The Portland Trail Blazers have stumbled to an 11-14 start under first-year coach Chauncey Billups. His prior coaching experience consisted of one season as a Clippers assistant.
That lack of experience may already be catching up to Chauncey Billups. The effort from the veteran starters has been inconsistent at best, and Billups has resorted to the dangerous “challenge the players publicly” tactic way too many times and far too early in the season.
Motivation is the primary responsibility of an NBA head coach and their excellence in this department is the reason Phil Jackson and Pat Riley have more championship rings between them (23) than they have fingers.
“Competitive fire and pride” are things a player must generate in their own heart, but a coach is responsible for kindling and fueling. And it’s tremendously disrespectful to think that a player could even make it to today’s NBA without those qualities.
If Billups sees those things lacking in his team, it is his job to do whatever he can to reignite them. It’s hard to tell if the inability or unwillingness came first, but either way he’s put himself in a precarious place with these statements.
There is a long list of great players who were leaders on the court but fared awfully as head coaches — Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Wes Unseld, Kevin McHale, etc. — and the league’s second-best player ever and six-time champion, Michael Jordan, revealed last year that he was the wisest among them for recognizing the flaw that would have made him a terrible coach as well.
Coaching requires patience with the shortcomings of others and the ability to nurture and inspire all types of personalities. Each player requires an individualized approach, and the first step towards finding the correct one is finding each player’s motivators and demotivators.
But for some greats, the only vehicles in their fleet are bulldozers and steamrollers. Their achievements are often credited to that single-mindedness, but that same drive makes them terrible leaders in any role that requires an individualized approach.
Jordan and Kobe Bryant are two of the league’s greatest champions, but they both have reputations for berating teammates openly in practice and during games. It’s their fists full of championship rings that gave them the credibility for that to be inspirational and not destructive.
Billups may be that same type of personality; capable of inspiring players as a fellow but not as a coach. But his public statements and body language on the sidelines betray a man who has lost whatever true connection he had with his players earlier this year and is in jeopardy of losing his ability to reach them altogether.
He wasn’t helped by the recent firing of Neil Olshey, who brought him in despite concerns surrounding a 1997 sexual assault. His best hope is that they keep both interim general manager Joe Cronin and superstar Damian Lillard around for another year.
One move with stability in mind is generally followed by others, but if a new GM comes in and tears the team down with either in-season or offseason moves, you can fully expect a coaching change as well.
Given the performance and trajectory of the team and Billups’ checkered past, that might be a good thing.