The Portland Trail Blazers held their first collective media availability in nearly four months on Monday, since an utterly disappointing playoff exit sparked the most dramatic offseason in franchise history. A lot has changed for this team since we last heard from it en masse on June 3.
On the eve of training camp in advance of the 2021-22 season, these are the most significant takeaways from the Blazers’ Media Day.
A Reliance On Accountability
The buzziest of buzzwords from Moda Center is a necessary dynamic of team sports that, to a man, the Blazers clearly believe was lacking under their previous coaching regime: Accountability. Every player who spoke on Monday, from Lillard to Cody Zeller, mentioned the impact of Billups’ unique ability to communicate with players, most positively manifested in holding the entire roster to account.
Defensive mistakes won’t be glossed over while watching game film. Every player will know what their specific role entails on a nightly basis. And if mistakes are made consistently or a player steps outside the boundaries of what’s expected of him, Billups will be ready to call out his players—and his players, they insisted, would be ready to accept that criticism.
Nurkic: “The biggest [thing], Chauncey is gonna make people be in their role. There’s no more guessing, defense or offense.”
— Jack Winter (@ArmstrongWinter) September 27, 2021
A team like Portland can’t rest on the laurels of individual talent. The Blazers’ whole must be much greater than the sum of its parts to win a championship, and implementing a culture of collective accountability is the surest means of reaching that equation.
It’ll take time for Portland to play the detail-oriented style of basketball Billups will be demanding every night. His players already understand the sweeping benefits of harping on little things, though, crucial for a rookie head coach who’d otherwise be feeling the pressure if his veteran team—owner of the league’s longest active streak—gets off to a slow start in 2021-22.
Newfound Defensive Focus
That sense of accountability begins and ends on one end of the floor specifically, where Billups is tasked with making marked improvements to basketball’s second-worst defense without the benefit of significant personnel upgrades. Well, at least on the surfaces of name recognition and contract status.
Larry Nance Jr. played at All-NBA levels defensively with the Cleveland Cavaliers early last season before going down with a wrist injury, and Cody Zeller is a talkative, smart, surprisingly mobile backup center behind Jusuf Nurkic—not to mention a small front office coup at the minimum.
Their additions may seem to come on the defensive margins to basketball laymen, but not Damian Lillard. He’s confident a combination of Portland’s offseason additions and coaching change will lead to the strides on defense his team needs to take the next step toward contention.
“I do honestly feel like some of the [personnel] changes and some of the changes they’re bringing with them as a staff, I feel like we’ll be better defensively,” Lillard said.
Nance’s talk of the league’s tenth-best defense is likely a bit optimistic for the Blazers. They still start three guards with marginal defensive ceilings, and lack the true all-court difference-maker—a Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, or even healthy Jonathan Isaac—needed to plug leaks the trio of Lillard, McCollum and Norman Powell will inevitably spring despite their best efforts. Defense isn’t all about want-to.
But swapping Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter for Nance and Zeller alone would’ve paid defensive dividends, and everyone on the podium at Media Day expressed the desire and need for Portland to get better on that side of the ball. It’s safe to say the Blazers will be much improved defensively in 2021-22. The extent of that improvement is the only question left for Portland as training camp dawns, at least until opponent-specific nuance of the postseason brings up a whole slew of new ones.
Jusuf Nurkic’s Increased Post Touches
Billups believes a breakout season of sorts is coming for Nurkic, in part due to Terry Stotts’ perceived underutilization of the Bosnian Beast offensively. That’s been music to the ears of Nurkic, of course, who openly complained about his role on multiple occasions last season, including immediately after Portland was eliminated from the playoffs by the short-handed Denver Nuggets.
Make no mistake: Billups fully intends on taking advantage of Nurkic’s rare court vision and passing flair at the elbows and from the top of the key, reiterating as much again on Monday. His preferred style of offense is perfectly suited for a big man of that ilk. But Nurkic’s uptick in usage this season won’t just come as a result of heavier playmaking responsibilities on the perimeter. Billups plans to give him a steady diet of touches in the post, too.
“I think Nurk can be much better when you just throw it to him on the block,” Billups said Monday. “He wasn’t a good finisher in the painted area last year, but sometimes when you get that ball and you feel like you might not be getting it back, you might force a shot.”
Nurkic has never shot better than 45.2 percent from the post over a full season, and suffered through worse efficiency there a year ago. His longtime struggles finishing on the roll and off the offensive glass don’t support Billups’ theory about the angst associated with fleeting touches affecting Nurkic’s performance with his back to the basket, either.
Billups isn’t the first coach to buy into all-for-one tenets of ball movement and a more egalitarian offensive approach. Steve Kerr has talked about how literally touching the ball more frequently makes role players more comfortable, basketball dogma initially instilled in him by Phil Jackson during his playing days with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Maybe Nurkic, ever headstrong, is the type of player who needs more than the feel of the basketball to play his best. His career norms and the inherently inefficient nature of post play be damned, we’re poised to find out in 2021-22.
Damian Lillard Really Is All In
Lillard’s plan to play out the upcoming season before potentially revisiting a departure from Portland has been reported for months, and he confirmed at least the first part of it in an early September Instagram post. The greatest player in franchise history stopped short of re-pledging career-long fealty to the Blazers at Media Day. Lillard was never going to make a promise he knows he might have to break.
But nothing that came out of his mouth or could be inferred from his body language on Monday indicated Lillard is current giving any thought to leaving Portland. He even somewhat downplayed his pointed calls for change over the summer, clarifying they weren’t much different from behind-closed-door discussions he’d had with Neil Olshey in previous offseasons. Olshey maintained the same.
“A lot of times there was buzz on things people were reporting that never came from me,” Lillard said of offseason rumors about his prospective trade request. “I don’t think it’s my job to control the buzz, positive or negative. I know where my heart is, and my teammates know as well.”
It’s not just time that has softened Lillard’s big-picture stance on the Blazers, though. He’s genuinely of the mind that Portland shares his “sense of urgency” now, another buzzword also promoted by Olshey and Billups on Monday, and seems more certain than ever that he really can accomplish his longtime goal of winning a title with the Blazers.
Dame is convinced he can win a title in Portland: “Watching last postseason, I know it can be done.”
— Jack Winter (@ArmstrongWinter) September 27, 2021