On this Thanksgiving Saturday, as you’re transitioning your normal listening patterns into the incessant thrum of Christmas music—pah-rum-pah-pum-pum—we’re going to throw some short questions at you from the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. Usually we spend 1500 words on your Portland Trail Blazers questions, but some queries can be answered more simply, or can’t be answered definitively at all. They’re asked nevertheless, so let’s get some of them in front of you while we have a short schedule break today.
First up, a question about Head Coach Chauncey Billups.
At first I thought Chauncey was doing a great job and had answered all the critics. But lately I don’t see the team improving or giving the same energy on defense. Plus there’s all the turnovers. I’m thinking maybe it was fools gold and Chauncey needs to do more than he’s doing to get these guys together. What do you think? Is the coaching all right?
And this one, that kind of has guilt by association:
Like the weather; players & coaches talk, talk, talk of improving the turnover numbers, but there’s been no improvement. None. 5 games should be enough to begin to see improvement. But zero improvement over an 18-game span? ‘Houston, we have a problem’. Is the coaching lacking, are players not listening, or are these players not skilled enough to permanently do better? How difficult is it to tell them, “Don’t throw the ball to the parking lot treadles.” Something is dangerously missing in the effort/method to improving things.
Taylor in FL
It’s funny to me that both questions mention improvement. 16 days ago, just before the losing streak started, the Blazers were 9-3 in 12 games. I don’t see how you get much improvement over that.
I’m not sure the 9-3 start had a ton to do with coaching, other than saying obviously Coach Billups got something good out of his charges. Energy and unselfish play testified to that. I don’t think their recent 2-5 performance is on the coach either.
First of all, let’s underline injuries. Damian Lillard has either been out or spotty for the past four games. No coach is going to make up for the loss of a player like that.
Second, let’s remember that the Blazers were new to EVERYONE in the league, even themselves, at the start of this season. That helps explain the turnovers. It also explains why, with just a few things going right, they were surprisingly good. Every opponent in The Association came into Portland games with the same line at the top of the whiteboard: Don’t Let Lillard Beat You. Even though Dame scored 30 a game during Portland’s hot streak, he wasn’t the dagger in the back. While everyone was watching him, Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons filleted them.
That phenomenon continues to this day. Grant scored 44 and Simons 38 versus the New York Knicks last night. It’s no longer a surprise. Opponents have adjusted. They’re playing tighter on ball-handlers who aren’t really point guards, which describes every Portland player outside of Lillard. They’re also going after rebounds harder and making sure the Blazers have to run to cover the arc.
Keep in mind also, Portland started the season among the league leaders in fast break points. They’ve slowly slipped to league average as opponents have read the emphasis and reacted.
This is the problem with coaching adjustments. They matter, but for how long? Unless it’s, “Get LeBron the ball,”—which isn’t an adjustment as much as a mandate—the league is going to catch up with them. Coach Billups definitely has a more diverse roster to play with than Terry Stotts did back in the day, but the permutations aren’t infinite. The Blazers can only do so many things well. The coach can’t adjust them out of strengths into weaknesses. They emphasize the basics that fit them, alter the play slightly by opponent, and then go out trying to execute and hustle better than the other guys. That’s it.
Repetition and familiarity help smooth out the bumps in the road. Phenomena that affect Game 4 of the season aren’t even a blip in Game 74. They also don’t apply in the playoffs, which are a whole ‘nother world. Whatever the coach does or doesn’t do during the regular season, the team will face a whole new test in the post-season, mandating new adjustments and growth.
In short, a team like the Blazers is likely to experience 4-5 different seasons in the same year. Trying to pin their progress through any given stage on the coach alone, or even primarily, is likely to go wrong. Saying Billups is a horrible coach now is as misplaced as saying he had it all figured out two weeks ago. Neither is true.
Generally speaking, players are judged by games, coaches by seasons, and General Managers by eras. Each affects the other, of course, but if you want to make some kind of pronouncement about how Coach Billups has done, how the team has grown (or not), or even about a variable subject like turnovers, we’re going to need to wait until the end of the year before we can speak definitively. I can tell you for sure that Grant had a career high last night and that the Simons-Jusuf Nurkic combo helped save overtime. We won’t know how Coach Billups did in aggregate until that aggregate has happened, and we won’t know how General Manager Joe Cronin has done until we see the results of the Damian Lillard veteran era and the rebuild to follow.
Thanks for the questions! You all can send yours to email@example.com!