By Torey Jones
Contributor, 750 The Game
When the Blazers traded Damian Lillard in September, it officially signaled the beginning of a rebuild. While the team had been in the lottery two years in a row, Blazers general manager Joe Cronin maintained that the organization was committed to building a “winner” around Lillard. They would do everything they could to give him a chance to lead a parade down Broadway in late June. That opportunity never came, and when Cronin traded Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks, the organization willingly embraced the struggle of rebuilding their roster from the ashes.
But low expectations aren’t an all-encompassing excuse for everything that goes wrong during the season, and the Blazers are struggling mightily, losing four out of their past five games by deficits of 21, 28, 29, and 36 points. These blowouts have been brutal to watch from the opening tip and signify many problems.
The offense has been extremely stagnant in the halfcourt, as the Blazers rank dead last in assist percentage, with only 56.9% of their made field goals being assisted. The team that was supposed to push the pace this season rarely gets out and runs the floor (the Blazers rank 28th in transition frequency and last at 0.99 points per transition possession, per Synergy). They rank dead last in adjusted offensive rating.
Defensively, the Blazers lost their identity. They were a team that flew around and forced turnovers earlier in the season. More recently, the effort level has become more questionable, and the Blazers are giving up 123.5 points per game in their last six outings. While some of this may be due to veterans checking out in a losing season (especially Malcolm Brogdon, who is likely to be traded), the last thing you want to see from a young team is a lack of energy on the defensive end.
Growing pains were inevitable, but the problem with this team is they aren’t growing; they’re regressing. Naturally, young players improve more during an NBA season as they gain valuable reps. The product on the floor is getting worse, and head coach Chauncey Billups has to bear some responsibility.
After 36 games, I still have no clue what the idea of the Blazers offense is. Portland’s halfcourt sets appear extremely basic, with one initial action followed by players trying to make things up on the fly. That’s if they run a set because often, the Blazers walk the ball up the floor without a single play call from the sideline or the ball-handler. While offense doesn’t always have to be structured, players must know when to cut, pass-and-screen away, and move off the ball. With this season being all about growth and development, these are skills for a youthful team to improve in, but they’re not.
Instead, Chauncey Billups’ offense results in a ton of isolation basketball, with four players standing around watching one guy dribble the air out of the ball or slow-developing pick-n-rolls without enough movement into them or off of them to keep the defense from loading up on it. In previous seasons, Damian Lillard carried a similarly structured Blazers’ offense on his back. But he’s gone, and the offense looks exactly the same, despite hints on media day that things would be different, as there was no reason for an offensive system built around Damian Lillard not to change without him.
In the Blazers four recent blowouts, they’ve averaged 93 points per game. That’s disgustingly bad, and the offense wasn’t supposed to struggle this much. Portland has their complement of four guards who should all be able to play off each other, push the pace, and move the ball. Jerami Grant is having another good year at the power forward position. This isn’t the worst offensive roster in the league.
With a ton of roster turnover in the past three years and an offense that consistently has the same flaws, Chauncey Billups is the common denominator. While the results aren’t surprising, the process is flawed. Portland was supposed to struggle because of their youth and a lack of top-end talent, not because their offense looks like the type of basketball you’d see at your local gym. They were supposed to improve at this point in the season, not regress.
Billups preached ball movement and connectivity on offense when he was hired. He’s shown little ability to bring those traits out of his team through two and a half seasons. When a team and coach lack experience, they should improve over time with the experience they gain, and that’s what this Blazers’ season was about: growth and development. Instead, they’re regressing as a whole, and developmental opportunities are wasted in an offense relying on 1-on-1 play and basic pick-n-rolls.
This season was also about something else: evaluating whether or not Chauncey Billups should be the coach of this team moving forward. So far, all he’s done is leave us with questions. What’s the identity of his offense, why does the effort appear to have fallen off, and why is a team ripe for development getting worse?