DETROIT — The first game Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups circled on his NBA schedule was March 21, his return to Detroit.
He expected to be at the helm of a perennial playoff team led by Damian Lillard, closing in on a playoff spot or even better, jockeying for position at a higher seed. But hours before tipoff, Lillard was ruled out for the season, following abdominal surgery he underwent in January, with 12 games remaining.
And Billups probably didn’t expect for Ben McLemore and Brandon Williams (a two-way player) to get the most burn on a night when the favored adopted son returned home, but adjusting is what Billups has been doing all season and zooming out a bit, for an entire career.
“I’ve coached like three or four different teams this year,” Billups told Yahoo Sports following the Blazers’ 119-115 win at Little Caesars Arena on Monday. “It’s happened the way it’s supposed to because I’ve learned so damn much. From the start of the season, coaching vets to coaching kids, trying to close games out. This experience this year will set me up to have a hopefully great coaching career.”
There was the team he began the year with, as Lillard labored through his injury, then CJ McCollum suffered a collapsed lung in early December. By the time Lillard returned for a nine-game stretch following rehab on his abdomen, McCollum was on the IR.
A few weeks later, Robert Covington and Norman Powell were traded to the Clippers, followed by McCollum being shipped to New Orleans, the start of a flurry of activity from interim general manager Joe Cronin — appointed in the wake of Neil Olshey’s ouster following accusations of workplace misconduct.
Hence, Billups having 26 players log time for him, according to Basketball Reference. It’s new circumstances for all involved, especially as Portland has made the playoffs 11 of the past 13 years.
Barring a miracle of sorts, at 27-44, that streak will hit an unexpected bump. Even though there was a common belief the franchise had plateaued with Lillard and McCollum as headliners, these circumstances weren’t predictable and Billups doesn’t expect it to last long.
There are signs for a quicker turnaround, or at least the effort to right the ship quick. Swingman Josh Hart, who was acquired in the McCollum package, has averaged 20 points on 50% shooting in 15 games while Anfernee Simons should be in the Most Improved Player conversation, averaging 17.3 points on splits of 44-40-88 with increased opportunities.
“This is not a rebuild at all,” Billups said. “Retool. We’ll take a few small steps back, develop some young guys, then boom, free agency and the draft.”
If New Orleans’ pick lands between fifth through 14th, it’s conveyed to Portland as part of the McCollum deal. The Blazers own their own assumed lottery pick, plus have Eric Bledsoe’s partially guaranteed salary ($3.9 million) to use as filler in a trade.
Only Lillard ($42 million) is making big money from the existing roster and if he’s healthy and fresh, he’ll be an attractive option and recruiter for a team with around $50 million in salary-cap space. Someone who was inactive Monday, Pistons forward Jerami Grant, will garner a lot of attention this summer. It’s wise to expect the Blazers to be among those teams, sources told Yahoo Sports.
So, despite the unexpected developments, Billups is excited about the future, learning and growing with the possibilities.
He’s still the man nicknamed “Smooth,” deftly moving through an arena he didn’t actually play in but like he owns the place. On the second game of a back-to-back, Billups didn’t have a chance to connect with so many of the people who became familiar to his everyday life in Detroit, but he gave enough time to so many they all felt touched.
That charm, along with the lessons learned in Year 1, could be hard to resist this summer as he’ll play an active role in turning the franchise around.
As recently as a few years ago, Billups didn’t see himself as a coach. Being a team builder was always the goal, dating back to his playing days — particularly in Detroit, where he found his footing and put together a Hall of Fame-worthy résumé, topped off by a title and Finals MVP in 2004.
He had a flirtation with the Cleveland Cavaliers and held out hope for the Pistons turning his way while doing TV for ESPN, but he feels as natural on the sideline as he would’ve been in a suite evaluating a team.
“That was old, though. Maybe one day, but no. I see myself as a coach 100 percent,” Billups told Yahoo Sports. “When I made the decision to do it, I did it last year, I proved to myself that’s what I was meant to do at the time. I love to teach, I love to compete, to game plan and scheme.”
Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue brought Billups onto his staff last year, giving him a load of responsibility and repeatedly telling him to get ready for job offers.
Billups snaps his fingers, “He was of the mindset that it would happen very quickly. Me? I thought it would happen in a couple years.”
“He forced me to ramp up, and I’m glad he did,” Billups said. "He’s the wizard. He helped me with everything. I learned from the best. He was very patient with me.”
And that patience has been learned this season with a changing roster, changing infrastructure that has been so familiar to a player who got used to change amid struggle and excellence. If nothing else, he’s prepared for the unexpected.