Coach of the year might be right here
Damian Lillard has thrust himself into the conversation as a darkhorse candidate for the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award, and the Trail Blazers' monumental win streak has caught the attention of national pundits.
Flying under the radar has been the job Terry Stotts has done in molding together the unit that is finishing the regular season with a flourish.
In my estimation, there are five bonafide candidates for the NBA's Coach of the Year Award — Toronto's Dwane Casey, Boston's Brad Stevens, Houston's Mike D'Antoni, Golden State's Steve Kerr and Stotts.
The top three on my list are Casey, Stevens and Stotts.
Stevens lost Boston's major offseason acquisition, Gordon Hayward, to a knee injury five minutes into the season opener. The Celtics have been hit with a rash of injuries lately but are still pretty much locked into the No. 2 spot behind Toronto in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Stevens deserves kudos for his work.
My vote, though, narrows to a couple of coaches who are extremely familiar with each other.
Casey and Stotts, both 60 years of age, worked together as assistant coaches for seven years — four in Seattle under George Karl and three in Dallas under Rick Carlisle. Casey was the "defensive coordinator" and Stotts ran the offense for the 2011 NBA champion Mavericks.
"We have a history together," Stotts says. "Dwane is as close a friend as I have in the league."
In his seventh season at the Toronto helm, Casey has added a more free-flowing and well-balanced offense to what always has been one of the better defensive systems in the league. The Raptors are among the NBA's top 10 in offensive rating (third), scoring (third), field-goal percentage (ninth) and free-throw percentage (second).
"Their offense is rolling," Stotts says. "Dwane takes a lot of pride in the defensive end, but the offense has evolved under him. He has developed his bench. He convinced (Demar) DeRozan and (Kyle) Lowry that, in order to make the next step, they'd have to give up a little something, and they have. They're going to be the No. 1 seed in the East. He has done a remarkable job."
Stotts has gone the opposite route. He has always been one of the best offensive minds in the game, but his teams have been mediocre at best defensively. This season, Portland is in the top 10 in the league in defensive rating (seventh), opponents' scoring (fifth) and opponents' field-goal percentage (fourth).
Has Stotts' coaching philosophy changed since he took over the Blazers in 2012-13?
"I don't know that it has," he says. "A lot of the things I believed in before, I continue to believe in at both ends of the court. Defensively, we're doing a lot of the things we did in the second or third year, when we turned things around. If it has changed, I couldn't tell you where it has."
Lillard and CJ McCollum are in their fifth season playing together. Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton are in their third year with the group. Maybe that has been the biggest factor in the improvement at the defensive end. Perhaps they are more connected now and have bought into Stotts' theory that defense is the final step in the team's progression.
"More than anything else is the familiarity of having a lot of the same players from one season to the next," Stotts said.
Go through the Blazers' locker room and one description of Stotts is delivered the most: "Players' coach."
"He knows how to handle players' personalities," Harkless says. "That's a big part of coaching in the NBA today. I won't say he treats everybody the same, because everybody's different. He treats everyone fairly. That's one of the most important things, because players take notice of that."
Stotts tries to make a connection with each of his guys.
"I don't hang out with the players, but I like to think I have a good working relationship with all of them," he says. "Communication is essential to good coaching, especially in today's age, where there is a lot of information out there. It's important to young people today."
That communication may stray away from the game.
"Coach Stotts and I have a unique relationship," Davis says. "It's not just basketball. We talk about a lot of life things, or maybe if something's going on in the world in current events. Our relationship goes beyond basketball.
"He's not sensitive to criticism. He's always in a good mood. He respects us. As a player, that's the type of guy you want to play for."
Stotts is open to suggestions from his players, too. It's more of a democracy than a dictatorship.
"It's not my way or the highway," he says. "As a coach, you need to explain why things are being done, and that there is a reason for doing things, not just because I said so."
Nobody has more say than Lillard, the team's franchise player and team captain. And none of the players have been more outspoken in praise of Stotts than Lillard, who told me last week that he wants Stotts to be coach for the rest of his career in Portland.
"I appreciate the kind of person he is," Lillard says. "As a player, you appreciate how laid back he is. Every guy who has come through here, they play under him and they have career years because of the freedom he allows you to have. The level of comfort he gives guys to be themselves is a great trait to have as a coach. He's not trying to control every little thing in every situation."
To Stotts' credit, he has maintained a good relationship with players on the end of the bench, too.
"For me, he has been great," reserve forward Jake Layman says. "In my first two years here, I've learned more than I could ever imagine. Coach (Stotts) does a good job relating to guys, with what we're going through during the year. I feel like he treats me just as well as he does (Lillard). It doesn't matter who you are.
"During the game, when it's crunch time, he always has a play in the bag that he pulls out that produces a bucket. He's unbelievable with X's and O's."
Lillard and Meyers Leonard are the only players who have been with Stotts through his six years in Portland. Leonard has played by far fewer minutes this season than in any through his career, yet maintains respect for his coach.
"Coach Stotts approached me the other day and said, 'I want you to know you've done a good job when you've been in there this season, and you've been a good teammate,'" Leonard says. "I really appreciated that. We all have a lot of respect for him. People are talking about how he has done a good job of holding (Jusuf Nurkic) accountable. 'Dame' has gone to bat for him many times when people questioned what was going on with us early in the season.
"He has an open-door policy. He is always willing to talk to you. You look at the run we're on in a really difficult Western Conference, it's impressive. It takes the players doing the job, but it also has a lot to do with his leadership and the way he approaches the players and how he gets his staff to get the most out of them. At practice, guys are always in there early and they're staying late. That's a testament to the culture that he has created.
"Outside of our first year when we were just OK, we have been in the playoffs five straight years. He has remained confident. He has continued to be himself. He is a great guy and is clearly a really good coach."
The players who have been with Stotts the longest endorse him for the Coach of the Year laurels.
"I'd love to see him win it," Lillard says. "He deserves it. Our team has had a solid year. We're up there with the best teams in the league. Players have to go out there and play, and our team is doing a great job. But I've always said our coaching staff prepares us. Everything we do around here is sharp. We run a tight ship. It's a good environment, and that starts at the top. He deserves a lot of credit for that."
"He would have my vote," Leonard says. "You look at where we were at (early in the season), I would say we're one of the teams that has found a way to get through the rough stretches and continue to win. He has done an unbelievable job."
Stotts doesn't want any part of a conversation on the subject.
"Ask me that at the end of the season," he says. "The best thing we've done is not get caught up in any of that. We've just worried about our next game."
OK, Terry. Leave the conversation to me.
My ballot would read this way: Casey first, Stotts second, Stevens third.
That's still a feather in Stotts' cap, even if he won't keep his head still long enough for me to place it there.