in-game adjustments Stotts has made when the game calls for touch, quick, accurate decisions.
The Jan. 1 win over the New York Knicks was a prime example: Hickson was working on securing his 19th double-double of the season and was well on his way with 18 points (9-for-11 from the field) and nine rebounds. Stotts subbed him out the game to insert Jared Jeffries with 5:05 left in the third quarter.
Luke Babbitt started the fourth and played the entire quarter at the four, moving Aldridge to the five to allow Babbitt's three-point presence to keep the court spread. Babbitt only went 1-for-3 from distance in that span, but Lillard, Aldridge, and Batum were able to maneuver in space because of No. 8.
Making the call to sit your starting center and best rebounder the last 17 minutes of a tight game is a bold move, and it's a move not too many coaches are willing to make in the NBA.
That's why this team is where they are now.
“A lot of it is feel, trust and sometimes it's just searching,” Stotts said. “That New York game in particular, JJ had a great first half. We built the lead with Luke in the game. I didn't want to screw it up. If you can find something that's working, you want to stick with it, but at the same time, you don't want to overplay your hand. It's a tough call, but those are some of the decisions you have to make as Head Coach.”
Not to mention that the Trail Blazers have a bench that is producing an NBA low 17.4 points per game. Yet still, Stotts is finding ways to make it work and win ball games.
“I would definitely say he should be Coach of the Year right now,” Aldridge said. “I think he has taken a bunch of pieces and he's meshed them together to put us in position to win every night and to put us in position to be in the playoffs right now. So he definitely deserves to be recognized for what he's done.”
Stotts says he was well aware what people were saying about this Trail Blazer squad when the roster was shaped and that didn't change his goal at all: The goal pf making the playoffs.
“Every situation that I've been in as a Head Coach or an assistant, you just try and do the best job that you can,” he said. “There's a lot of noise out there and one of the thing that you find out, that you have to coach your team and coach your players. Communication is important. You can't get caught up in all that [media talk}, good or bad. We want to make the playoffs. We can be a playoff team. We're not right now, but we can be.”
Despite the Trail Blazers impressive start, Stotts isn't content with where they are at the moment. He says their defense still needs to improve, the trust on offense could be better, and bringing it consistently on the road is a must.
However, he's happy with the progress his team has made from the beginning of the year.
“I'm pleased,” Stotts said. “I'm pleased with how we've comeback from a couple of four-game losing streaks. We had a bad road-trip and then we took advantage of our homestand. I'm pleased with the way we compete most nights and I'm pleased with our improvement. From day one, what I wanted from this team was to compete and to get better and build championship habits. I think we are doing that, we're not there yet, but I think we are doing that and that's the part that's most pleasing.”
As for the Coach of the Year talk, Stotts says that's no concern of his. His main focus is the improvement of this team and letting everything else play out.
“The record at the end of the season will be whatever it is, but as long as those big picture items are accomplished, that's all I'm concerned about,” Stotts said.
LaMarcus Aldridge did not attend practice today. He was visiting the doctor about his right wrist that has been bothering him off and on this season.
Right now, Stotts doesn't know the severity.
"I don't know. Obviously it's bothering him so there's always concern. He's been playing with it. So hopefully it doesn't get worse and it gets better."
Update: X-rays came back negative and a MRI confirms right wrist sprain. Aldridge is probable for Thursday's game vs. Miami.