The Portland Trail Blazers are off to a 3-5 start to the 2023 NBA regular season. It’s not great, but not bad...somewhere in the middle. Head Coach Chauncey Billups has also had some nice moments, not great and not bad. Three wins is more than we thought his team would get in the early going. It’s not anything near real success, though. How are we to evaluate the coaching under these circumstances? Could anything be going better? Those are the questions occupying this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I don’t know what to think of Chauncey Billups’ coaching job so far. I love how the team is hustling. I think some of their comeback spirit comes from coach. But there are so many basic flaws and losses. Is that because of the roster? What could be better as far as coaching?
As we said at the start of the season, we’re just not going to know much about Billups this year. This summer, the Blazers recycled almost the entire team. They’ve had injuries to key players since. Let’s say Coach Billups drew up a couple of genius-level sets all but guaranteed to get three-point shooters open...one of the most prized opportunities in the modern game. Scoot Henderson is shooting 10% on distance attempts. 90% of the time, Billups’ genius play is going to look bad. Beyond that, who envisioned Skylar Mays as the main point guard running these sets? His effort and spark are admirable, but would any NBA coach risk their job on him?
As has been (frustratingly) true of the Blazers for a while now, we’re going to need to hold off on firm judgments for a bit. That includes judging their coaching staff. I would say that the burden is on Billups to show something, given the lack of success over the last two seasons. We need to see reasons to keep him, not just excuses why the team shouldn’t let him go. But it’s going to be hard to get anything definitive out of the season no matter what.
I find your last question, “What could be better...?” more telling. I do have one red flag hot spot: the play of center Deandre Ayton.
Admittedly, Billups is in a tough spot with DA. Ayton showed well in Phoenix, but he was dogged by the implication that he should have been more. Being selected first overall in the 2018 NBA Draft set up that impression automatically. The Suns (and the media surrounding them) cultivated it as his career went along. “Brilliant talent, not reaching full potential,” was the oft-repeated phrase.
Part of Billups’ mission statement in making sure Ayton grows into that potential is starting him the right way, emphasizing the basics: defense, rebounding, helping out, unselfishness. The coaching manual here says coax full effort out of the player first, using increased touches and responsibility as a reward for progress. You don’t just throw 20 shots a game at the young star and hope the rest comes along, because it never will. You make him work for the opportunity, coming out the other end as the full-fledged player he was meant to be.
Ayton being a center compounds the issue. He doesn’t initiate offense. He’s dependent on guards to get him the ball, on coaches to set up plays for him. No trend is more classic than a coach teaching his 7-footer to clean up everybody else’s mistakes on defense, do the dirty work on the glass, and hustle his butt down the floor before touches in the lane start to materialize.
Taking that approach with a big man is fairly easy. But is it the right one? Ayton has been through this in Phoenix, playing alongside NBA All-Star guards, serving under some of the best coaches in the league. He got to 18 points and 10 rebounds per game, shooting 59% from the floor. Those are pretty good numbers.
Yes, the Suns wanted more from him. But that roster also limited his potential to produce. No matter how much dirty work Ayton put in, he was never going to get more offense than Devin Booker or Kevin Durant. I’m guessing he gave about the most he could, emotionally and systemically, when operating under those classic coaching presumptions in Phoenix.
The leap Ayton needs to take is not “sketchy 18-10 guy to solid 18-10 guy”, but 18-10 guy to 25-13 guy. That’s not just about numbers. The hope is that blossoming in the obvious areas of the game will reinforce the work he’s already put in on the defensive end and as a teammate, yielding an actual star.
We don’t know whether Deandre Ayton is motivated towards stardom or not, given the box he’s been in so far in his career. All we know is, kept in that box, he appeared to under-perform a little against expectations. There’s no reason to believe that keeping him in that box longer is going to develop him further, or differently. The big change would be letting him out of the box, centering the team more around him, to see if he doesn’t flourish.
Ayton is averaging 12.9 rebounds per game so far for the Blazers this year, a career high in aggregate and per-minute. That’s great, but it’s also cheating a little. Portland fields zero other rebounders. Somebody’s going to get those boards. They’ll probably go to the tall guy.
Alongside that, Ayton is getting only 9.5 field goal attempts per game, 10.9 per 36 minutes. Both are clear career lows. This on a team with a completely untried point guard, an inexperienced shooting guard, a main scorer injured and on the bench, and no interior attack to speak of. If Ayton isn’t a go-to guy under these conditions, when will he ever be?
In 8 appearances, Ayton has logged single-digit shot attempts 5 times. His three double-digit attempt games have also been 3 of his 4 highest in shot percentage. That might be chicken-and-egg (Is bad defense allowing more shot attempts on a given night or are Ayton’s extra shot attempts getting him in the groove better?) but the Blazers will be better off pressing the possibility that increased offense leads to a better DA than dismissing it.
If we want to talk classic coaching, Ayton has run the floor on the break several times this season, only to see guards take the attempt themselves or pass away from him. The book says to reward your big man for effort, not starve him.
But that’s pretty much the description of Ayton’s season in Portland so far. He’s not being emphasized enough to know who he is, let alone grow. He’s not been a priority on the offensive end.
Granted, the Blazers trail the league in three-point percentage. Inability to spread the floor will make the inside more crowded against Ayton. At this point, though, who cares? Personally, I’d rather see him shoot a career-low in percentage but get more shots than see his normal efficiency on far fewer attempts.
Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe are going to develop into whatever they’re going to be organically. They control they ball. They’ll get theirs without help. If the Blazers don’t water Ayton regularly, they’ll never know what they have on their hands, or how to develop that area of the floor through him.
I’m not worried about Ayton’s personal outlook or development. If those go south, we’ll all see it. At least we’ll know, then. I more concerned about repeating the Phoenix experiment with him, producing much worse team results and diminishing returns for him as an individual.
If I were to critique Coach Billups for anything this season, it would be by asking what the heck Ayton is doing getting three shots per quarter while those guards and wings bomb away. Don’t turn this guy into the most talented fifth man in the league. See if he can be a star first, then adjust downward if necessary. It’ll be better for his personal confidence, keep his trade value higher, and in the long run be better for the team as well probably.
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