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Stotts rides NBA whirlwind

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts (right), with general manager Neil Olshey, has determined his style of attack and the duties of his assistant coaches, among other things, for the start of training camp next week.I looked at the calendar and did a double-take. The Trail Blazers’ preseason opener — at the L.A. Lakers on Oct. 10 — is less than two weeks away.

“Time flies,” says Portland’s first-year head coach, Terry Stotts. “Since I got the job (in early August), it’s been a whirlwind.

“But I’m glad (the season) is coming. Being in Portland these past few weeks has made me realize how much basketball and the Blazers are appreciated here. So many of the fans are excited. I’m excited, too. I can’t wait.”

Monday is media day, and the first of two-a-day practice sessions is Tuesday. Soon enough, the 43rd edition of Blazer basketball will begin.

For the past three weeks, most of the Blazer players have been at the team’s Tualatin training facility Monday through Friday, working with Stotts and his coaching staff on an informal basis and then scrimmaging on their own.

The NBA allows no four- or five-man drills before training camp, and when the pick-up games begin, coaches can’t coach. Other than that, anything is fair game. Stotts and his assistants have worked on parts of the Blazers’ new offense — mostly in three-man groups — and on individual technique with all of the players.

“I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen,” Stotts says. “It’s been invaluable as far as putting in some of the foundation of what we want to work with. There is a good vibe in the building. At this time of the year, there should be.”

Portland was 28-38 a year ago, crawling to the finish line with a seven-game losing streak and a patchwork lineup under interim head coach Kaleb Canales.

New general manager Neil Olshey attracted no big-name additions in the offseason. Small forward Nicolas Batum, a restricted free agent, was retained at $45 million over four years. Veterans Ronnie Price, Sasha Pavlovic and Jared Jeffries were picked up as role players, but the most important newcomers will be draft picks present and past — point guard Damian Lillard, center Meyers Leonard and forwards Joel Freeland and Victor Claver.

In a Tuesday conversation, I was intrigued by several observations from Stotts, the one-time head coach with Atlanta and Milwaukee who served as Rick Carlisle’s right-hand man in Dallas the past four seasons. Among them:

Lillard, the co-MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League, “has played probably better here than he did in summer league. There are going to be bumps along the road. There is going to be a learning curve, probably more at the defensive end. But he is going to continue to get better, and he’s pretty good right now.”

J.J. Hickson has a leg up on the starting center spot. Stotts won’t say this directly, but the inference is that the 6-9, 240-pound four-year vet — who joined the Blazers at midseason last year and was about all the team had going down the stretch — is the man to beat.

“I’m not going to say who the starter will be; that’s what training camp is for,” Stotts says. “But I don’t want to dismiss what J.J. did for the team last year. He earned the right to come in and have that position to start camp. He earned a (one-year free-agent) contract, he earned minutes and the team played well with him on the court. That works in his favor.

“J.J.’s not the prototypical center, but he complements LaMarcus (Aldridge) well. He’s a big guy, strong and athletic, and what he can do defensively against pick-and-rolls with his athleticism will help us.”

Canales will serve as Stotts’ “defensive coordinator.” Stotts borrows that from Carlisle, who has had an assistant serve such a role since he became an NBA head coach. Stotts was Carlisle’s “offensive coordinator” with the Mavericks.

“Having Kaleb there makes the most sense for what I’m doing with this staff,” Stotts says. “It’s an opportunity for him to grow as a coach. The relationships he already has with the players allows him to be hard on them when they need it. He has a great understanding of the game. It’s a perfect fit. He’s going to do a great job with it.”

The other four assistants — Jay Triano, Kim Hughes, David Vanderpool and Dale Osbourne — won’t have defined roles, though Hughes already has spent time with the big men and Vanderpool has worked with perimeter players, Lillard in particular.

“I don’t like to pigeonhole coaches,” Stotts says. “I want all my coaches to coach. If Kaleb can help Nolan Smith with something, I want him to do it. If David can help Hickson, I want him to do it it. Each coach will have an area of expertise but a lot of crossover, and each coach will be involved in game preparation for opponents.”

Stotts will employ several of the same philosophies used in Dallas. He’ll attempt to put Aldridge in some of the same situations as Dirk Nowitzki, minus the 3-point shot. Stotts want to play up-tempo, “but I want to emphasize making basketball plays and trusting the pass,” he says. “It’s not about plays; it’s about playing.”

Stotts will emphasize transition defense and utilize the Mavericks’ pick-and-roll coverages and concepts.

“We’re not going to influence the ball to the middle or to the baseline,” he says. “We’ll play them straight up.”

Hard-luck guard Elliot Williams, probably out for the season due to a torn Achilles’ tendon two weeks ago, is a big loss. Stotts took him to dinner on Monday night to tell him so.

“Elliot has been through so much in his short career,” Stotts says. “You feel for him. He was loving being on the court with the other guys. He’s such a positive person. He’s still so young. He’ll be back, but everybody was anxious to see what he could do — Elliot included.”

Stotts’ summer vacation was cut short by his hiring. He and wife Jan had rented a place at Lake Norman in North Carolina for the month of August.

“Jan enjoyed it,” Stotts says, “but I was probably there for three days.”

Stotts did break away for a planned seven-day, 265-mile bike trip with his mother — Jayne Phelps, 76 — in Nova Scotia. “On her birthday in July, she biked 76 miles by herself,” he says.

And Stotts took part, as he does every summer, in Tim Grgurich’s camp at Las Vegas.

Then it was on to Portland, where the Stotts have rented a four-bedroom house in Lake Oswego.

“Nice place, perfect size, great location, close to the things Jan needs,” he says.

Now it’s time to get to work. Another season looms. Bring on the Lakers.

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