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5 prime Portland Trail Blazers head coach candidates after Terry Stotts’ exit, latest rumors

Mar 25, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (right) talks with Utah Jazz assistant coach Johnnie Bryant prior to the game at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are shaking things up after a fourth first-round playoff exit in five years, and are on the hunt for a new head coach after parting ways with Terry Stotts.

Given that Stotts had nine seasons to prove himself, it was obvious the franchise needed a new voice in the locker room. Superstar Damian Lillard isn’t close to winning a championship, and given his loyalty to Portland and world-class talent, that’s unacceptable for the Blazers.

Who can lead this organization to an NBA Finals run? Here are five prime head coach candidates for Portland to consider.

Jason Kidd to Portland Trail Blazers

Jason Kidd to Portland Trail Blazers
Nov 19, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers coach Jason Kidd warms up players before the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Welp, Lillard came right out and said the following Friday night to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes about the Blazers’ fresh head coaching vacancy: “Jason Kidd is the guy I want.”

Alrighty then. Here’s the thing: With Lillard giving such a strong endorsement to one candidate, does that mean Portland essentially has to hire Kidd? Not like it’d be a bad hire. It makes a lot of sense. Kidd is a Hall of Fame point guard with stints as a head coach in Brooklyn and Milwaukee.

Having said that, Kidd’s tenures with the Nets and Bucks weren’t big successes. They both got better when he left. His spot as a top Los Angeles Lakers assistant helps Kidd’s coaching resume, though.

Kidd would probably be viewed as a solid hire, but the Blazers shouldn’t just settle on him before doing a comprehensive search. Of course, that may be easier said than done with speculation that Lillard’s future with the team hangs in the balance right now.

Johnnie Bryant to Portland Trail Blazers

Johnnie Bryant to Portland Trail Blazers
Mar 25, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (right) talks with Utah Jazz assistant coach Johnnie Bryant prior to the game at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Marc Berman of the New York Post reported that the New York Knicks have already inquired about Lillard’s trade availability. Berman cited the connection between Lillard and Knicks assistant Johnnie Bryant as a link that could give New York a real chance to land Dame, featuring this quote from Lillard about Bryant from 2017:

“That’s my big brother. I remember barely being in the seventh grade, getting ready for an AAU tournament, and Johnnie was in college at Utah, and they would come back and scrimmage us on outside courts with no net.’”

Damian Lillard on New York Knicks assistant Johnnie Bryant in 2017

Well, that’s quite a strong connection, so what if, instead of resigning themselves to trading Lillard, the Blazers bring in one of his most influential mentors in Bryant?

And look, this isn’t taking anything away from Bryant as a coach. He’s earned his way up the NBA coaching ranks with some impressive stops along the way. Bryant was on Quin Snyder’s staff in Utah, and helped build the culture that has the Jazz with the league’s best record this season.

Having just helped orchestrate a swift turnaround in New York, it’s clear Bryant has the chops to get the big gig. It’s hard to imagine a better fit or opportunity for him than uniting with Lillard in Portland.

Chauncey Billups to Portland Trail Blazers

Chauncey Billups to Portland Trail Blazers
Feb 10, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Chauncey Billups gives a speech during his halftime retirement ceremony in the game between the Detroit Pistons and the Denver Nuggets at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Billups would be in consideration for the Blazers’ job, which even at this preliminary stage, gives him a leg up on the competition.

Among the quartet of candidates Woj floated, between Mike D’Antoni, Jeff Van Gundy, Juwan Howard and Billups, the latter fits best in terms of meshing with Lillard, and seems like a superior option to the others. D’Antoni is predominantly focused on offense, and Van Gundy hasn’t coached in many years.

Hiring Billups wouldn’t totally go against Lillard’s wishes, either. The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Jason Quick reported Saturday that, “it is believed the Trail Blazers will ultimately decide between Kidd and Billups.” Lillard was directly quoted as saying, “I like J. Kidd and Chauncey.”

Billups was an excellent leader who now has coaching experience under his belt after being on the Los Angeles Clippers’ staff this season.

Here’s the key: Billups was a second-team all-defense selection twice, which gives him a unique perspective for that end of the court. He can help Lillard in a clear lacking part of his game while not detracting from the superstar’s explosive scoring output.

Dave Joerger to Portland Trail Blazers

Dave Joerger to Portland Trail Blazers
Oct 23, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Sacramento Kings head coach Dave Joerger reacts in the second quarter against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Now, we get into some retread territory, and it’s mostly due to the fact that Portland has a lot to fix, and could use as proven and credible a leader as possible to change the culture.

The biggest area the Blazers can make strides is on defense. They ranked 29th out of 30 teams in defensive rating this past season, and that’s where Joerger specializes. When he led the Memphis Grizzlies to a 55-27 mark in 2014-15, they had the No. 2 defensive rating in the NBA.

Joerger’s next opportunity to be a head coach came with the Sacramento Kings, and let’s be honest, no one has been able to succeed there. He’s had the chance to work with Doc Rivers on the Philadelphia 76ers in 2020-21, and they’ve transformed themselves from also-ran to No. 1 seed in the East.

Joel Embiid took his game to another level this season, and Joerger deserves some credit for that. Even when Embiid has missed time, too, the Sixers have managed to play at a high enough level that his absence hasn’t devastated them.

Philadelphia ranked second in defensive rating this season, was first in steals per game and second in blocks per night. Joerger can schematically reshape Portland in that department, and has never had anywhere close to the offensive firepower Lillard and CJ McCollum provide. Not a bad fit at all.

Mike Brown to Portland Trail Blazers

Mike Brown to Portland Trail Blazers
May 31, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors acting head coach Mike Brown addresses the media in a press conference during the NBA Finals media day at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Some will criticize Brown for never delivering a championship on the Cleveland Cavaliers when LeBron James was first there. However, what he did do was make the most of a lackluster roster and got the Cavs to buy in defensively, which, once again, Portland desperately needs to do.

If LeBron can’t vouch for Brown, maybe Lillard can see the light on the coach’s prospective candidacy, especially since he had several formative years as an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio.

Even though Brown hasn’t had a full-time head job since he was unceremoniously ousted from the Lakers’ post and given only one season with the Cavs before LeBron’s return to Cleveland, he’s been a part of two Golden State Warriors championship squads since then.

Brown’s fingerprints were all over this year’s Warriors team, too. It almost brought to mind how the early LeBron Cavs were constructed: Heavily dependent on one offensive superstar (Stephen Curry) and requiring everyone else to play stout defense.

Now five seasons in with the Dubs, Brown may make the leap to a head coaching job again. He has the skills to do it, and knows what it takes to win a Larry O’Brien Trophy. Brown led the Warriors to a 12-0 record in the 2017 NBA playoffs in relief of Steve Kerr. Not a bad resume, eh?

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