It was the summer of 2007, and Terry Stotts had just been fired for the second time in four years.
The George Karl disciple wasn’t sure where his coaching career was headed, so he took a pilgrimage to Europe to visit with some of the top international coaches in the game. He wanted to see things from a fresh perspective and, in the back of his mind, he wondered if he might need to make the move overseas to continue being a head coach.
“I’ve always been open to the idea of coaching in Europe,” Stotts recently told The Associated Press. “I enjoy the lifestyle of living in a foreign country. That was always in the back of my mind that might be a possibility.”
Six years later, Stotts has finally found a roster, and a front office, in Portland that has blended perfectly with his wide-open offensive philosophy. He’s making the most of what may have been his last chance to be an NBA head coach.
In his second season, the Trail Blazers have become one of the biggest surprises in the league. They are off to a 23-5 start, tied for the third-best start in franchise history.
They lead the league in 3-point shooting and are third in attempts, and Stotts offers no apologies for the approach. He’s meshed that around a devastating pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop team of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge to make the Blazers offense one of the most entertaining to watch in the league. They’ve topped 105 points 13 games in a row, the longest streak since Denver did it in 2008.
“We’re playing the style of basketball that I envisioned as far as moving, being unselfish, versatility, shooting 3s,” Stotts said. “That’s what we envisioned.”
General manager Neil Olshey has filled the cupboard with goodies for Stotts, and the coach enjoys a supportive owner in Paul Allen. Those two entities weren’t necessarily there in his first two head coaching jobs in Atlanta and Milwaukee.
Stotts was fired after two seasons both times.
“I thought Terry Stotts, both in Atlanta and in Milwaukee, did a great job,” ESPN analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “He just didn’t have winning NBA talent. Oftentimes, when you get your first jobs in this league, you don’t have talented-enough teams that can consistently win.”
Stotts was fired by the Bucks with 18 games to play in 2007, and that’s when he spent three weeks visiting with Ettore Messina and CSKA Moscow, Zeljko Obradovic with Panathinaikos in Greece and David Blatt in Istanbul.
Stotts played in Europe and has always been intrigued by the international style of play. When Rick Carlisle brought Stotts on as an assistant with Dallas in 2008, he brought some of those ideas to the table and helped the Mavericks win the championship in 2011.
“He has a great overall feel for the game,” Carlisle said. “He’s the best offensive coach I’ve ever been around.”
Stotts credits his time in Dallas for helping crystalize his approach to being a coach.
“We played a style in Dallas that I really liked,” Stotts said. “That really had as much of an impact on the coach that I am right now as compared to who I was in Milwaukee and Atlanta.”
When Olshey hired Stotts before last season, several Portland players and many league observers were surprised by the move. Some pushed for interim head coach Kaleb Canales to get the job, but Stotts quickly won them over with a measured approach and player-friendly offensive system.
“You’re at your best when you’re not worried about what someone’s saying about your offensive game,” guard Wesley Matthews said. “There are structures and guidelines, but he trusts us enough to make the right plays out there.”
Lillard’s presence in crunch time has brought a new swagger to the group. The additions of Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson have added depth and Aldridge is enjoying the best season of what has been a standout, if overlooked, career to this point.
“He’s been instrumental,” Aldridge said of Stotts. “He came in and he changed the whole system. He’s instilled confidence in every player. He has us buying into playing defense this year and playing unselfish, and a lot of teams don’t play as unselfish as we are.”
And now, after two false starts to begin his head coaching career, Stotts has the feeling that he’s finally found a home.
“It’s definitely been special,” Stotts said. “You just feel like there’s no question it’s going in the right direction.”
Carlisle is one of the few who doesn’t seem surprised that it happened this quickly.
“Back in August of ‘12, there weren’t a lot of people clamoring to get the Portland Trail Blazers job,” Carlisle said. “In this league, you’re not just going to inherit a great job. You’ve got to take a tough situation and make it a good situation and that’s exactly what he’s done.”
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