Towards the very end of his end-of-season media availability in 2023, Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkić was asked about his assessment of head coach Chauncey Billups. Singing a familiarly-faithful tune to that of his teammates, Nurkić’s response wasn’t incredibly different from what we’ve heard before; he credited Billups for helping develop his 3-point shot and expressed love in playing for him.
Nurkić’s final point, though, was enough to get an ear or two perked up, even if only because of how divisive the conversation of Billups’ future has become among the fanbase. To quote him:
“Just overall, I think he brings a lot to the table. In this case scenario, we didn’t perform the way we would’ve liked at least. Sometimes it’s a bad situation because everything falls on the coach, and I don’t think it’s the case. I really disagree with that case scenario.
I think everybody can be blamed, but I don’t think Chauncey can be.”
Ignoring the smell of pitchforks being lit up, it is somewhat interesting to note that despite just 60 wins over the past two seasons, the Blazers’ players have readily taken on responsibility for fruitless results. The consensus opinion among them seems to be that, if not for injuries, things might’ve gone differently. With Billups approaching a make-or-break third year in his five-year contract, perhaps the biggest question of all would be: how much of that is legitimate?
The truth, as it often does, likely lies somewhere near the middle. According to NBA Man Games Lost, the Trail Blazers did finish the season with the No. 1 spot in terms of total games lost by players (315). Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s worth recalling that this number is slightly inflated by Portland’s second consecutive end-of-season surrender.
To further play devil’s advocate, Brandon Goldner of We Like the Blazers made mention of how in the Blazers’ first 50 games, the Opening Day starting five — the Nurkić, Grant, Hart, Simons, Lillard grouping — combined to miss just 25 games. Despite that 90 percent availability rate, the Blazers still struggled to crack .500, falling just under at 24-26.
There’s some ambiguity in looking at both sides’ perspectives. From a pro-Billups side, the injuries Portland did suffer exposed leaks in Portland’s roster construction, both in a lack of size and in proven performers off the bench. To put a number to it, the Blazers only outscored the opposition’s bench 20 times over an 82-game span. Oddly enough, they were dead last in points per game (27.8), second-to-last in minutes played (15.9), and third-to-last in plus-minus (-2.2), but their field goal percentage (47.8 percent) ranked fourth-best. Even general manager Joe Cronin admitted such:
Joe Cronin on Chauncey Billups: "I think he's done a great job. I don't think I dealt him a great hand this season. I don't think I did him any favors by giving him the lack of depth that would have given him any sustainability."— Sean Highkin (@highkin) April 9, 2023
Billups is far from unassailable though. Even three weeks removed from the season, it’s been difficult to shake from psyche just how inept the Blazers looked, particularly in high-pressure situations. Somehow, they found time to lose 18(!) different games in which they held a double-digit lead at some point.
To list a few of the more egregious examples:
— led 80-63 with 6:38 left in the third against the Bulls on Feb. 4; they somehow didn’t lead to end the quarter.
— led 110-102 with 4:23 left in the fourth against the Warriors on Dec. 30; they managed just one field goal over the final 5:52.
— led 112-99 with 5:52 left in the fourth against the 76ers on Mar. 10; they would lose on the much-discussed inbounds to Lillard.
— led 102-91 with 9:32 left in the fourth against the Nuggets on Dec. 8; four minutes later, they were trailing.
— led 63-40 with 1:57 left in the second against the Warriors on Feb. 28; they somehow lost this game by 18.
— led 78-53 with 9:18 left in the third against the Lakers on Jan. 22; they lost this game by nine.
The Blazers’ players can absolve Billups and the coaching staff from blame, but it’s likely all parties involve know that the shortcomings were mutual. Players have discussed their willingness to “run through a wall” for Billups; this is a heartwarming sentiment, but ... “running back on defense” in transition might suffice.
One trend that often surfaced in their collapses was the lack of urgency they played with once they earned said lead, particularly when it came to getting back on defense:
Examples run deep. There was the tendency to fall on the ground during a shot attempt in hope of a foul — and thus, putting the team in a 4-on-5 situation — lack of communication, players losing shoes, etc. It could be called a joint effort; Billups can’t necessarily control the Blazers’ failed attempts at foul hunting, but he could control their lack of adjustments at halftime, as seen in the games against say the Knicks and Warriors. There were also some questionable inbounds choices, and a hesitancy to use challenges. In his first year, no coach used fewer coach’s challenges than Billups (10).
At the heart of that matter, expectations were for Billups to catapult Portland’s defense to a level Terry Stotts no longer seemed capable of reaching, which also scheming up a less predictable offense. No one is wholly at fault, but the Blazers remain in the basement, with four consecutive bottom-five finishes in defensive rating, tied for the longest any team has been that bad defensively in the play-by-play tracking era (since 1996-97).
The Blazers became more isolation-oriented and turnover-heavy down the stretch of these games. Also of note was Billups and the coaching staff failed to unlock an offense when Lillard rested. As noted a few weeks ago, they had the No. 1 offense with him, and the No. 30 offense without him. In press conferences, they often blamed it on “being in a little funk.”
One possession that comes to mind. 41 seconds of yikes.
The Blazers never seemed to fully reel themselves back into flow after the 10-4 start that firmly entrenched him into the NBA’s early-season Coach of the Year conversation. But, that stretch did create some of the positives worth reviewing.
That start may not have been sustainable in the long-term, given how much of it was predicated on late-game success and health — playing the starters heavy minutes — which fluctuates quickly. It did, though, showcase some willingness to be more versatile offensively.
The “Horns” sets the Blazers ran with Lillard to help extend his mileage were a nice touch. It afforded Portland’s offense some flow, creativity, and, as seen in the example below, stretched defenses and forced them to pick between three poisons: (1) take away Nurkić’s free roll down the lane, (2) take away Lillard’s pick-and-roll pull-up ability, or (3) take away Grant’s catch-and-shoot prowess. Ultimately, something had to give.
There were dozens of those types of plays, and it did help Billups ascend to — at one point in late-January — one of the top ATO (after timeout) play designers on a points per possession basis.
Defensively, as is well-documented, Billups’ defining trait came in his trusted zone. During the Apr. 2 game vs. Minnesota, it was said that Portland played zone at the NBA’s second-highest rate. Some of it was to disrupt an opponent’s flow; at other times, the Blazers’ lineups were often so young, it sometimes made more sense to do so, as opposed to man-to-man principles.
There were moments in which teams were able to chew that zone defense up and swallow it, so results were mixed. As with most things regarding the Blazers’ 2022-23 season, it was at its apex at the beginning of the season.
Speaking of Grant: it’s got to be an absolute nightmare for opposing guards when Billups puts him at the top.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) October 23, 2022
Reminds me of how the Cavs use Evan Mobley.
No pass is safe, and he quietly had one of the plays of the game with this steal in OT. pic.twitter.com/2A7E7L0WyQ
Perhaps the biggest question of all when it comes to Billups is whether or not being a personable, likable “player’s coach” will truly translate into wins in the near future. He undoubtedly deserves some credit for how he’s helped develop players such as Trendon Watford and Shaedon Sharpe — even giving Sharpe in-season challenges to build him — but as losses pile up, you wonder how much of that long-term development he will be around to see.
Plenty of questions remain, but one thing’s for certain. The Blazers, from top-to-bottom, are at least saying the right things in terms of how they don’t want an encore of the last two seasons in 2023-24. They’ll have to follow up with actions.
Year Three is sometimes the one in which you learn the most about a player’s trajectory and if they have what it takes to break out. One can only hope that translates onto Year Three coaches as well.