By now, most NBA coaches know with a good degree of certainty what their teams will and won’t have as they head into the 2023-24 season. Strengths, weaknesses, stars, needs, goals, you name it. Not so, however, for Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups.
The unsettled Damian Lillard situation hangs over this team like a cloud. Are storms in the offing or just shade? Will Lillard get traded soon, eventually, or … not at all?
Most observers think the seven-time All-NBA point guard will be dealt sooner than later, but that’s a presumption Billups cannot hold with training camp fast approaching. For now, Lillard is on the roster; whatever personnel might come in return are elsewhere. The Blazers coach is charged with a group of impressionable young players watching every move.
It’s a pivotal time for Billups, entering his third season. Hired in June 2021, he’s led the Blazers to a 60-104 record in two seasons. Coming on the heels of eight consecutive playoff appearances under predecessor Terry Stotts, it’s the roughest stretch of 164 games since the 2005-06 and 2006-07 teams went 53-111 in coach Nate McMillan’s first two seasons.
McMillan’s team reached .500 in 2007-08, then made the playoffs the next three years. These Blazers are at a different point – on the brink of an undeniable rebuild if Lillard goes – but all involved will be scrutinized for signs of improvement by one of the NBA’s most discerning fan bases.
Billups, who will turn 47 Monday, largely has had the players and, it seems, many of the fans on his side. At the end of last season, center Jusuf Nurkić said the team still liked playing for Billups, adding, “I think everybody can be blamed, but I don’t think Chauncey can be.” A fan poll conducted by The Athletic had only 10% citing the coach as the chief reason for Portland’s struggles; that ranked behind ownership, the general manager and the players.
Billups, though, didn’t become a five-time All-Star and leader of the 2004 Detroit Pistons’ championship squad by ducking responsibility. Injuries did hobble his team in 2022-23, more than most, exposing an already thin bench. The offense sputtered, the defense was weak and the Blazers blew more leads of 10 points or more than any other NBA team. They were 26-26 on February 3, then went 7-23 the rest of the way. Across its final 17 games, Portland won just twice – with Lillard shut down for the final 10.
At the recent National Basketball Coaches Association meetings in Chicago, Billups spoke with NBA.com about the coming season.
NBA.com: You played 17 seasons in this league, more than 1,000 games. You’ve been a head coach for two. Do you think you’ve made the full transition?
Billups: Absolutely. I’m all in. Yes. Yes.
Does it feel the way you thought it would? What did you think about coaches when you were playing?
It’s totally different. I always really respected the coaches I played for and never went against them. I held them in such high regard. Never argued with a coach. Never talked back. I just wasn’t that type of player. Whether I was playing or not. I respected [that position]. I kind of demand that same type of respect. But I show a lot of respect to the players.
Coaching has been a lot of fun. But when I talk to former players that are thinking about coaching, I tell ‘em, ‘You’ve got to really be ready, man. Because the demands on your time are 10 times more than being a player. But if you love it – like, really love it – you won’t think about that.’ It’s so much fun.
You spent one season on Ty Lue’s staff with the Clippers in 2020-21. And six as a broadcaster with ESPN and the Clippers. Is there anything else you would have liked to do to prepare for this job?
It took a long time for me to decide that I even wanted to be a coach. And at the very second that I did, I got the Clippers job. Obviously, I was only there one year. Would I have been more ready if I had been there two or three years? Of course. There’s so much to learn.
But how do I feel right now, going into my third year, as opposed to going into my first year? Totally different. My confidence is totally different. I know what I didn’t know then. I know how to play, I know how to teach, I know how – I’ve got it now. I’m really settled into the job and I feel good about it. That’s a big deal.
Your team is waiting for a mighty big shoe to drop, with Damian Lillard’s status still unresolved. That can’t be ideal. How does it not become a negative, a distraction?
Yeah, yeah. Obviously it’s unsettling, it’s difficult. But for me, all I can do, I’m responsible for giving my best to who we have. I don’t know how it’s going to play out. There’s nothing I can do to control it. But I do know who we have on our team right now and who I’ve been working with this summer. Who I’m excited about. All I can really do is pour myself into our guys. And see what happens whenever that happens. I’m excited about Shaedon’s progress. And coaching Scoot [Henderson] and Ant [Anfernee Simons].
Figuring out what happens with Dame? Everybody knows how I feel about Dame and my opportunity to coach him. We’ll just see. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ll be ready to do the best I can.
I saw reports that a majority of your fans still support GM Joe Cronin’s commitment to getting the best return in any Lillard trade.
Look, we have incredible fans. Everybody in the NBA knows we have a fan base that is top-notch. The truth of the matter is, no matter what, they’re still going to be Dame fans. One hundred percent of our fan base will be Dame fans – it doesn’t matter where he’s playing. But they’re also going to be Trail Blazer fans.
Any sense that Lillard lobbying publicly for a trade and where he prefers to go could drain the goodwill he’s built up there?
Dame has been incredible. To the fans of Portland, to our organization. He hasn’t been negative at all to anybody in our organization. Dame has been a stand-up guy. A professional the whole way through. It’s the business at hand. I don’t think there’s pressure on either side.
As this drags on, though, would it be hard for him or the circumstances to not hurt your team’s situation?
I’m not sure. Dame is one of the most stable human beings I’ve ever been around. He’s not about any type of drama. So this whole process probably weighs very heavy on him. It’s just not who he is.
But he’s at a crossroads in his career, and he’s doing what he feels is best for him and his family. I’m always going to be supportive of that.
What should excite people about guard Shaedon Sharpe in Year 2?
The steps he made last year. If you watched him at the end, he was lights out. I think he’s worked very hard since then to get better. It was a small sample size, but he was playing against a lot of those teams’ No. 1 defensive player. He was getting some tough coverages and he still was getting things done. I was very impressed with him.
You kept tight reins on his minutes, right?
I’m not a coach who’s going to throw you out there and say, ‘Just do whatever you want to do.’ You’ve got to put in the work. There were nights when his minutes were cut short because he wasn’t playing the right way. Without the enthusiasm that he showed at other times. So we’ll get somebody out there who’s going to play the right way – a lot of that was coaching. Me saying, ‘You’re a rookie. We believe in you. But you’ve got to learn this game the right way. I’m not just going to let you cut corners. I don’t coach that way.’
Naturally there is a ton of excitement about Scoot Henderson, the No. 3 pick in the Draft. What’s realistic for him as a first-year player?
Scoot is going to be a star in this league. He plays both sides of the floor with ferocity. He is very, very driven. He’s a playmaker, he’s a real point guard. Got some leadership about him. He looks like he’s the starting safety of the Denver Broncos. He’s going to be an exciting player for the whole world to watch but our fan base, they can rest assured they’ll be entertained.
How does Jerami Grant fit in with this young core? At age 29, his new five-year, $160 million contract drew criticism as an overpay for a guy whose timeline is out of sync with most of the roster.
I think Jerami fits in perfectly to what we’re doing. He’s a guy who loves to play the game. Unselfish, both offensively and defensively. Plays fast. Wants to play the right way. He’s going to be perfect for our young guys. He’s excited as well to be back.
Last thing: What do you think will have a bigger impact this season – the flopping violation calls or coaches having a second replay challenge?
I think after a while, the flopping will calm down. That’s a pretty good-sized penalty [a free throw against the offending team]. The challenge, I’m really happy about that one. That’s going to decide some games.
You used fewer challenges, 10, than any of your peers last season. Will that change?
Mm-hmm. I always felt like, say there was a challengeable call in the second quarter, two- or three-point game, unless my best player has picked up his fourth [foul], there were so many possessions left that we could make that up and not take the chance of losing it. I told my guys don’t come over doing this [spinning his raised index finger in the ‘replay’ gesture].
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