ORLANDO — Just as catchers often make the best managers in baseball, point guards tend to succeed in the NBA because of their team-first approach and analytical way of thinking about the game. Chauncey Billups always carried that “coach on the floor” moniker when he was a point guard for years in the NBA, and those who coached him always thought he’d succeed someday at the job — maybe before even Billups himself felt that.
Now, as the head coach of the suddenly surging Portland Trail Blazers, Billups has discovered that he loves this mentor role far more than he ever thought he would. It’s been an extremely challenging season for the Portland Trail Blazers, with stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum missing extended periods and losing streaks to follow. But you’d never know the grind of coaching was wearing down Billups when hearing him discuss his first year at the helm.
“I’m learning something new every day, literally every day,” Billups said before Portland’s game in Orlando earlier in the week. “It’s been so much fun because I love to compete and love to teach.
“I tell people all the time that being a head coach is like being a CEO because you are doing so many things that aren’t even basketball-related, and it can veer you off your path sometimes,” Billups added. There is a lot that you have to deal with as a head coach, but I really love it.”
Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups has had to endure plenty of adversity
The Portland Trail Blazers season hasn’t been nearly as rosy as rookie head coach Chauncey Billups sounds when describing how much he’s enjoyed his first year on the job. The Blazers started 3-2 and got to 10-8 before the bottom fell out. An abdominal injury to superstar guard Damian Lillard and a collapsed lung to CJ McCollum played significant roles in Portland losing 10 of 11 games during one particularly rocky stretch.
While there were the occasional whispers that some players were upset by Billups’ direct, in-your-face style, the coach rested easy because he had a strong endorsement from Lillard.
“It’s a player’s mind,” Lillard said of Billups style in a September media availability, according to Bleacher Report. “Smarter instead of harder. Like, ‘Why would you do this when you could be doing this? He’s thinking the game like a point guard.”
Lillard had surgery in early January to repair a core muscle injury causing chronic abdominal pain. That injury likely played a role in Lillard posting career lows in field goal percentage (40.2%) and 3-point accuracy (32.4%) and the Blazers being just 12-17 in his 29 games. Lillard’s progress is to be evaluated in late February, and the Blazers are hopeful the All-Star guard can return this season.
Chauncey Billups is smart enough to listen to the coaching advice he’s gotten from others
The Trail Blazers’ adversity thus far is nothing new to the 45-year-old Chauncey Billups. Despite being the No. 3 pick of the Boston Celtics in the 1997 NBA Draft, he bounced from team to team early in his career. In early 2000, when he was thrown into a Denver/Orlando trade just to make the salary numbers work, he felt like he was at rock bottom in his career. He never even played for the Magic while he was rehabilitating a rotator cuff, but that proved to be a pivotal time for him, he said.
“Being allowed to get healthy and build myself back up was huge for me,” Billups recalled. “I had gone from the third pick in the draft to just kind of being thrown in on that trade (to Orlando). I had really fallen off, so that was a critical point for me to get off the mat and grind myself back up.
“Also, I met Ben Wallace here (in Orlando), and we know what that relationship became,” Billups added. “That small little window allowed me to meet some important people in my career.”
Eventually, Billups wound up in Detroit, where he teamed up with Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace to win a championship in 2004. It was then that Billups played for no-nonsense mentor Larry Brown, the man who shaped a lot of Billups’ style of coaching now.
“I was fortunate to play for a lot of great coaches, some of them Hall of Fame coaches. I learned a ton from them,” he said. “You take a little of the things from the coaches that you liked and the things you didn’t like, you stay away from those.
“I definitely had to do that because I didn’t have much coaching experience, and I understand that,” added Billups, who made the wise decision of adding long-time head coach Scott Brooks to his staff this season. “The guys on my staff, they all have more coaching experience than me, so I spend a lot of time learning from them as well. I understand and know that they’ve seen things I haven’t seen yet, and it really is a collective collaboration here.”
Chauncey Billips’ talent as a teacher is already showing for the improving Trail Blazers
Billups’ work as a teacher is already showing through in the major progress that youngsters Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little have shown this season. Simons, who grew up in Orlando and was named after Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, had 43-, 31-, and 31-point nights in January. Little, who coincidentally also hails from Orlando, is a human pogo stick of energy, and Billups raves about the 21-year-old forward’s willingness to embrace coaching. Billups couldn’t say enough positive things about Little after he racked up 13 points, 10 rebounds, five offensive boards, and four assists in Portland’s 98-88 win over the Magic on Monday.
Throw in the healthy return of CJ McCollum from the lung injury and the aggressive play of Jusuf Nurkic, and it’s easy to see why the Blazers have won four of five of late. While trade rumors involving the Blazers will likely persist until the NBA Trade Deadline, Billups is hopeful the Blazers can keep their core group intact and growing together.
In no way does Billups discount his team’s ability to make a playoff run over the second half of the season. However, for now, he said his entire focus is on savoring each day and working toward improvement.
“All I care about is us playing the right way. We play the right way, we’ll give ourselves a chance,” Billups said. “I’d say we hope (to be in the playoff chase), but we’ll see. (The playoffs) aren’t a big concern for us right now because I just want to keep us advancing and playing better. I’m loving how we’re playing right now.”
Spoken like a veteran coach already. Billups might be a rookie coach, but he already teaches and talks like someone who was always destined to end up in this profession from when he was that “coach on the floor” point guard years ago.
Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com