For years, the Portland Trail Blazers tried not to rock the boat. They never made blockbuster trades or took major risks. They played the NBA’s most conservative drop-back defense. They made the playoffs every year. In four of the past five postseasons, they’ve been eliminated in the first round. It was like clockwork. Damian Lillard ensured the Blazers would be good. Portland’s refusal to take major risks prevented them from being great.
But now, Lillard is 31. CJ McCollum will turn 30 before next season. At this point in their careers, neither appears satisfied with mediocrity. The Blazers don’t either. On Friday, they announced that they’re parting ways with long-time head coach Terry Stotts. With Lillard and McCollum nearing the end of their primes, the Blazers can no longer afford to play it safe. They have to hit a home run with this hire.
So who will they look to do that? Here are the five likeliest candidates for Portland as they attempt to replace Stotts and re-enter the championship picture.
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Vanterpool has the least name recognition of any coach on this list, but he’s the one with closest ties to the team. He was an assistant in Portland from 2012-19 and drew several head-coaching interviews in that period. He left for Minnesota afterward, and what happened there is our greatest indication of Vanterpool’s candidacy in Portland.
In February, the Timberwolves abruptly fired their head coach, Ryan Saunders, and hired Raptors assistant Chris Finch in his place. There was no interview process, though, and that bothered many around the league who hoped that Vanterpool would get a chance to audition for the job as the interim coach. Among those to voice their displeasure? Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reports that Lillard is going to have major input on this hire. If that’s the case, we already know who one of his top choices would be. It’s unclear what the Blazers want out of this hire. If they want a new voice, Vanterpool is probably fighting an uphill battle. But if this is about satisfying the locker room, Vanterpool will be one of the favorites through this process.
For all we know, McMillan isn’t even available. He probably isn’t. He took the Hawks from the No. 11 seed in March to the second round now. The terms of his contract with Atlanta aren’t known. But here is what we do know:
- The Hawks have not officially given McMillan the permanent job. He is still technically the interim coach.
- McMillan coached the Blazers for six-and-a-half seasons and finished just below .500 in that stint at 266-269.
- Before that, he coached in Seattle, where he spent his entire playing career. He is very familiar with the Pacific Northwest.
The Hawks should do whatever it takes to secure McMillan as their coach moving forward. They could’ve agreed to a contract already without announcing it. They might have agreed to postpone such talks until after the postseason. But if Portland does somehow get a shot at McMillan, they need to take it.
Stotts’ failure in Portland came down to defense. McMillan is one of the best defense coaches in the NBA. Atlanta rose from 28th on defense last season to 18th this year with McMillan in the building. His Indiana teams consistently defended well, and if there were any concerns about his old school offensive tactics, the fact that Atlanta has scored 115.9 points per 100 possessions since March 1 should quell those fears. Any team would be lucky to hire McMillan. The Blazers won’t get the chance, but they should at least explore the possibility before moving on to other candidates
Haynes reported that Portland will be interested in Kidd, and they won’t be alone. The Boston Celtics will also reportedly consider Kidd, who has spent the past two seasons as an assistant under Frank Vogel with the Lakers. That stint has done wonders for Kidd’s reputation, which took a hit after he was fired by the Milwaukee Bucks. When Mike Budenholzer took over, Milwaukee immediately vaulted from a No. 8 seed to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Kidd’s strategic acumen drew quite a bit of criticism when he was with the Bucks. His ultra-aggressive defense had one very successful season by generating a ton of turnovers, but eventually, offenses figured it out and had a ton of success generating good shots against it. In his last full season, the Bucks allowed the second-most shots at the rim and the sixth-highest opponent’s 3-point attempt rate in basketball.
But Kidd is a Hall of Famer, and superstars tend to love him. Giannis Antetokounmpo offered to speak to Bucks management on his behalf when he got fired. LeBron James famously respects his basketball acumen. If the Blazers want a coach specifically to connect with Lillard, that might be Kidd. After all, Kidd won his first and only championship in his 30s. If there’s any coach who can relate to a ringless point guard later in his career, it’s Kidd.
D’Antoni is the most accomplished coach on the market. He’s made it to the Western Conference finals three separate times as a head coach, but dominant competition prevented him from ever reaching the top of the mountain. D’Antoni is an offensive genius. He turned Steve Nash and James Harden into MVPs. Just imagine what he could do with Lillard and McCollum.
There are two major red flags, though. The first is defense. D’Antoni’s teams aren’t exactly known for their success on that side of the ball. The second is timing. D’Antoni is currently an assistant under Nash in Brooklyn. His playoff run might not end until late July. Would Portland be willing to wait that long for him? If they think he’s the right coach for them moving forward, the answer will be yes.
Few first-year coaches could command the respect of a veteran locker room like Portland’s. Billups is one of them. There’s a reason he’s been so highly sought-after for the past several years. Cleveland even tried to hire him as their president of basketball operations. Billups is revered for his basketball IQ and was considered one of the NBA’s best teammates during his career. He was a Finals MVP, but also a journeyman earlier in his career. In theory, he should be able to connect with any type of player the Blazers give him.
Billups will be a head coach one day, but is Portland the place for that career to begin? Relying on a first-time coach in a win-now situation would be a bold risk, and on Billups’ side, would he want to take a job in which his two best players are in their 30s and have made it out of the first round only once in the past five years. Both sides will have to do a good job of selling here, but like Kidd, Billups is an appealing option for a team built around aging guards.