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Do the Trail Blazers Lack the Experience to Succeed?

We examine a coach’s claim and find...maybe?

San Antonio Spurs v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

When the Portland Trail Blazers lost to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers last Sunday, Blazers nation went into a pretty severe funk. Portland posted a franchise-record 45-13 second quarter and led by 25 before succumbing to the Lakers 121-112. Portland’s overcooked-pasta second half was topped by a vat of awesome sauce from James, turning a raucous celebration into a nightmare for the guys in red and black.

After the game, Blazers Head Coach Chauncey Billups tried to illustrate where the evening went wrong. His explanation only added salt to the wounds of Blazers fans, becoming the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.


I can’t believe Chauncey said that this team lacked experience and that’s why we’re losing. Dame has been here since 2012 and has played almost all that time. Nurk and Jerami Grant and Josh Hart are experienced too and we got GP2 for just this reason. I need your super Dave debunking powers to fry this myth and put the blame where it really belongs. Go Dave! Go!


Let’s hold up a minute there. Coach Billups actually said the following in the post-game presser:

“Like this was a playoff like atmosphere. We don’t have a ton of playoff expertise and experience and that’s what this was tonight,” said Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups. “You see these teams get off to these big leads and those teams don’t mean anything because it’s a game of runs and they started to smell blood and Bron just kept attacking and attacking. We was out there being vulnerable and then it became a game.”

Note that Billups cited playoffs experience in what he termed a playoffs atmosphere. That’s key to understanding what he was getting at.

In support of the coach’s point, Damian Lillard has 61 postseason games under his belt. Collectively, the rest of Portland’s significant rotation players have participated in 100 playoffs games, without any prejudice towards their role or contributions in same. Whether the guys played one minute or all of them, we’re counting those games towards Portland’s total.

Charitably, that makes 161 postseason appearances for the Blazers as a whole.

LeBron James has 266 all by himself.

That’s a hundred more than Portland’s entire roster...over an entire year of games, just in the playoffs.

It’s not terribly surprising, then, that Billups would cite James’ experience and his track record of success as contributing factors to a Blazers loss in which they got ahead by 25 points and seemingly expected the other team to roll over as a result.

LeBron James has taken almost every team he’s been on to the NBA Finals. He’s not going to worry about a 20-point deficit. LeBron doesn’t roll over in those situations. LeBron James rolls over you.

In that sense, the explanation was accurate. You’re right, though, that it doesn’t even begin to describe the totality of Portland’s situation right now.

The Blazers will improve with more experience, in the abstract and together. But experience alone won’t make their backcourt defense better, nor the center position more mobile, nor the frontcourt bigger. Shaedon Sharpe should develop into a fine scorer off the bench, but the Blazers need more help around him: playmakers, ball-handlers, shooters. Experience alone won’t create them.

I don’t think Billups was addressing those things, though. In fact, I’m not even sure experience itself was exactly what he was getting at with his comments. I suspect that, deep down, Billups wasn’t referencing minutes on the court when he talked about Portland’s lack of bona fides. He was talking about approach and attitude.

Winning playoffs teams are stubborn enough to bounce back from adversity, mean enough to make sure their opponent doesn’t do the same, and committed enough to do anything necessary to make sure they have the last word.

The Blazers are talented. Damian Lillard is otherworldly, defying description. Anfernee Simons looks promising and possesses a couple nifty skills, including the ability to raise high on his jumper and shoot the three in a nanosecond. Jerami Grant is playing better than anyone dreamed he would and Josh Hart is an old-school purist’s dream. Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Payton II, Sharpe, Nassir Little, Justise can find great things about them all.

But collectively? They’re nice. They’re a really nice group of players. Good team. Good guys.

But nice players don’t win in the playoffs. At least not when they play nice. And in this league, good isn’t good enough.

The Blazers can score their way back from a deficit. We’ve seen that a couple dozen times this season already. Their firepower always gives them a chance. But that’s what they’re doing: scoring their way back into a game. It’s deep shooting. It’s finesse. It’s pretty as heck and thrilling when the shots fall. Yay!

How many times have you seen them dominate, wrenching the ball away from opponents, denying shots, ripping rebounds, imposing themselves on the other guys until they crumple and give up? Outside of Lillard against Pat Beverley and Paul George, how many Blazers players have you ever seen get insulted, start playing with a chip on their shoulder, get really nasty out there? I can cite a few examples from the season, but not enough.

Even worse, I’m trying to think of a single time I saw Portland display a truly dominant instinct, putting a credible opponent under duress and keeping them there. The Blazers play like a double-digit lead is permission to ease up instead of a signal to bear down harder. Notice how often they lose much you see Billups playing Lillard, Grant, and Simons in the closing minutes of games instead of letting them rest while deeper bench players cruise home.

When have you seen the Blazers go above and beyond—not just raining threes—in vanquishing another team? When do they dive for every loose ball, go nose to nose with everybody who gets in the lane, stand hard and fast on every screen, making opponents who run into them pay? Portland is way more accomplished in complaining to referees about perceived harm done to them than inflicting harm—or any kind of intimidation—on an opponent.

I imagine most every NBA team knows that playing the Blazers is going to be interesting, maybe even challenging. I doubt there’s a single team out there that fears the Blazers under any circumstances.

People fear LeBron. It’s no fun contemplating getting in front of him when he’s barreling down the lane.

When most NBA stars get hot, everybody goes, “Oh wow!” When steam starts coming from LeBron’s ears, people go, “Oh sh****.”

There’s a difference.

Nobody expects any of the Blazers to be like James. Nobody else could be. But knowing the difference between an MVP/World Champion and you—understanding the potential gap between his squad and yours—you’ve all got to step it up, finding a way to overcome the distance no matter what it takes. If that means playing mean and dirty, you’ve got to go there. If that means getting physical and enduring, that too. Other teams are going to do that with you. If you can’t step up too, you have no chance.

The NBA playoffs force teams to match up with the best opponents possible, throwing everyone in a crucible from which only one side will emerge. Stay in them long enough and you’re going to meet an opponent who will do anything to win. If you want to hold the trophy, you have to become that opponent to everyone else. There’s no other way through.

The Blazers aren’t even close to that. It’s not in their lexicon, let alone in their DNA. That’s exactly what LeBron and company reminded them of last Sunday. For whatever reason, King James and company decided that the only thing that mattered that night was winning. L.A. summoned a little bit of the physical, take-no-prisoners playoffs spirit to the Moda Center. Portland didn’t respond. The Blazers came out in the second half ready to play rock-paper-scissors. The Lakers came out ready to throw hands. You saw who won.

Portland needs to fix some of their systemic problems before stepping up emotionally will make a big difference. Defense helps. Overwhelming rebounding helps. Being able to run the other guys out of the gym sometimes does too. Right now, the Blazers getting mean is a little bit like Milhouse going after Nelson Muntz, if Milhouse had a sweet three-point stroke, that is. If it becomes a shooting duel, Van Houten might have a chance. The minute it becomes anything else, “Haw-Haw!” is the inevitable result. Portland needs more bulk, depth, and muscle before they can become the bullies of the block.

But the Blazers do need to get more mean, more bitter about losing, more committed to the idea that it’s winning or nothing if they hope to succeed against teams that have been there and understand the requirements of success. They need to get put through the wringer, forced to fight their way back out, like they did in 2019 versus the Denver Nuggets. That hasn’t happened nearly often enough.

Chauncey Billups won an NBA title with a Detroit Pistons team who embodied that spirit as well as any team ever has. If my assessment is accurate—and it may not be...I cannot speak for the coach—you could forgive him for referencing the distance between the Blazers and that ideal. Especially when this generation’s version of Hercules just clubbed their hydra-headed approach into submission and took home the prize.

In that sense, Billups was right. It’s not the complete explanation. It remains to be seen whether the Blazers can, or will, actually do something about it. But there’s some truth to it nevertheless.

Thanks for the question! You all can always send yours in to and we’ll do our best to answer!