Something new, yet familiar
The new-look Blazers have a chance to bring fast-breaking basketball back to the franchise. But can Chauncey Billups coach a defense that gets enough stops to unleash it?
I remember hearing about the Blazers fastbreak from my Dad. But I don’t remember seeing very many. I think that experience reflects what most Blazers fans my age can relate to: the team has been fun and provided excitement, sure, especially during the last 11 years of the Dame Era.
But a well-run fastbreak? Those have been rare. There hasn’t ever been a “Red Hot N Rollin’” team in my lifetime. Even when they were red hot, they were rarely rolling with a head of steam. When the team has been at its best for the last three decades, they’ve made their way in the halfcourt. Effective, and entertaining to basketball nerds like me, sure, but it didn’t capture imaginations in the way the old legends did.
With a revamped roster boasting more dynamic athletes–including new acquisitions Robert Williams, DeAndre Ayton, and rookie guard Scoot Henderson–a new generation of Blazers fans has their first real chance to witness the Blazers’ fast breaks on a regular basis. That, of course, will also hinge on whether Chauncey Billups and Roy Rogers’ defensive schemes can churn out enough stops. The roster has the athleticism and the size to harken back to the greatest eras of Blazers Basketball.
Even if the wins don’t follow the style at first, this team’s best chance to show growth, and make Chauncey Billups’ job worth saving, is through defensive rebounding and pace. In the two greatest eras of Blazers basketball–the Walton Era of the 70s and the longer, but ultimately less successful Drexler Era of the 90s–the fast break was their calling card. For the Walton teams, it was his outlet passes and speedy guards leading the way. And for the teams of the early 90s, it was an incredible collection of athletes who played great defense, owned the boards, and got out on the run, memorialized by the iconic Nike poster above.
While the teams of the 90s would see their seasons end in the slow pace of the postseason, the way they played and the legacy they left remains an icon in Blazers lore. But lore is all it has been for three decades. According to Basketball-Reference, the last year the Blazers recorded a top-five pace was the 1993-94 season, when they ranked 3rd in possessions per game. 30 YEARS!
For as exciting as it will be for Anfernee Simons to come into his own as the No. 1 option and late-game shot-taker, what Portland received in return for the Lillard trade, as well as Scoot Henderson, gives the Blazers the tools to revive a lost part of the franchise’s basketball heritage.
While DeAndre Ayton will be the starting center, play big minutes, and likely have more freedom to test the limits of his offensive game more than he did in Phoenix, there should be a reasonable level of excitement with the addition of Robert Williams to encourage that style of play. While knee problems likely limit his ability to be a starter for a full season, the Celtics have routinely owned the boards when Williams plays, with the Celtics ranking 1st in defensive rebounding last season.
If the Blazers are to rediscover the brand of basketball so many around here associate with the franchise, rebounds from Ayton and Williams have to be the starting point. Williams’ ability to make plays and natural passing instincts will also likely become a fan favorite. High-low passes to Ayton, short-roll passes in the pick-and-roll, and dribble-handoff work with Williams could prove to be both exciting and useful with Portland’s young guards.
Of course, young teams typically struggle defensively. But on the other hand, Billups was brought in three years ago to improve the defense. And in terms of Xs and Os innovation, Billups and Rogers have been far more willing to experiment on the defensive end, seemingly calling out different defensive coverages on every possession. While that kind of strategy can keep opponents off balance, the results for two seasons of Blazers basketball have been: confusion among the troops on defense and back-to-back bottom-five defensive ratings.
This team is built to play the way Billups wants to play. Cronin has given him what he and Blazers fans have long wanted: ahletic big men who can run the floor and catch lobs. Multi-faceted wing players who can guard multiple positions and feel comfortable shooting when open. Guards who want to push the pace.
It just so happens that the way Billups said he wants to play lines up with the best days this franchise has seen. Maybe they have something here. But while they’re younger than they’ve ever been, if this team shows no progress on the defensive end for the third consecutive season, with every player handpicked by Billups and Cronin, then it’s fair to ask the question of whether Billups has the ability to turn his basketball convictions into basketball results.
While everyone is expecting the Blazers to tank another year–which they probably will, judging by the last couple of years–I’m not really interested in seeing whether this team can be shitty.
We know that under Cronin and Billups, they can be REALLY shitty. So shitty in fact that the NBA is literally making rules to prevent them from doing it again. What I would REALLY like to know, and what I hope Cronin is trying to find out this season is: does this coach and coaching staff have the ability to grow this group as one collective unit?
The Blazers sent out a press release detailing promotions on the coaching staff and new additions. What exactly, over the last couple of years, was worth promoting? Cause it surely hasn’t been results. Will this be yet another season of collective failure softened by the statistical growth of a few individuals and another lottery pick?
And at what point, if ever, does the losing stop being okay to Bert Kolde and Jody Allen? Does Chauncey Billups have a rare job where his performance no longer has an impact on his employment? Does Billups even answer to anyone?
We’re about to find out.
Cronin Did Well
Let me be the one-millionth person on the basketball internet to credit Joe Cronin on a job well done. Not only did he secure a hall of at least three first-round picks, which could become five 1sts, but he moved off of the Nurkic contract and turned it into a player the Blazers have shown interest in with Ayton. And he did all of that while having the entire NBA media cohort trying to get him to bend the knee to Pat Riley.
On the second trade, not only did Cronin get a potential difference-maker off the bench in Robert Williams, but the addition of Malcolm Brogdon could have multiple benefits. Having a third guard who was recently the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year is a pretty good spot to be in as far as having a mentor for Henderson, Simons, and Sharpe. However, should Brogdon prove to be a factor on the court and show he is healthy, he could also become a factor in the NBA’s title race for a contender, which could result in more draft equity coming Portland’s way. For now, Brogdon is here to stay, but come February, that could very well change. Portland likely needs him to show that he is not damaged as a player after dealing with injuries throughout Boston’s 2023 playoff run.
What many people missed this summer, was that this was Cronin’s opportunity to catapult himself into the group of NBA decision-makers who people actually know about. It’s quite the coincidence that Cronin found himself negotiating with Toronto’s Masai Ujiri until the trade went down. About 12 years ago, few knew who Ujiri was. That was until Carmelo Anthony requested a trade from the Denver Nuggets to New York. Billups, then still a player for the Nuggets, was shipped off to New York with Anthony.
And what Ujiri did remade the Nuggets into a team that was even better than the one they had before. The following season, they were a sexy championship contender until Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL. With the Melo trade, Ujiri achieved rock star status among NBA nerds. And if the Blazers exceed expectations next season, even if they don’t reach the same heights as those Nuggets teams immediately after Melo left, Cronin could soon find himself in the same rarified air.
In case you were wondering, I will have my annual top 10 over-unders column before the regular season starts. Last year, I went 6-4 overall and a perfect 5 for 5 on “super picks,” which carried double the value. Needless to say, I won the over-under contest. Don’t look at my Finals pick from last year, though.
Speaking of the Finals, I already placed a wager on the Bucks to win the title. We’re going to be rooting for Dame anyway. Might as well get paid if he does get the ring.