There is no tougher spot in the NBA than dangling in mediocrity for years without any real leap forward, but that is the perfect description of the Portland Trail Blazers for the last 5+ years. Replacing long-time head coach Terry Stotts with rookie coach Chauncey Billups was an attempt to turn a new page, but that experiment has been pretty rocky for now.
A disappointing start to the season
Nobody really expected the Blazers to come into the season as championship contenders, but everybody hoped there would be some light on the horizon. An opening night loss to the Kings at home really should have been the first warning.
Ever since then, the struggles have been apparent. The Blazers star Damian Lillard was on the outs in the offseason, meeting with LeBron and looking to go elsewhere. But in the end, Lillard's loyalty persevered, and Dame decided to give it another shot. Unfortunately for Blazers fans, he came into the season shooting the ball horrendously. Sure, Dame picked it up after a slow start, but that still wasn't enough to propel the Blazers even near to the top of the West. Now he is out with an abdominal injury that could sideline him for some time. But even before going out, Dame looked mentally checked out and unmotivated.
As for the rest of the team, McCollum, Nurkić, and Powell have had their usual production, while guys that were expected to bring a bit more energy like Simmons, Little, Covington, and Nance Jr. have been far too inconsistent. On paper, this looks like a complete and legit team. But that has proved to be only worthy of a first-round exit.
Billups calls out his team
Terry Stots is an experienced and well-respected coach, especially amongst the Blazers stars, but the front office had to make and change, and as always, the coach played the role of the scapegoat. A move that confused Blazers fans and players, especially considering they replaced him with rookie head coach Chauncey Billups.
Sure, "Mr. Big Shot" was a great and intelligent player, that had some successful front office and assisting coaching gigs, but giving him a job with such expectations early on is a challenging task. Portland's problem was never the offense, with all the firepower, but rather the defense. For years they have been amongst the worst defensive teams in the NBA and paying the price for it in the playoffs.
Billups was expected to make a drastic change on that side of the court, but you have to bring in the effort to play good defense. Something Billups has been raving about and regularly demanding from his team. Unfortunately, his words aren't getting through to his players, who have looked rather unmotivated and lazy on the court, especially after Lillard went down.
Getting blown out by the Spurs and the Celtics at home in two straight games fired up Billups, who decided to voice his frustrations with the team publicly:
"We've been making a habit of that. Playing really soft at the start of the games and then we depend on our bench to kind of get us back in it. A lot of times they do. Even at halftime, I said to them. I don't understand. I've never seen a team that needs its bench to inspire our starters. And that sh-t is crazy to me. It's supposed to be the other way around. We continue to do that. But at the end of the day, we all got to be better. I got to be better, they got to be better. We got to do it together."
Chauncey Billups, Eurohoops
Billups is trying to light a fire under his guys and with good reason. The Blazers looked embarrassingly bad in those two games, showing no competitive spirit or pride. Especially the starting unit, like Billups pointed out. The bench often brings them back and gives energy, but they can't save the team on a nightly basis.
The Blazers are currently sitting at 10th place in the Western Conference standings, with an 11-13 record. It is a rather disappointing place, but realistic considering how they have been playing. Maybe Billups's words do the trick and get CJ and the co. to pick it up and hold the fort until Lillard comes back. If they connect and get healthy, I still believe they can be a dangerous team, but that is looking like a far fetch for now.
It is more likely that the team could get blown up at the trade deadline, but that's a whole different topic for another day. Just a tiny hint: The Ben Simmons for CJ McCollum trade doesn't look so crazy right now.