Chauncey Billups shares his plan to improve Portland Trail Blazers next season: ‘It’s not going to be optional to play hard defensively’


LAS VEGAS — New Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups has a plan. Several, to be exact, each designed to make the Blazers a better team next season.

It doesn’t appear that an infusion of elite talent will materialize to help that cause. The Blazers’ biggest offseason move was to re-sign Norman Powell, keeping the starting five intact from a team that lost to Denver in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Consequently, the team’s biggest addition is Billups, a first-year head coach who replaces Terry Stotts after nine seasons.

Billups, a former All-Star point guard and NBA champion, has been entrusted to elevate both the defense and the offense after spending one season as an assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Blazers hope that Billups, good luck with injuries and a few breaks could lead what was a 42-30 team last season into being at least a sleeper threat in the Western Conference.

Optimistic? Yes. Unrealistic? Maybe.

But for now, that’s the storyline entering a pivotal season that could determine the future contentment of superstar Damian Lillard, who has become restless regarding the team’s inability to contend and has intimated that he could demand a trade in the not-too-distant future.

Part of Billups’ overall plan is to ease the load on Lillard by playing better team defense and becoming more efficient on offense to create easier shots.

“He’s going to have some of those nights where he has it going,” Billups said. “We’ve got to ride it. But that can’t be where our season lives or dies. It’s just too hard. It’s too much pressure on Dame. It’s too much pressure on dudes to play that way. We’ve got to be better.”

Here’s a look at how Billups envisions that happening.

DEFENSE NO LONGER OPTIONAL

The Clippers, with Billups helping game plan, swept the Blazers last season by averaging 124.7 points in three games.

“We felt like we could kind of have our way offensively against them,” Billups said.

Most NBA teams felt the same. Billups wants to change that.

As a player, Billups played for dominant defensive teams in Detroit under coach Larry Brown. The 2003-04 Pistons won the NBA championship with the second-rated defense in the league (96.5). But that was a different era. Back then, NBA teams averaged 14.9 three-point attempts and 93.4 points per game with just two teams averaging over 100. Last season, teams averaged 34.6 three-point attempts and 112.1 points, with the worst offense in the league, Cleveland, averaging 103.8 points.

Chauncey Billups shares his plan to improve Portland Trail Blazers next season: ‘It’s not going to be optional to play hard defensively’

Jusuf Nurkic (left), CJ McCollum (center) and Damian Lillard (right) high-five as the Portland Trail Blazers take on the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of their first-round NBA playoffs matchup at Moda Center on Saturday, May 29, 2021.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

“The best teams that I ever played on were really dominant defensive teams,” Billups said. “We were really good. But I’m never going to be a prisoner of my time and my moment. The game is different.”

To that point, Billups said he doesn’t expect the 2021-22 Blazers to become dominant defensively. But he does expect effort.

“To go to the next level, and be more competitive, and be more consistent, we got to be so much better defensively,” he said. “I know that. It’s not going to be optional to play hard defensively.”

The team spent all of last season talking about improving on defense, yet finished 29th rated in the league, at 116.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. Billups said players will be held accountable under his leadership.

“To me, I just think that if we really want to win, we’re talking about all the players, and everybody, wants to win and wants to buy in and this and that, well that’s the first way that we could do it,” Billups said. “And it starts with talking about it, but your actions are going to be what actually speaks the loudest. And so, we’re going to find out who wants to win, in my opinion, by their level of engagement on defense.”

But can this roster change the narrative regarding the Blazers’ defense? Billups believes that it can.

Neil Olshey, president of basketball operations, made it clear in June that he didn’t believe the roster was at fault for the first-round exit against Denver. He believes that Stotts failed in the area of coaching defense and that Billups will fix that issue. Also, the defense did show signs of life after the Blazers acquired Powell at the trade deadline in late March, on the same day center Jusuf Nurkic returned to the lineup. From that point on, the Blazers ranked 18th in defense. Not great, but certainly an improvement.

While Nurkic, Powell and Robert Covington are considered strong individual defenders, Lillard and CJ McCollum have struggled in that area over the years. Billups says he believes both could become much better defenders. Part of the plan is to help them better focus on defense by attempting to alleviate some of their offensive responsibilities.

“It’s one of those things that they had to be so special offensively, that if they are out there scrapping hard defensively and picking up fouls, that hurts the team,” Billups said. “Last year, the bench was an issue. You can’t win a game with those dudes in foul trouble.”

Simply getting by on defense and then hoping Lillard or McCollum can win the game in the end is not a recipe for success.

“That’s a hard way to live in this league,” Billups said.

There were times last season when Lillard came up big defensively late in games or made it a point to lock down an opposing guard.

“I’ve seen games where Dame has really taken the challenge defensively and really be able to lock in,” Billups said. “So, he’s capable. Not only is he capable, but he’s willing to. However, we have to do a good job as a coaching staff of making sure that those guys are confident enough to know that, ‘OK, I maybe won’t have to do so much offensively, so I can give more defensively.’”

The overall defensive philosophy won’t require either to become lock-down defenders, but Billups said both must exert more energy within the team’s defensive framework to make it click.

“We’re going to be a help defensive team,” Billups said. “Nobody is on an island. Everybody’s helping each other. That’s the mentality we’ve got to have, and if we do, we’re going to be a pretty darn good team.”

OFFENSIVE FLOW

The Blazers’ offense, from a production standpoint, certainly eclipsed that of the defense. Portland ranked fourth in offensive rating (118.4) and was the sixth-best three-point shooting team in the league (38.5%).

“Offensively, this team was brilliant,” Billups said. “Stotts didn’t get the credit he deserved for what he did here offensively.”

Still, Billups sees plenty of areas where the offense could improve.

Chauncey Billups shares his plan to improve Portland Trail Blazers next season: ‘It’s not going to be optional to play hard defensively’

Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (#27) is defended by Denver’s Paul Millsap as the Portland Trail Blazers take on the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of their first-round NBA playoffs matchup at Moda Center on Thursday, May 27, 2021.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

Billups wants to see shooters get better shots, more player and ball movement, a greater emphasis on attacking the basket and increased assist totals, all of which would force opposing defenses to work harder.

All too often, Billups said, the Blazers settled for threes before ever working the ball around.

The Blazers shot more contested threes than nearly every other team in the NBA.

“We need to do a better job of creating more wide-open threes and corner threes,” Billups said. “The corner three is the best shot in the game. We were one of the worst in the league at creating it. One way to do that is to get paint touches. Drive, collapse the defense and actually pass.”

Here are some offensive areas where Billups wants to see the team improve.

  • The Blazers ranked 29th in wide-open threes, which accounted for just 14.6% of their threes taken, while shooting them at a 43.2% clip. Utah led the NBA with 23.9% of its threes considered to be wide open (no defender within six feet) and made 42.4% of them.
  • The Blazers also led the NBA in tightly contested threes attempted (defenders within 2 to 4 feet) at 9%, and made 34.1%. Interestingly, the Blazers led the NBA in open threes (defender within 4 to 6 feet) with a rate of 20%, and hit on 37.6% of them.
  • Portland ranked 28th in drive points (20.4 per game) compared to the league leader, San Antonio, which averaged 30.9.
  • The Blazers ranked last in both paint touches (15.4) and paint-touch field goal percentage (59.4).
  • The Blazers ranked 26th in catch-and-shoot points (27.8%), compared to the Clippers, who led the NBA with 36.6%.
  • Portland ranked last in assists per game (21.3).

Lillard is a master at taking a semi-open shot and making good on it, or turning a desperate situation into a mesmerizing, step-back, fadeaway three that defies logic. McCollum can also hit difficult shots.

But Billups said such shots are not optimal for success.

Billups created a bit of a stir recently when he was quoted as saying he doesn’t believe in shooting 50 threes per game. Some took that to mean that he would have Portland shoot fewer threes, even though the Blazers averaged 40.8 attempts per game last season, not 50.

Billups clarified his point by telling The Oregonian/OregonLive that the emphasis should be on taking open shots not simply launching threes just to shoot them or because analytics say that’s what you’re supposed to do.

“We’re probably going to take 40 again,” he said. “I want you to take that three, but I also want you to know when they take that away, how to make another play happen.”

Powell’s return, in this area, was key. He is arguably the team’s best player at getting to the basket and finishing. Powell said he expects to receive more such opportunities next season.

“So, we’re going to try to get easier, quality shots for dudes instead of just coming down and jacking,” Billups said.

Better shot selection, Billups said, is what will get the team through the playoffs. Good defenses, he said, will force a high-volume three-point shooting team into taking low-quality threes. That’s when the threat of driving to the basket or hitting midrange shots becomes imperative.

“You’ve got to be able to make that shot, and threes, and layups and free throws,” Billups said.

While with the Clippers, Billups helped prepare defensive game plans for the Blazers. The goal was simple.

“Our biggest thing was we’re going to trap Dame every single time they come off of pick and rolls, maybe CJ too, and then we’re going to see what else they can do,” Billups said.

The Blazers will likely be met with similar game plans next season, but Billups believes added depth and a change in approach should allow the Blazers to counter.

“We’ll be able to make teams pay for that,” Billups said.

A key component to all of this will be Nurkic. Following the team’s playoff defeat, Nurkic said he wanted to be more involved in the offense. Billups said he’s had positive discussions with Nurkic about the offense and believes that they will find a better way to utilize his playmaking skills at center to help create better shots for teammates. He averaged 3.4 assists per game last season.

“When you play with players like that, it’s easy for guys to move without the basketball because you feel like the guy is going to see you,” Billups said. “You will have opportunities. It actually creates a fun environment to play in when you have a big that really loves passing the ball.”

THREE-GUARD LINEUP

Olshey made it clear during his news conference following Stotts’ departure that he believed the lineup has great potential, regardless of how the season ended.

Statistics exist to support his reasoning. The starting five of Lillard, McCollum, Powell, Covington and Nurkic ranked fourth in net rating (plus-13.3) after finishing fourth in defensive rating (104.1) and 13th in offensive rating (117.4).

Chauncey Billups shares his plan to improve Portland Trail Blazers next season: ‘It’s not going to be optional to play hard defensively’

Trail Blazers wing Norman Powell (#24) with a finger roll at the rim as the Portland Trail Blazers face the Los Angeles Lakers with limited fans in attendance at Moda Center on Friday, May 7, 2021. Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

Because of this, the Blazers believe they can get away with a lineup that features a 6-foot-3 Powell at small forward. Billups agrees, noting that Powell’s athleticism, aggressiveness and desire to play defense helps him overcome his size.

“I think in today’s game, you can play that way,” Billups said. “But to me, if you’re going to win that way, all three of those guys have to be committed on the defensive end of the floor. That can be an issue. It’s already been an issue.”

The three-guard lineup did not do well defensively against Denver, which was without its All-Star guard, Jamal Murray. Attention to detail and giving greater effort at that end, Billups said, will be a priority for the entire team, including Lillard and McCollum.

If that happens, Billups said the three-guard lineup could be impactful overall because that trio will be difficult to defend.

“I see it as a very positive thing, because I know how tough (a three-guard lineup) was to guard being on other side of that,” he said.

Just because the Blazers are likely done signing players this summer, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be in on some potential trades either during the offseason or at the trade deadline next February, just as they were while acquiring Powell last March.

Portland has 13 players on the roster, including second-round pick Greg Brown III out of Texas.

The Blazers gained more trade flexibility when forward Derrick Jones Jr. opted in for $9.7 million on the second year of the two-year contract he signed last offseason. That gave Portland a valuable trade chip, along with the team’s 2022 and 2024 first-round picks.

Securing an impact player at the deadline could be imperative toward making a deep playoff run and keeping Lillard happy heading into the following season.

Billups recognizes the challenges the team has faced in landing another All-Star. He hopes to help make the Blazers a more attractive destination for players.

“We have to make sure we do a good job making our environment really conducive to players because your players become your best recruiters,” Billups said. “I think I can help us with that because I’ve been in several places.”

One major selling point, Billups said, is the Blazers fan base, which he says he’s always viewed as being top-notch.

“It doesn’t get any better than what we have there,” Billups said.

True, but both the fan base and Lillard are starving for a contender, and that pressure falls on Billups to help make that a reality.

-- Aaron Fentress | [email protected] | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).

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