The Portland Trail Blazers are a mess. General manager Neil Olshey is gone, and new head coach Chauncey Billups isn’t winning many hearts and minds with his repeated roasting of his team. The team isn’t doing itself any favors with embarrassing losses followed by more embarrassing losses. Billups blasted the Blazers after a 114–83 loss at home to the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 2. Portland responded with a 145–117 thrashing at the hands of the Boston Celtics.
The Trail Blazers have the longest active playoff streak in the NBA, making eight consecutive postseason visits. But Portland was never a title contender, not with five first-round exits, two trips to the conference semifinals, and a lone appearance in the Western Conference Finals that ended in a sweep. Olshey was sure the problem was former coach Terry Stotts. The early results under Billups give the appearance of more profound issues than coaching.
The Portland Trail Blazers have lived and died with their guards
In Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers have a superstar. But he’s having the worst season of his career, shooting career-lows of 39.7% overall and 30.2% from 3-point range. He’s missed Portland’s last three games with an abdominal injury. He won’t be re-evaluated until Dec. 11, so the Blazers will be without their point guard for at least two more games.
Portland has lost five of its last six, with the previous four losses by double digits. The lone victory was a 110–92 clubbing of the lowly Detroit Pistons, owners of an NBA-worst 4–18 record.
Lillard was Olshey’s first draft pick with the Blazers. The Weber State star went sixth in the 2012 NBA Draft and went on to win Rookie of the Year honors. Since then, he’s made six All-NBA teams, won an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, and made the 75th-anniversary team.
His backcourt running mate since 2015–16 has been CJ McCollum. Taken 10th overall in 2013, it took McCollum a couple of seasons to find his footing. But he’s been a consistent 20-point-a-night scorer since joining the starting lineup.
But playing 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3 guards opens the door to a problem at the defensive end. This season, Portland is dead last in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 113.3 points per 100 possessions. The Blazers were 28th in defense in 2019–20 before falling to 29th last season.
Olshey brought Billups in to change the defensive mindset. The early returns are not promising.
Billups questions the pride and effort of the Trail Blazers
Per ESPN, after the Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Spurs, Billups asked how much the team wanted to compete.
“My biggest concern, I think, at the moment, is I want us to compete harder, man,” Billups said. “I want us to compete harder. I want us to be competitive in every game. And I don’t feel like every night we do that. We don’t. And it concerns me. And I’ve felt that way in a lot of our wins. This is not just after a loss, me saying this.”
Fast forward to having 145 points hung on them by the Celtics, and Billups was furious, per a tweet from Bleacher Report’s Sean Highkin:
“I’ve never seen a team that needs its bench to inspire our starters. That sh** is crazy to me. It’s supposed to be the other way around.”Chauncey Billups
Then he attacked the Blazers’ pride.
“Lack of pride, of course, that bothers me,” Billups said. “If that doesn’t bother you, there’s something going on. Sometimes it’s not your night; cool, it happens. There’s a way I’m willing to lose, and that’s not the way I’m willing to lose. It was embarrassing.”
There’s been a lot of that going around the Rose City this season.
It’s time for the Portland Trail Blazers to start over
Lillard is 31 years old, while McCollum is 30. The furthest the tandem has taken the Portland Trail Blazers was a lopsided sweep in the conference finals.
The Blazers are 11–13 with a lot of games remaining. The firing of Olshey came from reasons not related to basketball but rather the environment he fostered. There is a carryover from that to the product on the floor.
Billups is right in this: There are ways to lose that don’t indicate a flawed culture. Back-to-back defeats at home by 31 and 28 points while players appear indifferent to the results are another issue entirely.
It’s uncertain when the Blazers will reshape their front office. But when they do, the new general manager (or whatever title the position winds up with) needs to face reality. The current core has gone as far as it’s able, and it’s not a title-winning group.
As painful as it can be to rebuild, the Portland Trail Blazers are at a crossroads. There is enough talent to hang around the bottom of the playoff bracket or in play-in tournament contention. But continuing to spin the wheels with first-round playoff defeats isn’t progress. When the status quo isn’t working, it’s time to change it. Olshey wasn’t willing to do that. The next GM must be, or the franchise will slide slowly into irrelevance.