The Portland Trail Blazers are mired in a 31-38 season, heading towards lottery oblivion instead of the 2023 NBA Playoffs as they had hoped. It’s one thing to wish they would turn it around. When the best possible incarnation would result in a .500 record and inclusion in the Play-In Tournament, even that possibility seems like faint consolation.
Under those circumstances, it’s no surprise that Blazers Head Coach Chauncey Billups is coming under scrutiny and being criticized roundly. In fact, that’s the jump-off point for today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Is it time to place blame on this mess where it belongs? Fire Chauncey. I don’t see any way he’s the right coach for this team and everything we’re seeing on a nightly basis proves it. I know you media types like to defend coaches but there’s no case for Chauncey staying here anymore, right?
I don’t know about defending coaches. That’s also the first time “defending” has appeared in a Trail Blazers discussion for the last two months. Buh-dum tssssss.
Ok, that was lame, but seriously, we need to turn down the vitriol on this discussion before we’re able to have it clearly. That’s not the same as saying that the Blazers should retain Coach Billups. Let’s look at a few points on either side of the issue.
With the Blazers seven games under .500 when they once hoped to contend, I’m not sure anybody can argue that Coach Billups is doing a stellar job. Results matter. Portland isn’t getting them.
But several factors beyond Billups’ control have contributed to those results.
We hardly need to rehearse this one. We’ve been talking about it since preseason. The Blazers are small and thin in the frontcourt, wholly dependent on Jusuf Nurkic and Drew Eubanks to tick every big-man box from pick-setting to rebounding to shot-blocking and defense. Nurkic is a pretty good NBA center. Eubanks is a give-everything reserve. Neither one of them can carry an entire unit.
Portland’s bench is eager and athletic, but untried. Most of them haven’t played regular roles in the NBA. This weakness was exacerbated at the NBA Trade Deadline when the Blazers traded away veterans Josh Hart and Gary Payton II for less experienced and well-rounded reserves. They went backwards, not forwards, mid-season.
We can criticize substitution patterns and schemes until the cows come home. When the players you’re subbing in are worse than the players you’re subbing out—and more importantly, worse than the opponent’s—no pattern or scheme will solve that problem.
Injuries have gutted the roster for much of the season. Justise Winslow, one of the few mid-rotation glue guys left to the team, started the year impressively, then disappeared on injured reserve. Payton spent the whole first half of the campaign in street clothes. Nassir Little missed large stretches too. Starters Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons just came back from long absences.
Every team deals with injuries in one way or another. Portland’s list may not be as dramatic as some. But Portland’s situation is different too. Aside from Nurkic and Damian Lillard, everybody in that locker room was either new to the team or assuming a brand new role when the season started. Time to gel was an intrinsic part of the growth process. They never got it.
The first rule of NBA coaching is maximizing the production of your stars. Whatever else has happened this season, Lillard is having a career year and then some. Anfernee Simons is posting career marks in scoring, both per-game and per-minute. Jerami Grant sizzled in the early season before coming back to earth, but he’s still scoring 20.5 points per game while shooting a career-high 40.1% from the three-point arc. Zip back to last spring when Grant joined the team and even his recent-vintage performances would have been considered a success. Whatever else is happening with the roster, at least the top players are prospering under Billups.
These three factors don’t change Portland’s performance, nor Coach Billups’ role in same. They do highlight that not everything is going wrong. And some of the things that are may not be fixable by any coach, no matter what their schemes or substitution patterns.
We could highlight all the deficits the Trail Blazers are incurring this season...disappointing in the abstract and doubly so when measured against expectations. Most would lie in the gray area mentioned above. Are Portland’s flaws attributable primarily, let alone solely, to their coach?
No matter where you fall on the causation spectrum—a field ripe for debate—two big issues hover over Coach Billups as he completes his second season.
When Billups took over the team, he identified a few clear weaknesses. Two of the most prominent: the Blazers played no defense and were three-point dependent. Unspoken, but in the shadows, was their reliance on Lillard for success. The plan wasn’t to dim Dame, but to build up a stronger lineup around him.
Fast forward to mid-March, 2023. The Blazers play no defense. They depend on hot three-point shooting to provide scoreboard margins which nearly-inevitably prove unsustainable as the shooting cools. They’re even more reliant on Lillard now than they were 2-3 seasons ago. Plus their record is worse.
We can underline the inexperience of the roster, claiming that they’re not capable of running the kind of schemes that Billups prefers. But that’s literally the coach’s job, to inspire and inculcate. Neither has happened.
The journey from Point A to Point B has gone backwards past the starting line. Billups’ team has not progressed towards his own stated goals. That’s concerning.
Timing and Experience?
We’ve always said that players are judged by games, coaches by seasons, and lead executives by eras. Billups is closing in on the end of his second season in Portland. Were things normal, we could probably say that’s not quite sufficient to judge him, especially given the roster changeover and weaknesses.
Things are not normal, though.
First, the Blazers remain in a race against the ticking clock of Damian Lillard’s career arc. Granting another season to experiment is the same as granting 1/6 of Lillard’s remaining tenure in the NBA, and that’s by the most generous estimate. It’s probably one half to a third of his prime productive years. That makes time a precious commodity and uncertainty a formidable enemy.
Billups’ own experience factors in as well. With a seasoned coach, you err on the side of allowing him to lead until it’s clear he can’t. Billups had no head coaching experience anywhere when he joined the Blazers. That inverts the process. The onus was, and is, on him to prove he can coach. This adds yet another question to Portland’s already-large assortment. They may not be able to afford the uncertainty on yet another level.
That’s why the stricter standard for Billups, inherent in the original hire, may supersede the looser issue of whether any of Portland’s woes are actually his responsibility. Whatever else has gone on around him, Billups has not yet proven that he belongs in that seat. That has to weigh heavily in the discussion.
We cannot say conclusively that any of Portland’s shortcomings are directly attributable to Coach Billups. Some are legacy issues, others have been made worse by roster transitions and injuries beyond Billups’ control.
That does not mean that Billups is the right coach for the Blazers now or going forward. Judging by results, we know next to nothing about that. He hasn’t created problems, but he hasn’t made them better either.
The Blazers were hoping for a Damian Lillard analog in the coaching chair, excelling in most everything, lifting teammates to victory. Billups has been a little closer to Cam Reddish: raw ability and talent shine through, probably deserves a look, but you have to accentuate the positive things and ignore the gaps in order to make the player whole right now.
The need for immediate action may provide a stronger lens on Billups’ future than his inherent talent or the evolving roster do. All the questions we’ve asked are natural, just what you’d expect in this situation. The final question, that may be determinative, is, “Do the Blazers have time to find out?”
If they truly hope to translate Damian Lillard’s talent into a title run, the time is already past due. Every moment spent in limbo makes the road steeper, the chances of success more slim. If the Blazers are willing to develop a younger roster and grow over the course of several seasons, they have correspondingly more time to let their coach develop their vision.
Like almost everything else in this equation, that factor is out of Coach Billups’ hands. But as an NBA head coach, he’s going to be subject to those forces whether it’s fair or not.
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