The Trail Blazers are the hottest team in basketball, 7-1 over the last two weeks. Their three-guard starting lineup boasts a +13.3 net rating, per NBA.com/stats, an elite number warranting all the more optimism because it's courtesy of standout play on both sides of the ball. At serious risk of settling for the play-in tournament a blip ago, Portland now could finish fifth in the West – and potentially get the first-round matchup everyone wants.
The Blazers' stunning turnaround, obviously, is cause for celebration in Rip City. But even a finish that puts their win-loss record and realistic playoff hopes perfectly in line with preseason expectations may not be enough for Terry Stotts to keep his job. Fortunately for Portland's longtime coach, at least he doesn't seem concerned by it.
In a pregame media session on Saturday, Aaron Fentress of The Oregonian directly asked Stotts how he was handling recent "speculation" about a coming change on Portland's sidelines. Alternating between shrugs and smirks, Stotts responded with the typical platitudes.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm just coaching the team."
Stotts repeated himself, but then offered at least some insight into his mindset when pressed.
"I really don't...You know, speculation – it's that time of year for speculation about coaches."
He's right. The final weeks of the regular season are always when reports of summer coaching changes make the rounds. One about Stotts' increasingly hot seat was published at The Athletic just a few days ago, and Yahoo Sports' story on Damian Lillard's frustration with the Blazers a week earlier included a note about a "likely" coaching change in Portland.
All those reports did was confirm what everyone in Rip City long assumed to be true. The Blazers' struggles against quality competition, porous defense for most of the season and mounting April losses put writing about Stotts' future on the walls of Moda Center. Or as The Athletic put it, barring a "playoff miracle," he wouldn't return for a tenth season in Portland.
The Blazers' ongoing surge has provided the off chance of something like that miracle coming to pass. If Portland, currently a game-and-a-half back of the Dallas Mavericks, jumps them for fifth, there exists a world in which Stotts' team draws the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz in the first two rounds of the playoffs – avoiding LeBron James and Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George until a potential Conference Finals appearance.
Nikola Jokic will be the well-deserved MVP, and is better now than in the NBA bubble when he proved an impossible postseason cover. Still, no one fears Denver in the playoffs without Jamal Murray. Similar skepticism abounds about the Jazz, and Portland's defense – improved as it is – would no doubt be exploited by Utah. Rudy Gobert, though, definitely doesn't want to the task of meeting Damian Lillard ball screens 40 feet from the rim.
This is all very much hypothetical, and the Lakers or Clippers would be heavy favorites if the Blazers got back to the Conference Finals, just like the short-handed Golden State Warriors two years ago. The depressing and seemingly inevitable state of that 4-0 sweep should have been clarifying for Neil Olshey and Portland's front office. The standings broke right for the Blazers, and they took a rock-fight Game 7 on the road just for the opportunity to be put in their rightful place by a real title contender.
Portland has mostly maintained the status quo since, tinkering around the edges of the same core and reaching an overall level of quality and success to be expected. A coaching change might indeed be the right decision for the Blazers. Reports of Stotts' voice growing stale would ring true simply by virtue of him approaching a decade in the same locker room. Change can be necessary without it being anyone's fault.
Considering Portland is playing its best basketball of the season and could be primed for matchup luck in the playoffs again, though, it's safer than ever to say that Stotts isn't the driving factor behind his team's longstanding issues.