The Portland Trail Blazers are off to a disappointing 11-16 start to the 2021-22 season. As Blazers fans search for answers to things that aren’t anywhere near simple, the outlook and performance of Head Coach Chauncey Billups is starting to come into question. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, with a question that’s representative of several that have come in over the last ten days.
We appear to be in a tailspin with a losing record and no effort to change it. Obviously we know that Olshey’s claim that coaching was the problem was bunk. Do you agree that the players are the only problem though or do you also blame Chauncey? If the players aren’t giving effort isn’t that also a reflection on the coach?
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s as easy at that.
The first thing working against Coach Billups has been injuries. We should cite that up top, then underline it. People debated whether the Blazers were a good team (as opposed to .500) with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum running full force. I don’t know anybody who would argue that they’re good with one or both stars in street clothes. We haven’t seen Chauncey Billups’ full program yet because he hasn’t had a full lineup yet.
Even so, the glimpses we have seen have not been that positive. You cite lack of effort, perhaps remembering a couple of Billups’ post-game press conferences where he said something similar. Yes, we’ve witnessed moments where it looked like the team has given up. We’ve certainly seen individual players miss assignments. But those haven’t been the norm. Most nights, in most minutes, the Blazers are moving and trying to get something done. The question is, what? Or rather, does the “what” really make them better?
Jusuf Nurkic is Exhibit A. Buoyed by a greater role in Billups’ system—enhanced by the spotty health of other starters—Nurkic has been playing harder in the last month than we’ve seen since he fell to injury in 2019. He’s put up impressive numbers too. But Billups’ system calls for the center to cover lots of ground on defense. Nurkic isn’t fast enough to make that work.
Billups also calls for guards and centers to coordinate. Portland’s guards aren’t defensively apt and/or experienced enough to make the necessary synergy automatic. Even when everybody is scrambling to get the job done, the gaps are too wide and the back-up plans too thin.
The same goes on offense. All things being equal, Billups would prefer his team to score off of penetration and ball-sharing. Do Lillard and McCollum like to dive at the rim, or take the near-mandatory contact from defenses that the approach requires? Can their teammates hit open shots when the defense collapses and mauls them? Norman Powell has looked good in the new system because it fits him. Lillard and McCollum have not.
Occasionally, Portland’s starting guards have reverted back to their more natural isolation-based, perimeter game. If they excelled in it, they’d have an argument to shift back towards that system. They haven’t, at least not consistently. Instead they’ve missed shots while the rest of the team stands around looking confused.
Summing up: this roster has the chemistry of a herd of wet cats. With Lillard underperforming, they don’t have the superstar to tug-o-war them out of their doldrums. It’s falling apart before our eyes.
Most observers would have put “mediocre” as well within Portland’s range of possibilities this season. There’s too much talent on the roster to be comfortable with them being...well...whatever we’ve seen over the last few weeks.
Can a coach be expected to fix this kind of thing? They’re partially responsible, at least. Coaches are supposed to draw connections, encourage unity, and give their charges a way forward beyond their shortcomings. None of that appears to be happening right now.
Part of the blame may fall on Coach Billups. He appears to be coaching a philosophy that creates “good” in the abstract regardless of the actual players on his roster. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s an inevitable hallmark of inexperience.
Although too much is made of it, calling out his team via the press may be a mark of inexperience as well. That’s fairly old-school. It relies on a set of assumptions—and tramples over priorities—in a way that may not fit today’s players.
But even bigger parts of the issue are beyond Billups altogether. The team is crumbling, maybe the franchise too. “No coach could fix these things,” is too broad of a statement. No first year coach could be expected to fix it is certainly true.
The Trail Blazers brought a veteran roster with strong floor leadership, huge compensation, and high expectations into the season. They also brought a history of falling short, a litany of past attempts to correct that, and a “now or never” feeling because of roster age and lack of further options to evolve. The situation was complex, the avenue to true success fairly narrow.
No matter what one thinks of Billups’ basketball credentials, past or present, bringing a first-year coach with an inevitably steep learning curve into that situation was curious. An experienced coach might ponder what buttons to push. A first-year coach is just figuring out there’s more than one.
No matter how many years you played, thought, or dreamed, actually filling that position is far different than imagining how it should be done in the abstract. How does one tell CJ McCollum that his defensive effort isn’t enough? How do you tell Damian Lillard to stop shooting deep? Short answer: you can’t. Or if you must, that’s some Professor McGonagall, “Spent my whole life teaching this subject,” shizz. You can’t get off the Hogwarts Express in Year 1 and tell Hagrid his office is messy or Snape to have a better attitude.
That’s not Chauncey Billups’ fault. He got stuck into a situation precarious enough that an experienced coach like Rick Carlisle would have had a challenging time managing it, let alone rescuing it. This will be a learning experience for Billups and the Blazers, but neither is likely to remember the process as particularly fair or good.
In the midst of it, all they can do is plug away and celebrate the small moments. Some players are flourishing under Billups. The Blazers are playing in a new way, at least exploring something different. Wins will come too. Everyone involved has to hold onto those things and hope they’re steps forward.
As with so many other things surrounding this franchise right now, the time to critique the decisions was when they were happening. Now that the die has been cast, the only thing left is to see how it falls and try to compensate accordingly. That means Billups continues to champion his system, learn his players, and we all hope something clicks soon.
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