That depressing press conference at Ball Arena, in Billups’ hometown, highlighted the rookie coaches’ first real frustrations with this Portland roster — the roster we were all told was not the reason for the team’s shortcomings against Denver last season.
“It’s coming, that point is coming soon. If we continue to play like that because you know, if you think about it, if you keep playing that way, at some point I have to look at it and say dang, something’s not quite working and then maybe think about shifting some things around.”
“I’m seeing some consistent things that I’m not very happy with almost every night.”
But what changes is Billups talking about? We’ve actually seen a sneak peak of one of those moves over the past two games against the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls. Could those smaller moves be the reason the Blazers are sitting at .500 and not languishing in the Western Conference basement?
Larry Nance Jr. over Robert Covington
The crowd was screaming for more Larry Nance Jr. during the Blazers’ inspiring second half comeback against Chicago. And for good reason, the multi-talented bench big man spearheaded the team’s resurgence against the hot-shooting Bulls — on both ends of the floor.
That’s right people, the Blazers had a big man who was working at both ends, shutting down go-to Chicago scorers while feasting on the other end, tallying 16 points, nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block. Interestingly, he played 25 minutes, one more than his starting power forward counterpart Robert Covington who notched up 10 points, three rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks.
During Monday’s victory against the Raptors, they each played 23 minutes, Nance Jr. put up 15 points, five rebounds and two assists while Covington recorded 11 points, three rebounds and two assists.
But beyond the box score, let’s look at Billups’ decisions that are particular telling. Namely, crunch time minutes. During both games Nance Jr. was trusted with closing out games ahead of both Covington and Jusuf Nurkic.
Covington was traded to Portland for Trevor Ariza and two first round picks based on his ability to hit threes — which he’s recently been doing — but, more importantly, his defense, which seems to have diminished during the early weeks of this season. Possibly because he’s three weeks away from his 31st birthday and the legs aren’t quite there. Or some sort of displeasure with his role under Billups regime, impacting that much-needed effort on the defensive end.
Billups has two ways forward if his predilection for Nance Jr. continues, he can continue to start Covington, but reduce his minutes — the Keith Bogans treatment. In this situation, Covington also rarely sees minutes with closing lineups in close games. The second, and more likely, path is to make a decisive move inserting Nance Jr. into the starting lineup, leaving Covington, who is currently in a contract year, on the pine.
Before the season started I asked whether Nance Jr. could supplant Covington in the starting unit, ultimately deciding no given Covington’s shooting and defensive prowess. But now, it’s almost impossible to deny that Nance Jr. is the more impactful player. We wait to see how Billups navigates this situation.
Fewer Minutes for Jusuf Nurkic
Ok, so just to be clear, this is going to be a very pro-Larry Nance Jr. column this week. Similarly to the Covington situation, Nurkic has not lived up to his preseason hype.
With Nance Jr.’s clutch play at both the power forward and small-ball center positions over the past week, he’s also taken many of Nurkic’s fourth-quarter minutes through his ability to defend bigger players while offering versatility via athleticism and basketball smarts.
To clarify, Jusuf Nurkic is not losing his starting center mantle with this team ... until he’s traded.
Yes, we’ve also discussed the trade deadline Nurkic deal so we don’t really need to re-litigate this. I’ll just say that Nurkic hasn’t really shown us why he should be kept past the deadline and into a free agency where he’s going to, rightly or wrongly, demand big bucks.
He has tendencies for laziness, poor body language and a lack of conviction, culminating in a lack of effort and engagement — the very things Billups spoke of in that press conference.
As a result, I expect to see Nance Jr. further eat into Nurkic’s closing minutes as the Blazers’ small-ball five. Nurkic’s claim to retain said minutes isn’t helped by a body not built to play big NBA minutes.
Ultimately, Nurkic will start for lack of another big body skilled enough to play that role but don’t be surprised to see Nance Jr. anchoring that defense at the end of close games.
More Time for Nassir Little
Ok, so Nance Jr. is good. But he can’t replace both Covington and Nurkic. If those two guys are sitting on the bench, someone else is needed on the floor. Enter Nassir Little. Nance Jr. might start at the four but, as discussed, will be moved to the five in late game situations.
Little has finally found fitness and ferocity on the court, hustling for loose balls, attacking the basket without hesitation and taking on important game-changing defensive assignments — see his coverage on DeMar DeRozan in the closing seconds of Wednesday’s win against the Bulls.
While he’s probably the truest small forward on this roster, Little has the strength and athleticism to play the four. His shot is there but, like many young players, it tends to escape him for quarters and games at a time. Crucially, he leads this team in one unquantifiable area — effort and it’s come through for him over the past week playing closing minutes alongside Nance Jr.
If Nance Jr. wasn’t in line for Covington’s starting minutes he might have had a chance at that starting power forward mantle, but that’s not happening. Norman Powell, while small for his position, is not losing his starting spot, but watch for Little to continue building his minutes at both position in crucial stretches.
CJ McCollum and Anfernee Simons
Just hear me out. Whether we like it or not, McCollum is the starting shooting guard on this team and it’s not going to change.
But for anyone watching, we’ve seen Billups pull up and correct McCollum on the floor multiple times this season. Lack of defense and ball-stopping are potential issues.
While I don’t think it necessarily happens, it might be interesting if Billups ever so slightly drops McCollum’s playing time from that Damian Lillard level of 35 minutes to a Norman Powell-type number, let’s say 30 minutes.
This would make more room for more Anfernee Simons, who has so far delivered on all preseason promises. He helped carry this team offensively during Lillard and McCollum slumps and has been passable on the defensive end. He also has the goods on McCollum in being able to get to the rim, a skill the veteran is yet to or refuses to master.
One last point on this, if there’s a big trade for the Blazers to do before the deadline, it involves McCollum, so you don’t want to do anything too drastic and reduce his value. But if McCollum continues to experience off nights, don’t be surprised to see a little more Simons and a little less of the shark.
This team is sitting at a crossroads, .500 in a competitive Western Conference, standing as the poster boy for mediocre, up-and-down play. For this team to succeed this season, it needs to separate itself from that mediocre pack.
Rotation and lineup changes could be the answer but they need to be executed delicately ensuring egos aren’t too severely dented. Or at least until some trades are executed, removing potentially unhappy parties from the roster.
Larry Nance Jr. is the clear beneficiary of increased and more consequential playing time along with more opportunity for Nassir Little and Anfernee Simons. But it’s a tightrope to walk for a rookie head coach trying to inspire his team to perform and not plunge back into the internal disarray we saw in Denver.