Coaching Search Begins With An Emphasis On Defense

by Casey Holdahl
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After coming into the 2019-20 season, one that would be postponed midway due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with rather lofty goals, the Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2020-21 campaign with much more sedate expectations: improve considerably on the defensive end, win a playoff series..

They did neither, finishing the season 29th in defensive rating and losing to the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 2021 Playoffs in six games. And in the end, the combination cost Terry Stotts his job, one he had held for the last nine seasons.

The team announced Friday night that they had mutually agreed to part ways with Stotts, who had led the Trail Blazers to a 402-318 record over since taking head coaching position back in 2012, and on Monday, Trail Blazers president of basketball operations explained why.

“I think we reached a ceiling with the team,” said Olshey. “We entered the season and we really felt like we needed to show improvement on the defensive end of the floor, we need to advance in the playoffs and the decision was pretty much made. We were 26th in defense prior to (Jusuf Nurkic) and CJ (McCollum) being injured, we bounced back a little bit after we got Norm and we were 21st the rest of the year. And then we were 15th in the playoffs out of 16 first-round teams.

“So we didn’t make improvement there and we lost in the first round to a team that was missing an All-Star point guard and probably two of their top five players. So we just felt like we plateaued and we’re hoping that a new coach will make more or an impact when it comes to the outcome in the regular season and in the playoffs.”

Now the search begins for a replacement, with the main requirement being someone who can work the current iteration of the Trail Blazers into a better defensive outfit. While Olshey noted that the team is always looking to make improvements through personnel, his comments on Monday indicated that he feels the roster as currently constructed could be much better than the 29th ranked defense with a change in leadership.

“At 29th, you’re finishing below teams that were literally in rebuilds and teams that maybe weren’t the most motivated to compete late in the year,” said Olshey. “That was completely unacceptable and I think part of it is a culture where we benefited from the offensive culture by having a top three offense. We’ve also been a victim of the defensive culture and that’s got to change, it’s a mindset as much as it is coverages. I think if you look around the league, teams that made big jumps on the defensive end were led, in part, by coaches where the players knew from Day One they where going to have to defend and be held accountable on that end of the floor because that’s what the coach valued.”

While there have been reports linking the Trail Blazers to various candidates, not to mention Damian Lillard outright stating his preference for Lakers assistant Jason Kidd, only to have Kidd publicly remove his name from consideration a day later, Olshey said the process, which could include interviewing over 20 potential options, is still in its infancy. There might have been rumors even prior to Stotts dismissal regarding preferred candidates, but according to Olshey, there’s still a long ways to go before picking favorites, and when they do reach that point, Lillard will be involved in the decision.

“We’re going to run a broad, expansive search. We’ve got a lot of exciting candidates that we’re looking at and Dame will play an integral role in that,” said Olshey. “The fact that Dame publicly wanted to support different people, that’s Dame. If you ask Dame a question he’s going to give you an answer, but there are nuances to this process and it’s a more in-depth process than at first glance who someone likes. We’ve got to dig deeper into this, we’ve got to do impact studies and analysis, there’s a full interview process that has to go from going through me through the chairman all the way up to Jody Allen before we’re going to make this decision.”

With no draft pick this year -- Portland traded their first round pick for 2021, along with a future first round pick, to Houston in the trade to acquire Robert Covington -- and limited cap space with which to sign free agents, Olshey is banking on a coaching change and almost the entirety of the starting lineup being under contract for next season as the ways for the team to take a step forward after a second-straight first-round exit. However, even with limited resources, they’ll still look for opportunities to bring in new talent.

“I love the draft, I think we’ve had some big hits, we’ve had a couple of misses, but I think if you look at our roster, I think a lot of the impact we’ve made has been through the draft,” said Olshey. “But we’re in a different phase right now, we’re trying to win. It’s not easy to win and continue to get better every year strictly through personnel because your options are limited. Players make more money, your draft picks are later, you don’t have as much money to spend in free agency, you have guys you value so you don’t necessarily enter the trade market moving pieces as often. But we’re going to have to continue to find ways to get better, that’s what we do... It’s an evolving process, it’s always fluid, we want the coaching staff to make an impact but obviously there’s an obligation on our end to continue to build the roster and help it grow and that fact that maybe we’re limited in terms of avenues we can follow because of salary commitments or lack of draft picks just makes it a little bit more challenging.”

While the 2021 offseason will be shorter than normal, Olshey and his staff will still have plenty of time to go through the process of finding new head coaching options before offering suggestions to ownership. Even though it’s been almost a decade since their last head coaching search, they already have a strong sense of the traits they’d like their next coach to have. Now they have to go out and find them.

“We want to improve on the defensive end of the floor, strong leadership qualities, someone that is going to hold people accountable on both ends of the floor, someone with coaching experience that has hit certain benchmarks,” said Olshey. “Obviously the bar is pretty high, you make the playoffs eight-straight years in a row, you make the Western Conference Finals two years ago and we’re looking to improve on that. So it’s somebody that we’re going to have to feel confident that can make an impact when it comes to outcome, not just in the regular season but in the playoffs as well.”

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