Portland Trail Blazers’ head coach Chauncey Billups has had the recipe for success this season, yet a couple of additional ingredients may be needed to take his squad to the next level.
His schemes pertaining to offense, defense, rotations, and adjustments on the fly have made the Blazers a viable threat in the Western Conference playoff picture. Can they, however, become more than that?
Year Two for Billups has certainly been a step in the right direction, but still a mixed bag as the Blazers have endured great highs and lows to sit at the sixth spot in the conference today with a 17-13 record. Let’s take a look at some of the positives and negatives under Billups so far.
In a recent piece for Yahoo Sports, esteemed NBA writer Vincent Goodwill went in length about Billups’ coaching, background and impact on his players. His style was molded in part by the coaches who instructed him during his impressive 17-year NBA career, including Larry Brown, who he won a championship with in Detroit.
The Blazers have gone through a pretty rough portion of the schedule and have forged a defensive identity that hasn’t been present over the past decade.
But with the way this roster has been transformed over the past year or so, there’s a feeling that it will be more playoff-ready. On the floor, of course, everything revolves around Lillard. Players such as Josh Hart augment the defensive pressure the Trail Blazers want to apply.
And the direction comes from the second-year coach, who spent most of his first year teaching and figuring out that he can be as meticulous as that head coach who gave him fits.
“I lost a lot of sleep [with Brown],” Billups said. “I knew how that made me feel. I don’t want my guys to feel that way. Now, they’re gonna be upset with me at times. Because the truth don’t always feel good, no matter how much you finesse it. But they know how much I care, and they know it’s coming from the right spot. Which allows them to have some patience.
Meticulous is a fitting adjective to describe coach Billups. He has put his star players in the best positions to maximize their output – with his starters ranking as the third-highest scoring lineup in the NBA (min. 10 games) – and has Portland playing a much more inspired, connected brand of basketball.
On defense, the Blazers have aspects that they’ve been exceptional at, but those are accompanied by deficiencies that need work. At face value, Rip City is No. 23 in defensive rating. This isn’t championship caliber. They are No. 11 league wide in points allowed at 111.7 per game. That’s better, but there’s room for tightened execution, especially with the defense struggling of late after getting off to a hot start.
Granted, Damian Lillard has been sidelined for a large portion of the season. But, his defensive reputation doesn’t precede him, nor is it a major catalyst, though he has stepped it up on that end of the floor thus far.
Amidst the mix of good and bad, when delving deep into the numbers, we find within the triumphs of the defense, revelations that warrant attention, such as pick-and-roll coverage.
In situations when the ball handler opts to shoot, Portland forces the third-worst field goal percentage in the league at 39.9 percent. They also strong-arm ball handlers into coughing up turnovers at the second highest rate per contest. This is exceptional against an offensive play type utilized so frequently in today’s NBA.
When the same metric is examined for the roll man, the Blazers are No. 14 in the NBA, allowing 54 percent from the field. It’s encouraging to see, even with so much focus on the ball handler, Portland still provides at least average defense against the roll man.
Still, even with the favorable pick-and-roll stats and sharper rotations than in years past, there’s been a number of times Portland’s interior presence has been compromised this season. Some of this is likely due to Billups’ zealous schemes up top and a lack of size at the center position behind Jusuf Nurkic (backup center Drew Eubanks is a tireless worker, but still stands at only 6’10). Centers like Jarrett Allen, Myles Turner, and most recently Rudy Gobert have all enjoyed among their best scoring games of the season against Portland, particularly feasting inside.
In isolation, where dynamic players such as Paul George, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson thrive, they were once stifling opposing teams to only 5.7 points per contest, good for fifth-fewest in the league as of Dec. 11.
In the last seven days, that number has done a full reversal, spiking up to 8.8 points per contest, good for fifth-most, albeit in more winning efforts. It probably didn’t help that Portland faced off with Doncic over the weekend, who is the best iso scorer in the NBA and torched Portland for 33 points in a 130-110 rout. Whatever has been going on this past week must be neutralized back to the ways of old.
Also, the Blazers must tighten up the defense on the catch and shoot. While teams are shooting just north of 35 percent from deep (right around league-average), the eye test will tell you Portland’s perimeter defense is far from fixed. Role players such as Yuta Watanabe, Malik Beasley, David Roddy and Max Strus all bombed away from deep when playing Portland and exposed their need to get in the grill of shooters more.
Against deadeye shooting teams like the Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, and Phoenix Suns come playoff time, their defensive emphasis or lack thereof from beyond the arc will get them severely burned.
As for the offense, Billups has Portland playing smart. They find ways to get open and find the right looks. He also has Lillard playing off the ball a bit more, and has exploited the corner 3 as a lucrative option for his perimeter troops.
He promotes aggression out of his players, and they’ve been rewarded for it. They play hard in transition, and get to the line more than any other team not named the Toronto Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks on the fast break.
Coach Billups’ brand of team ball has instilled confidence in his players, and it translates late in games. Per FiveThirtyEight, The NBA defines clutch time as “any game time when there are five or fewer minutes remaining in the game and the scoring margin is within 5 points.” Portland is No. 2 in the league with 13.3 clutch points per close contest, and score those points at 50 percent from the field — good for No. 5 among all teams.
Franchises are up on Dame Time, and in the event he has to give the ball up late, he has teammates who can step up. Josh Hart hit a game winner against the Miami Heat earlier this year. Jerami Grant hit a game winner against the Phoenix Suns and another against the Los Angeles Lakers. Anfernee Simons has been a flamethrower in spurts. There has been a trickle down effect from Billups’ coaching and it has manifested in the most crucial time of the game.
In all this, Billups must find a way to get more quick and easy buckets for his players. They average the third-fewest catch and shoot attempts in the NBA. Yet, they are top 10 in efficiency in that regard. Those two numbers shouldn’t mutually coexist. At times, Simons takes the hot hand a bit far, and the Blazers as a whole get caught up in the dribble-heavy, iso ball of old.
Lastly, Billups will pull strings from the sideline in unconventional ways, be it tactics like deploying small-ball lineups or zone-heavy schemes. In Portland’s crushing 109-107 defeat against the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 17, he called for the hack-a-Shaq strategy on Ben Simmons with under four minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
While Simmons shot three of four in his two trips to the free throw line, Billups was unafraid to abate the pace of the game to minimize points scored and try to play mind games with the five-tool player. Simmons was an anomaly that night, but with the bonus being taken into consideration down the stretch, it showed gamesmanship on Billups’ part.
Through the good and the bad, Billups is carving out a dark horse case for Coach of the Year. He has been met with nothing but rave remarks from his players, tabbed as an excellent teacher, especially for younger players like Simons. Billups has been the right man for the job and with the talent at his disposal, is nurturing a championship culture that might just open the door for another 1977-esque season full of surprises.