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Should Chauncey Billups Be on the Hot Seat?

Losses are mounting, frustration growing. What does it mean?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

In a semi-frustrating season that includes more winning than losing, Portland Trail Blazers fans reserve special vitriol for three targets: referees, Anfernee Simons, and Head Coach Chauncey Billups. None but Simons are particularly surprising. He’s a topic for another day, though. In this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, we’re going to field one of the nicer queries about Billups, talking about the head coach a little.

Dave,

You don’t seem to talk much about Chauncey but I want to know your honest opinion of the job he’s doing. I don’t like him. I think it’s time for a change. He messes up rotations and makes young coach mistakes and I don’t see us going anywhere that would justify that cost. Isn’t it time to get a more accomplished coach in here?

Mark

Nothing that’s happening to the Blazers now is entirely Chauncey Billups’ fault.

You can take that any way you wish. It’s absolution and a veiled condemnation all in one.

Let’s take the best part first. No coach in the universe is going to turn this roster into a functioning, winning team. The injuries that Billups keeps citing are a major contributing factor. The roster being young and imbalanced weigh just as strongly. The Blazers weren’t built to contend—or as it turns out, even win—this year.

Coach Billups didn’t design the team. He just gets to shuffle the rotations, finding new ways to tell the same story.

People tend to overemphasize the power of coaching in situations like this. It’s perilously easy with Billups, as he has no track record outside of that demonstrated with the Blazers. A 70-130 record doesn’t prove mastery of the craft. It seems to indicate the opposite.

The San Antonio Spurs have won only 6 games this season, fewer than Portland’s 10. They’re coached by Greg Popovich. He’s been in the lead seat for 27 years, has 5 NBA Championships to his credit, and considered by some the greatest head coach of all time. Again...he has 6 wins in 36 tries.

Monty Williams of the Detroit Pistons is acclaimed as one of the best coaches of his generation. This is his 10th season as a head coach, his 17th overall coaching in the league. His Pistons have 3 victories to their credit all season long, enduring the longest losing streak in NBA history.

In comparison to either, Billups looks golden right now. That doesn’t mean that he’s a better coach. It does show that no matter who is speaking in the locker room, words and drawings don’t generate victories. Players do. If you’ve got them, you have a chance to win. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter who’s coaching.

Despite his inexperience, Billups isn’t a sore thumb in this situation. I can almost guarantee that history will regard the hiring of Adrian Griffin in Milwaukee as a much more serious error than anything that happens in Portland. The Bucks are in position to win. Their goal is nothing less than a title. They also mortgaged their future by putting all their chips behind Damian Lillard last summer. After pairing a former MVP forward plus one of the more experienced All-Star guards in the league, they gave the bus keys to a guy who had never driven before. Wow.

Griffin has far more ability to hurt the chances of his team than Billups does. Think of it like a race car. Billups is going 50 mph around that track. He can steer all he wants. He’s not going to catch up to the true speedsters. Nor is he likely to hit a wall at that pace. It wouldn’t damage much if he did. Portland’s coach can make big motions with the wheel and see relatively modest results. Griffin’s team has the pedal to the metal, going 200 mph. If he blinks at the wrong time and moves his finger a tenth of an inch, the car’s going to spin out in the infield grass. These two things are not the same. Far better to have a brand new coach in Portland’s situation than Milwaukee’s.

Lack of formal experience isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It does carry at least one significant drawback that pertains, even in Portland’s case. People who are new to any profession operate on ideals. “This is what we want to happen. This is how I’m going to pass on that goal. This is how we’re going to meet it.” This can be refreshing. We all need to be reminded what perfection looks like; we can learn from other people’s visions.

Experience is valuable because it allows you to meld ideals with practical reality, including the messy relationships that human beings inevitably find themselves enmeshed in as they carry out any task or mission. A neophyte can’t make that leap the same way.

A less-experienced leader will be able to tell you how things should go right, while a more-experienced leader will be able to walk you through all the times when things go wrong, still steering you towards goodness even when circumstances don’t permit perfection.

Look at a roster like Portland’s—or Milwaukee’s radically-changed lineup, for that matter—and tell me whether “ideal” or “less-than-ideal” is likely to happen more often. That’s going to indicate whether the road will be easier or tougher for an inexperienced coach.

In his postgame interviews, Coach Billups will often say things like, “I told our guys that the other team was going to try and outrun them. We prepared for it. Yet they did it anyway.” You can hear the frustration of a dad telling a three-year-old, “Don’t touch that! Don’t touch that! Don’t touch that!” only to watch his toddler pick up the item in question ten seconds later. It’s not because the kid is bad. The baby brain isn’t capable of processing the information correctly yet. Dad can talk until he’s blue in the face; it just won’t matter.

Billups isn’t lying about prepping his team in the way he perceives as correct. Listening to him, there’s plenty of correctness there. Many of his ideals are right. Only a small percentage seeps through on any given night, though. That’s the nature of coaching a team this young. Neither Billups nor his charges are equipped to handle it when things don’t go right.

Like the father and his toddler, Coach Billups keeps lifting up the ideal and his team keeps missing it. If this were his fourth kid, he’d probably know how to compensate instinctively. It’s his first coaching child. Ideals will be advanced, execution will fall short, mistakes will be made. Nothing in the universe is going to change that.

We could leave it at that, but two issues will continue to plague the coach and his players.

First, saying you’re not causing real harm either way is not enough to justify keeping an NBA coaching position. Coaches are the first members of staff blamed for everything, the last retained. Head coaches have to justify their employment yearly, if not monthly, against a near-infinite number of idealized potential candidates out there. Is there any reason to fire Coach Billups at this point? Probably not. Is there any convincing argument to retain him? Also probably not.

As time goes by and his contract nears its end, the latter will start to outweigh the former. I don’t believe there’s any way the Blazers pay double salary for an ex-coach and a new replacement under these circumstances, but I don’t see them stretching to extend their current coach past his due date either. They might even decide that one year double-dipping is worth the cost.

The process might be accelerated if Billups appears to lose his team, the second potential issue. Evidence might be difficult to discern—the Blazers look lost nearly every night—but there are clues. The coach lambasting his players for lack of effort is one of them. The team looking uncoordinated on a nightly basis is another.

It’s natural for any group of human beings to tune out a repeated message over time. Losing and the negativity that surround it accelerate that process like mold growing on unrefrigerated jelly.

The kitchen power has been out for Billups’ entire tenure: two years of tanking followed by this season of try-hard futility. He has no solid evidence to back up his schemes or ideals. In Year one with a rookie, that doesn’t matter much. You just do what the coach says because he’s the coach. By Year three, you’re reevaluating voices and directives, especially if they haven’t led you or your team to success.

In his third season with the team, halfway through his first or second with most of its key players, with a 35% winning rate to his name, Coach Billups is living in an accelerated time frame. At a certain point, every word he speaks will cost double to the patience of the roster, more for players who aren’t getting full minutes and a chance to spread their wings. It won’t be long before the coach is operating in “dog years”, when every corrective sentence feels like seven. Eventually that parallax extends to the front office and ownership as well. And those people make decisions over your job.

This is how coaches get into “no-win” situations. Say nothing and the losing doesn’t change. Say something and you’ll sound increasingly annoying and the losing still won’t change. Once you cross that event horizon, only a miraculous recovery gets you out of its gravity well.

Coach Billups isn’t there yet, but he and the team are hurtling towards that sector. The cracks in execution are starting to show more regularly. His explanations are getting predictable and threadbare. Losses and questions are piling up in equal measure. The number of words he’s spent trying to repair the situation—and the number of players who have heard them but not been able to respond—continue to grow.

Long story short, if you’re not a fan of Chauncey Billups’ work, you can hold out both hands. There’s something to put in each.

For now, in your right hand, tuck away the knowledge that coaching isn’t going to make or break the team. As long as players develop—and there’s evidence that some of them are—the Blazers are on course for 2024. Maybe pull back a bit of the blame and venom, saving it for situations where it matters.

If part of you rebels against that, look in your left hand. It’s holding the near-certain knowledge that if nothing changes, this isn’t going to be an issue that much longer. Firing the coach mid-season probably isn’t a sensible option in this context, but Billups doesn’t have that many summers left before the doubts about him (and his results) will overtake the reasons to retain him. That’s not a personal condemnation. That’s life as an NBA coach. It’s not Billups’ fault, but neither is he immune.

Thanks for the question! You all can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to answer as many as we can!