Trail Blazers Buy In On The Billups Era, Regardless Of What Comes Next
While many of the players and personalities have remained the same, there have been three distinct eras of Trail Blazers basketball over the last decade.
There was the LaMarcus Aldridge era, which ended when he, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Mathews and Robin Lopez all departed Portland either as free agents or via trade after the 2014-15 season. The next era was defined by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, a duo who, under the tutelage of Terry Stotts, became one of the best backcourts in the NBA, one that would lead Portland out of the first round twice in four seasons, something the franchise had only done once in the previous 15 seasons.
And on Wednesday, the third, yet-to-be-determined era begins under first-year head coach Chauncey Billups. Lillard and McCollum, along with Jusuf Nurkic, Robert Covington and Norman Powell, will define much of this new era, but it’s the addition of Billups, a coach who has promised a more aggressive and effective style of play on defense and a more varied and decentralized approach on offense, that most differentiates this new era from the two it preceded.
But for a number of reasons, this new era could get off to a bit of a slow start. Portland has the most difficult first quarter of the season by some accounts -- amongst other things, they play the Suns, Clippers and Nuggets twice in the first month of the season -- and have been limited in what they could do during training camp due to injuries. And while the result of their 0-4 preseason are inconsequential, at times it seemed as though they were making little progress in executing Billups’ vision.
“I’ve talked a lot in the preseason about us just kind of being realistic about where we are,” said Billups. “I mean, we’re trying to change things, some ways that we do things. There’s a process that comes with that. You look at our preseason and obviously in the preseason you don’t care about the results, you care about if you’re making progress. There’s some time when we were making progress and there’s some times when when we were taking steps back, and you’ve got to expect some of that as you’re trying to change habits.”
Those “habits” could be broadly described as playing a style of drop defense that, from a statistical perspective, produced some of the worst outcomes in franchise history while relying heavily, and sometimes almost exclusively, on Lillard and McCollum thriving in isolation on offense. Now, the plan is to attack screens much more aggressively on defense and relying more on ball movement and fewer three-point shots on offense, changes that will take time to implement after nearly a decade of relative stasis.
“We’re under a completely different coaching staff, we’re learning a completely different system and we’re trying to change habits,” said Damian Lillard. “When you’re trying to change habits you have a lot of bumps in the road, especially when you’ve been one way for so long.”
How the Trail Blazers traverse with those inevitable bumps could very well be the key to their season, more so the the actually bumps themselves. Portland has qualified for the playoffs in the last eight season, a source of pride for many of the players, in an ultra competitive Western Conference, so if they struggle out of the gate, perhaps there’s an inclination to revert back to what “worked” before, even on a short term basis. But if they’re to ever become the team they want to be, they’ll have to stay the course, even if it gets a bit messy along the way.
“You’re trying to implement new things on offense and defense, new concepts, new plays, new spacing, new terminology, there’s an adjustment period,” said CJ McCollum. “So I think it’s just more about understanding what we need to accomplish, communicating better and going out there and executing it. We’re going to all be ourselves, there’s only so much change that can happen, but it’s just understanding what you want to accomplish as a team and being able to play an integral role as a part of that. We know what needs to be done, we’ll do it and we’ll continue to adjust. It’s going to take time, doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time.”
And nationally, one gets the sense that many are hoping this new era of Trail Blazers basketball does get off to a slow start, as there’s an assumption that Lillard, who voiced some concerns this summer about the direction of the team after they were eliminated in the first round by an undermanned Nuggets team, might start making noise if the combination of a new staff, new system and a difficult schedule results in a tough start.
That notion has persisted, despite Lillard’s comments otherwise, for reasons one might charitably describe as disingenuous, though he once again reiterated in the strongest terms that he’s in it to win it with Billups in Portland, regardless of how the season starts.
“I’m not leaving Portland,” said Lillard after the final practice before Wednesday’s season opener. “I want to be a part of Chauncey’s success, you know what I’m saying? I take pride in being a part of his success as a coach. We developed a great relationship even before he became my coach and even deeper now that we sit and talk every day. We talk through text, on the phone, whatever, every day. I want to be a part of his success. When I say that I don’t expect all times to be great times. Adversity is going to hit, it’s going to be some tough times.
“So if it starts off rocky or if it starts off in a struggle I wouldn’t be happy about it, nobody would. But I’m not going to jump ship and bail out when that happens. It’s an easy thing and a popular thing for people to say but it’s not gonna happen.”
Of course, it’s also very possible that the Trail Blazers find success immediately in this new era. Their 2021 Opening Night starting five was one of the best lineups in the NBA last season, Anfernee Simons has looked as though he’s primed to make a jump in his production, they’ve bolstered their bench with the likes of Larry Nance Jr. and Cody Zeller, they’ll be playing this season in front of a full Moda Center crowd for the first time since March of 2020 and even incremental improvements on the defensive end would go a long way toward improving on the 42-30 record they put up last season. But even if it does take some time to come together, it won’t change the ethos of this new era.
“I’m not concerned if we get off to a tough start, this thing is more about: How can we be better?” said Billups. “This team has gotten to the playoffs forever and then those habits end up coming into play and it derails you from trying to extend your season. So I’m more concerned with how we can change a lot of things that are really important for us on both ends of the ball. And when we actually do that, I just know how good of a team we can be.”