When the Trail Blazers hired Terry Stotts as their new coach, the media focus understandably went to his underwhelming (and under-.500) stints as the head man in Atlanta and Milwaukee during the 2000s. But he has been a hoops coaching lifer since 1990, when his first major guru/mentor, George Karl, hired Stotts as an assistant coach on Karl’s Albany Patroons in the CBA — the same team that once boasted Phil Jackson and Bill Musselman as head coaches. Karl took Stotts to the NBA during the 1990s heyday of the SuperSonics and then the Bucks, and Rick Carlisle became a second guru/mentor for Stotts over four seasons — including one glorious title run — with the Mavericks.
Stotts talked at length with SI.com about his coaching career, his vision for the Blazers and his general philosophy of coaching. An edited transcript:
SI.com: You obviously wanted another shot at the big chair, but how tough was it to leave Dallas? Everyone raves about working there, and with Rick Carlisle, Monte Mathis, Dwane Casey, Roland Beech and the other coaching minds there — not to mention Dirk Nowitzki — it must have been a really fulfilling place to be every day.
Stotts: It’s just a great organization, from top to to bottom. I’ve learned so much from Rick over the last four years. I wouldn’t be the head coach [of the Blazers] if I hadn’t learned from Rick and without his job recommendations. Dirk is a true pro and a great person. It was an unbelievable experience. And I think they’ve reloaded pretty well.
SI.com: What’s a concrete example of something you’ve learned from Rick — something we’ll see on the court in Portland that you could point to and credit Carlisle to some degree?
Stotts: Starting my first year in Dallas, I kept a file of just things I learned from Rick. It’s like three pages now of different things. More than anything, it’s the attention to detail on defense. His focus on pick-and-roll coverages, committing to a certain way of doing that, and having a defensive coordinator — those are things I want to take to Portland.
SI.com: Obviously, Casey was the defensive coordinator in Dallas, and now it’s Mathis. Do you have names in mind for that job in Portland?
Stotts: I can’t comment on staffing issues at this point.
SI.com: Back to Carlisle and defense — he was known at first as an offense guy …
Stotts: Rick came into the league as the offensive coordinator for Larry Bird [in Indiana], but then he brought a defensive mindset to the Pistons when he went there. I hope I can do the same thing in Portland.
SI.com: You mentioned Carlisle’s focus on guarding the pick-and-roll. Every team has to do that. What about his approach stood out?
Stotts: He was very serious about his approach to it, every single day. We were consistent in the way we taught it, and we never let it slide. Never. It’s not just “showing” on the pick itself, but also getting the other three guys in position — to meet the roller in the lane, close out on the next pass, that kind of thing. And we just consistently worked at it, every day. Never let it slide. He was just so diligent.
SI.com: When he got hired in Toronto, Casey told me they’d practice a different defensive fundamental — as simple as a proper stance — in every daily session. Sounds like you’re talking about a similar kind of repetition.
Stotts: Yes. When I was out of coaching, I went to watch the Spurs’ training camp, and they would do drills for defense that seem so repetitive and mundane — over and over, how to respond to certain things an offense does. It just becomes second nature.
SI.com: Between 2009-10 and 2010-11, the championship year, Dallas suddenly started shooting a lot more threes and a lot fewer long twos. That had to be intentional, right? Are we going to see a similar shot distribution in Portland?
Stotts: I’m a big, big believer in the three-point shot. You have to have a decent number of three-point shooters on the court just for the spacing — at least two or three. It opens up space to run pick-and-roll, post up, and for penetration.
SI.com: Do you ever see LaMarcus Aldridge drifting out there? If he’s going to share minutes with center Meyers Leonard, would it help?
Stotts: He hasn’t yet, and I don’t think it’s important that he does. He’s a young player still, and maybe that part of his game develops. But spacing with Meyers and LaMarcus could become an issue if you want to run a pick-and-roll with LaMarcus or post up a wing like Nic [Batum] or Wesley [Matthews]. But I think LaMarcus probably spaces well enough now.
SI.com: Sounds like you think Batum is ready to do more.
Stotts: You take the contract out of the equation, and there are a lot of things he can become better at. I don’t want to limit him. I want him to post up, to get his own shot, to handle in the pick-and-roll.
SI.com: More freedom?
Stotts: I don’t know if freedom is the right word. It might be more responsibility.
SI.com: How’d you meet George Karl?
Stotts: I first met him coming out of college in 1980, when he was an assistant in San Antonio running a draft workout. I played well there, and then I got drafted by Houston, got cut, and played overseas for years. George then became head coach of the Montana Golden Nuggets [in the CBA] in Great Falls, and when I got cut in Italy, he brought me in there. He was only 29 or something then, so we became really good friends.
When I was done playing in Italy years later, I called him and said, “I’d love to be your assistant.” He got the job with the Albany Patroons in 1990, and he hired me.
SI.com: Great Falls, Mont., in the CBA. I bet you have some fun stories.
Stotts: Well, they’re fun in retrospect. When you’re in the CBA, and it’s minus-20 outside, and you’re riding buses or playing five games in five nights in five different cities, you’re not thinking about how fun it is. But the basketball was good — we had guys called up to the NBA every year — and I was young and dumb and just wanted to play.
SI.com: Was George close enough in age then that he could hang out with the players?
Stotts: Oh, yeah. We hung out at a bar, T.J.’s, all the time in Great Falls. We played a lot of Donkey Kong and Missile Command together at T.J.’s.
SI.com: Who was better?
Stotts: George was much better at Donkey Kong. His hand/eye coordination in that game was unbelievable.
SI.com: And Albany — what a tradition, with Phil Jackson and Karl.
Stotts: And when I was there as an assistant, in 1990-91 with George, we set the CBA record for winning percentage — we went 50-6, and we had to win the last 15 games of the season to break that record.
SI.com: No kidding. Who was the best player on the team?
Stotts: Well, we had Mario Elie, but we lost him to the Warriors down the stretch — he got called up. So I was activated for the last 12 games of the season.
SI.com: You were a player-coach, then!
Stotts: Well, we had to replace him, and I had only just retired, so I was in shape. And I knew all the plays.
SI.com: How’d you play?
Stotts: I was only OK. But I’ll tell you this: I told George I had to start [laughing].
SI.com: You demanded a starting spot?
Stotts: I did! In all seriousness, George always believed that starting a role player made your bench better, and I do, too. Ervin Johnson started for us in Seattle in the 1990s, and that allowed us to bring Sam Perkins off the bench. And in Milwaukee one year [2000-01], Mark Pope started something like 45 games for us so that we could bring Tim Thomas off the bench.
SI.com: Portland fans will kill me if I don’t ask for your opinion on Damian Lillard’s summer league play.
Stotts: Obviously, he played really well. I was really anxious to see him, and not only because I was interviewing for the job out there in Vegas. It wasn’t one skill that stood out, as much as that it seemed to me that he had command of the game, of what he wanted to do. He took what the defense gave him, whether it was a jumper, a drive or a pass.
SI.com: What about Leonard? Is he ready to play?
Stotts: Two things stood out to me: He was athletic and he played hard. Those are things you don’t see in a lot of big guys like that. He has a lot of room to grow on both ends, but he tried. And I don’t mean that in a small way. When you have a big out there busting his a–, it matters. He screened really well and he ran the court.
SI.com: You had access to a ton of advanced stats in Dallas and have said you are a fan. “Advanced stats” is a catch-all for lots of things at this point. What sorts of numbers do you find useful?
Stotts: One thing I really like is measuring lineups and pairings. How do Dirk and J.J. Barea play together? What’s the best lineup when Dirk isn’t on the floor? What’s the best power forward to play, other than Dirk, when Shawn Marion is at the three [small forward]?
And I’m really into measuring that stuff by efficiency — points per possession. It’s powerful when you see what sorts of points per possession a lineup scores, what points per possession you give up with your zone defense, how many points per possession you score out of the pick-and-roll. That kind of thing.