Portland didn’t make the bold personnel moves Damian Lillard called for this offseason; the only significant change was letting coach Terry Stotts go and bringing in Chauncey Billups in his place. Whether that is enough will be decided over the course of the next season — Lillard is not pushing for a trade right now. He wants to be in Portland. But a re-evaluation will be coming.
If Billups is the big change, then what will a Billups-coached Trail Blazers team look like?
More ball movement and more aggressive on defense, Billups told center Jusuf Nurkic, via a great story from Jason Quick at The Athletic.
It is unclear exactly what Nurkic and his role will look like under Billups, but to hear Nurkic talk, Billups has given him a vision of being more involved on both ends. Billups has been careful not to publicly define roles, but in general, he has preached that the offense will include more ball movement.
“I just want to feel wanted, and I think I just need more support, and what I mean by that is different playing style, more inside-out game, more chance,” Nurkic said. “More chance to be successful and the position where they put you in. It’s all about the coach and where they put you, and I think Chauncey has figured out that certain people are going to have one to three points less, but the team is going to be way more successful with ball movement and playing together and be more fun. Even at the defensive end.”
On offense, more ball movement — especially better utilizing a good passing big man such as Nurkic, who can be the hub of the offense for stretches — is a good thing. Although if you have Lillard on the team, you make sure he gets his shots, Lillard remains one of the best offensive players in the league. But CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, and others could be put to better use.
Offense, however, was not the problem — Portland was a top-three offensive team each of the past three seasons.
Defensively, Portland ranked 29th last season, 28th the season before that. At his press conference announcing the coaching change, Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey laid the blame for that squarely on Stotts. As if the roster construction and injuries were not significant parts of the problem.
When Nurkic was on the court last season, the Portland defense was 8.4 points per 100 possessions better and played at the level of a top-10 defense. However, injuries limited him to just 37 games last season (and eight the season before that). On the perimeter, Portland has an undersized backcourt with Lillard and McCollum, and they leaned heavily on Carmelo Anthony, who is a minus defender, and there were other issues. There were a lot of weak links in the armor and no quality defensive big man behind them to plug those holes.
The best thing that can happen to the Portland defense this has nothing to do with Billups or his defensive scheme — although that could help — and everything to do with keeping Nurkic on the court.
Nurkic, heading into a contract year, is motivated and working hard on his conditioning.
How good all of this makes Portland remains to be seen, but a lot is riding on how this season turns out for the Trail Blazers and if it lives up to the standards set by their best player.