Terry Stotts didn't figure he'd be here.
That doesn't mean here specifically, coaching the Portland Trail Blazers against the Los Angeles Clippers in an unlikely playoff run that has earned him consideration for Coach of the Year. Rather, he didn't expect to be on the sideline again as an NBA head coach.
After brief stints with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks ended in pink slips, Stotts anticipated his head coaching career was over. But success as an assistant led to another opportunity, and Stotts has taken full advantage.
Starting over in Dallas
Stotts' third act started in Dallas, where, along with head coach Rick Carlisle and fellow assistant Dwane Casey, he was part of what with hindsight looks like one of the best NBA coaching staffs ever assembled. All three were in the conversation for Coach of the Year this season, with Casey guiding the Toronto Raptors to the best season in franchise history and Carlisle helping the short-handed Mavericks reach the playoffs.
That success seemed far off during the 2007-08 season when the three unemployed coaches, all of whom had been fired the season before, agreed to team up in their next destination. They hatched a plan: Carlisle, the most successful of the three at his previous stops, would present the group as a package deal when he interviewed for jobs.
"He had singled out Dwane and I as choices for being his assistants and when he interviewed for jobs in Dallas and other places, we were kind of included in the process," Stotts said. "He wasn't just bringing in Rick. He was bringing in Dwane and I."
The trio landed with the Mavericks, where Carlisle put Stotts in charge of the team's offense and Casey the defense and empowered both with unusual latitude for NBA assistant coaches.
"There were no egos," Casey said. "(Stotts) did the offense and Rick allowed me to do the defense. We had a great working relationship, great chemistry. That was one of the best things I pulled out of that -- he would see something on defense he thought would work, I would take the suggestion. We worked well. If I saw something offensively, I'd say, 'Hey, Terry, did you see this last night?' So we had a great working relationship."
"It was a very fertile learning environment for all of us," Carlisle said, "but particularly for me because these guys had a lot of background with certain things that I didn't have a lot of experience with. Zone defense was one of them."
The combination worked. Following a pair of seasons with 50-plus wins that resulted in relatively short playoff runs in the loaded Western Conference, the Mavericks broke through in 2010-11. After beating Portland in the opening round, they swept the two-time defending champion Lakers out of Phil Jackson's last postseason as coach. In the NBA Finals -- playing zone at times -- Dallas pulled the ultimate upset, coming from behind to prevail over the Miami Heat's big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the last series the Heat would lose until 2014.
A third opportunity
The Mavericks' success made their assistants hot coaching commodities. Casey was the first to get a new chance, getting hired by the Raptors soon after the championship. A year later, the Blazers hired Stotts.
When he arrived in Dallas, Stotts didn't expect to get another head coaching job after his teams won barely 40 percent of their games during his first two stints.
"It wasn't really on my mind," he said. "Dwane had interviewed two or three summers in a row and he was up for every job and so you knew it was just a matter of time. Getting a third chance in this league, regardless of the situation or the circumstances, it's difficult to get a third job -- particularly if you don't have a winning record."
Stotts is right about the odds he overcame. Of the six coaches since the ABA-NBA merger whose teams had also won fewer than 45 percent of their games in their first two full-time head coaching jobs, just one had been given a third opportunity: George Karl, Stotts' coaching mentor. (Since then, Randy Wittman also was hired a third time.)
Portland GM Neil Olshey was willing to go against that trend because of the advocates on Stotts' side, including Carlisle and agent Warren LeGarie; the fit with the Blazers' roster; and a closer look at his track record. After initially offering the job to former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan, Olshey chose Stotts at the conclusion of an extensive search.
"It was just a perfect marriage of an offensive-built roster with an offensive-minded head coach that really needed one more opportunity," Olshey said. "I think when you really look at what Terry did in his first two coaching stops, the results really weren't that bad relative to the rosters he had. It really came down to ownership change, unrealistic expectations, a lack of patience at times.
"I think with us, we had a very realistic idea of what that roster was going to be Year 1. We wanted a teacher, we wanted a guy who would maximize our guys and embrace the idea of being a head coach again."
A different coach the third time around
The coach Portland hired was different than the one who had been fired twice before. The years spent working with Carlisle helped reshape Stotts' coaching philosophies, which had previously been limited by his experience working primarily with Karl dating back to his playing days in the CBA.
There are worse coaches to emulate than Karl, whose 1,175 wins rank fifth in NBA history. But adding Carlisle's contrasting perspective helped Stotts find a successful synthesis of the two.
"You couldn't have two more diametrically opposed styles of coaching," Stotts said. "I'd been with George for so long and basically my first two stops as head coaches I hadn't had any other influence. So now when I was able to see Rick and his approach and manage that with my other background and my personality, I just felt more comfortable in my philosophy and how I wanted to approach things."
Stotts also resolved to do things his way. He arrived in Portland preaching the importance of ball movement and unselfishness, invoking the tradition of legendary Blazers coach Dr. Jack Ramsay and the 1976-77 team that brought Portland its only NBA championship -- not a bad idea in a city that reveres those Blazers and even has a nearby sports bar named "Spirit of '77."
It took a year for those changes to play out in the standings. Stotts' first team, with Damian Lillard starting at point guard as a rookie, was too young and too shallow to compete in the West. By Year 2, with the addition of center Robin Lopez rounding out the starting five, the Blazers emerged as improbable contenders in the West, winning 50-plus games in consecutive seasons. Portland's win over the Houston Rockets in the 2014 opening round was the franchise's first series victory in 14 years.
"I'm a big believer that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes." Blazers GM Neil Olshey
Yet what Stotts has accomplished this season might exceed those impressive results.
When LaMarcus Aldridge departed for San Antonio last summer and Olshey chose not to pursue fellow free agents Lopez and Wesley Matthews, as well as trading a fourth starter (Nicolas Batum), Portland appeared destined for the lottery. Expectations were low around the league for a youthful Blazers roster that featured Lillard and little other proven talent, with the Westgate SuperBook Las Vegas pegging the team for an over/under of 26.5 wins.
By the All-Star break, Portland had already beaten that total, and by taking advantage of a weakened West, the Blazers finished fifth in the conference at 44-38 -- a spot higher, remarkably, than the year before. Under Stotts' guidance, the young talent that Olshey found through the draft, free agency and trades has developed into a cohesive unit.
Asked late in the season whether it was his proudest coaching accomplishment, Stotts responded that it was his most rewarding.
"The fact that there was player development, which was the goal," he said. "The team got better as the season went along. The fact that we were nine games under .500 in December and in January and we were able to come together and rise above that, I think it's very rewarding. This was a special year with a special group of guys as far as being young and hungry and very coachable with great attitudes. It's certainly been an enjoyable year."
Olshey calls it Stotts' best season because of his work with young players.
"He's still a great game manager," Olshey said. "He still makes great adjustments. Our team is well-prepared. But it's forced him to teach even more. When you have 29-year-old All-Stars, it becomes sometimes more about management than about instruction. These guys were all starved for it."
Finding more third-timers
The success Stotts has enjoyed in Portland raises the question of whether there are other coaches who washed out at their previous stops but deserve another opportunity.
"There's no question," Stotts said, "but like a lot of things in society, everybody's kinda looking for the newest and best thing. Sometimes experience and a learning curve gets overlooked."
Lately, those trends have included former broadcasters like Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr, recently retired players like Derek Fisher and Jason Kidd and college coaches like Billy Donovan and Fred Hoiberg.
The very language used to describe coaches getting rehired multiple times -- "retreads" -- carries a negative connotation. Yet the statistics suggest no dominant strategy when it comes to finding a successful coach.
Since the ABA-NBA merger, coaches on their third full-time job have won 51 percent of their games -- similar to the 51.7 percent won by first-time head coaches and slightly better than the 50.6 percent coaches win in their second full-time jobs.
"I'm a big believer that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes," Olshey said. "I do think people are missing the boat with writing people off if you believe that intrinsically they're very good coaches."
Coaches can only demonstrate their development if they get another chance, and Stotts remains thankful he did.
"I didn't think that the opportunity would be there," he said. "And who's to say if we hadn't won a championship I would have gotten another chance. The stars kind of aligned."