NEW YORK –Much has been made about the Trail Blazers’ airtight chemistry inside the locker room, but the players say perhaps an even more important and unspoken bond has emerged that explains this season’s emergence as a playoff contender.
In a relationship that is rare, if not unique, the Trail Blazers have embraced their coach, Terry Stotts, and declared an unwavering commitment to him and his style.
“I always want to play hard for him,’’ reserve big man Ed Davis said. “That’s one thing I can say: Everybody on this team can play for Coach, and it’s not like that on every team.’’
Added star Damian Lillard: “He is perfect for the team we have. I love having him as a coach.’’
That feeling for Stotts, and that commitment to playing for him has been reflected in one of the NBA’s most amazing developments: The Blazers (33-28) have won nine of 10, 15 of 18 and have placed themselves firmly in the playoff race with 21 games to go.
On Tuesday, the NBA honored Stotts as the Western Conference Coach of the Month after the Blazers went 9-2 in February.
“He should be in the running for Coach of the Year,’’ Davis said. “Especially if we make the playoffs; it should be a no brainer that he is Coach of the Year.’’
So how has Stotts taken the third youngest roster in the NBA, that needed to replace four of its five starters, with a collection of players that make up the league’s lowest payroll, to these heights?
The players say it has been a collection of honesty, communication and smarts from the 58-year-old coach.
He came to Portland nearly four years ago, figuring this would probably be his last opportunity to lead a team. When he arrived, he had the reputation as a brilliant offensive mind who had an affable and easy-going style with players.
But if anybody thought that meant Stotts would be a pushover, or milquetoast, they haven’t seen the job he has done this season.
With his players he has been equally blunt, approachable and hard.
Lillard, the unquestioned star and leader of the team, said Stotts has called him out in front of the team in video sessions. Meyers Leonard said he recently walked into Stotts’ office to ask why he had suddenly been benched. And CJ McCollum remembers how the team’s January practices suddenly became rigorous and monotonously focused on defense.
“He is a selfless coach, a consistent coach, an even keeled coach,’’ Lillard said.
Leonard said he had the comfort level to easily walk into Stotts' office recently and ask him why he wasn't playing. Stotts, Leonard said, was direct and honest in telling him his approach to playing against small lineups.
"Terry will talk to you. He will tell you why he is making decisions. It's in the best interest of the team,'' Leonard said. "That communication helps. It was very cut and dried. The thing is, he genuinely wants everybody to do well.''
There has long been an unspoken divide among coaches and players when it comes to improving players. Coaches call pointing out mistakes or flaws coaching; players call it criticism or nitpicking.
In Portland, that difference in interpretation famously came to a head when Darius Miles confronted coach Maurice Cheeks in a film session in such a fashion that he was sent home and later suspended by the team.
Stotts, players say, has mastered the art of identifying mistakes and shortcomings by combining the criticism with positive reinforcement.
It showed when Stotts emerged from the holidays with a game plan to improve the team’s defense during a series of January home practices. He knew he couldn’t only hammer them with video of the guards being toasted, and the bigs being indecisive on pick-and-rolls.
So he blended the Blazers’ bad defensive plays with examples of when the Blazers played good defense. And he showed examples of how other team’s played effective defense against the Blazers.
“He broke down the film,’’ McCollum said. “He showed us where we are at, how we have been defending and what we are capable of.’’
It was hard to watch at times. Lillard used the word “embarrassing” to describe how it is to see your errors played in front of the team. But the key was it was never a belittling. It was a coach urging his players to get better, while also showing them examples of them doing it before.
“Everybody knows when you watch film, and you think you are doing one thing and the film shows you doing something else, it’s kind of embarrassing,’’ Lillard said. “Then when you see yourself doing the right thing, that’s how I want to see myself. That’s how I want to look.’’
Stotts then gave the team a carrot. He told them they could be a playoff team if they accepted and adopted a commitment to defense.
The test of that commitment would come in the ensuing practices. He drilled them over and over and over. Nothing was allowed to slide.
“Man, he harped on it for a while. Every day in practice he preached it. Every day. Every day,’’ Davis said.
But the players gave him effort. They took his criticism. They listened to his coaching. There was a reason: they liked and respected him.
“If you have a d***head coach, you just don’t care,’’ Davis said. “It’s like if you have a boss you don’t like, you might not give 110 percent effort every night because you don’t like him. But he’s a personable guy. He’s himself. And I think him just as a person translates and players respond well.’’
Stotts in Portland has always taken great care into developing player relationships. He doesn’t like to reveal anything that goes on behind close doors with his players because he is fiercely protective of their privacy and the concept of team. And he never directs any attention to him or his coaching.
At the end of his first season, the team was in Los Angeles and thought it was busing to its final practice of the season. Instead, the bus pulled up to a theater, where Stotts had arranged a viewing of the Jackie Robinson movie “42.” At the time, he requested to not have that publicized, because it was a team event, and he didn’t want it to seem like he was bringing attention to himself.
Same thing with Tuesday in New York City, when he arranged a team trip to the 9/11 memorial, which moved several of the players. It was not done for publicity, but rather to educate and unite the team.
“NBA players are very astute,’’ Stotts said. “I think they respect honestly, they respect people being real and true to who they are. I think respect is the number one thing in coaching in this league. You need to have the respect of your team and your players.’’
When the NBA award was announced Tuesday afternoon, the players were tickled. McCollum immediately sent his coach a text message. And Davis felt something of a personal victory.
“I’m so happy for him,’’ Davis said. “I’m always happy when the good guys in this business get awards and accolades. He’s so deserving.’’
Lillard, who earlier this season presented Stotts with a game ball after his 150th victory in Portland, said there were no plans by the team to honor the manfor whom they have come to care so much.
“I mean, Coach Stotts is not that kind of guy,’’ Lillard said. “He doesn’t want too much attention, he doesn’t want too much credit. He will probably say ‘Without you guys I wouldn’t be able to do it.’ That’s even more of a reason why he is more deserving of a coach.’’
Hours later, after the Blazers recorded their sixth consecutive road victory, a convincing 104-85 win over the Knicks, Lillard would have chuckled if he heard Stotts after he was asked about his award.
“As a coach, you understand all the parts that go into an award like that,’’ Stotts said. “I’m the first to understand it’s about the players and how they perform. You don’t get anything done in this league if the players aren’t doing what they do.’’