Bill Oram: Blazers coach Chauncey Billups gets a do-over after ‘unbelievable’ and ‘difficult’ 1st season

Let’s quickly recap Chauncey Billups’ inaugural season as the Trail Blazers head coach:

The superstar he thought he was going to coach underwent season-ending surgery.

The team he thought he was going to lead was completely dismantled.

And dreams of a playoff run were replaced by a near-nightly ritual of 30-point losses.

Far from ideal for a first-timer.

And before all of that, the boss who hired him was dismissed.

“You know,” Billups said from behind his desk last month, “most of the time this is a scary situation for a coach that was hired by someone else.”

But Billups is unfazed by his situation.

If anything, he has an even better relationship with general manager Joe Cronin than he did with his predecessor, Neil Olshey, who was fired last December following an internal investigation into workplace conduct.

“I am so happy with the synergy that Joe and I have,” Billups said.

Billups became the lighthouse in the storm for the Blazers amid their turmoil last season, but even as the Blazers rapidly rebuilt, one important question remains unanswered.

Just how good of a coach is he?

Blazers fans didn’t get to find out last season. And neither, by the way, did Billups.

Starting with Wednesday’s season opener at Sacramento, the 46-year-old will essentially get a do-over on a “difficult” first season that completely upgraded his expectations for the job.

“The biggest thing is last year I prepared as much as I could, but you just don’t know what you don’t know,” he said.

The in-demand former NBA Finals MVP learned that when he arrived as Terry Stotts’ replacement 18 months ago.

The Blazers had reached the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons. Talented veterans flanked Damian Lillard. There was reason to be optimism. “I felt pretty good about it,” Billups said. And then?

“Very quickly,” he said, “things changed.”

That’s putting it mildly.

Change happens in the NBA. What the Blazers had was chaos.

Lillard appeared in only 29 games and none after the new year.

In an effort to rejuvenate a core that had repeatedly stalled — and to dip below the luxury tax threshold — the Blazers were thrown into a midseason rebuild.

The Blazers won’t just two games after the All-Star break. Of their 20 losses in that span, 16 were by double digits and 10 of those by at least 30 points.

Billups likened the sudden changes to the beginning of his playing career, when he was traded in each of his first three seasons and played for six teams in his first six years.

“I was just trying to get my footing and it almost resembled that for me in my first year as a coach,” he said. “It was unbelievable, man. It was unbelievable.”

That painful stretch of losing, relatively brief by NBA tanking standards, helped land new supporting figures like Jerami Grant, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and Shaedon Sharpe, the No. 7 overall pick.

Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups gives instructions during an NBA preseason game against the Utah Jazz at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

Now, a year after Billups first stepped into the world of NBA head coaching, the Blazers are once again hoping to be in the mix for a playoff spot at the Western Conference.

And that means their coach is once again on the spot in a way he wasn’t for much of last season, when there were few opportunities for him to draw up a killer end-of-game play or to showcase his vision for taking pressure off of Lillard.

“It kind of hindered my development a little bit,” Billups acknowledged.

Billups has long been praised for his easy communication style with players. He is fond of saying that he is able to hold Lillard accountable the same way he can a rookie. It’s what made him a popular teammate as a player and in-demand candidate for virtually every position in the NBA before he landed in Portland.

He was pursued for front office jobs. He worked as an announcer. His start in coaching came alongside Tyronn Lue for a season with the Clippers.

He leans on mentors like Lue as well as his former coach Doc Rivers and former teammate coach Monty Williams.

“There’s a ton of things I’m still kind of learning that I’m going to continue learning as a coach,” Billups said.

But he was relentlessly competitive as a player. He is not the kind of person you suspect lacks self-confidence.

So it is no surprise that he expects to find success in this role, too.

“I believe I have all the intangibles that make an excellent coach,” he said. “And I won’t stop until I am.”

Billups knows better than to think he knows what to expect from the upcoming season. A lackluster preseason raised questions about the new-look Blazers’ commitment to defense and how new players fit alongside Lillard.

But when he shared his big-picture view of things back in September, Billups saw plenty of sources of positivity.

“The West is obviously tough and I’m not unrealistic at all,” he said. “I’ve done it, I know what it looks like and feels like. I do think we’re going to be a pretty good team.”

He trusts in the vision that he has helped implement alongside Cronin. The two, both from Denver, are in constant communication. And Billups believes that this roster is built even more in his image than the team he felt so good about last season.

Grant, Hart and Payton all give the Blazers a promising defensive outlook — despite the preseason results. And there is no discounting the return of Lillard following surgery to repair an abdominal strain that had hampered him for years.

“Not only do you have him back,” Billups said, “you really have him.”

It’s set up to be a much better opportunity for Billups to showcase his coaching chops and lay a foundation for the Blazers’ next chapter.

But by now Billups knows better than to think he knows what to expect.

— Bill Oram

[email protected] | Twitter: @billoram

For more Bill Oram, subscribe to his podcast, Sports by Northwest, anywhere you listen to podcasts.

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