Chauncey Billups is acing his most crucial test yet as Trail Blazers head coach

Portland's lead man takes a lot of heat, but there's no denying he's succeeding in a critical aspect of the franchise's future.

Chauncey Billups, Portland Trail Blazers
Chauncey Billups, Portland Trail Blazers / Alika Jenner/GettyImages
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Maybe Chauncey Billups is the right head coach for the Portland Trail Blazers moving forward. Maybe he's not. His record as the head man in Rip City would certainly point to the latter. But even in his third season, given the hands he's been dealt his first two, it's hard to tell.

The current Basketball Hall of Fame nominee became head coach of the Blazers in the summer of 2021. There's no need to completely rehash everything that's gone wrong in Portland since Billups' first season in charge, but here's a cliff notes version:

  • Damian Lillard played 29 games in the 2021-22 season before undergoing abdominal surgery and was having one of the worst statistical years of his career before being shut down.
  • Ben McLemore led the Blazers in games played that season with 64. Anfernee Simons played 57, Jusuf Nurkic played 56 and Robert Covington played 48. A mixture of injuries and end-of-season tanking left Billups with a depleted roster.
  • Covington and Norman Powell - two of the team's most productive players - were traded in February 2022 to clear cap space and duck the luxury tax.
  • Rookie Shaedon Sharpe and reserve center Drew Eubanks appeared in the most games for Billups' squad in 2022-23. The deadline-day trade of Josh Hart, along with injuries to Nurkic and Justise Winslow, gave Chauncey another depleted roster. That was before Lillard and others were shut down when tanking season began in earnest.

After Dame was traded and the Blazers drafted Scoot Henderson with the No. 3 pick in the 2023 draft, Billups has finally gotten a true chance to put his stamp on Portland's roster and concentrate on player development. He's succeded in more ways than one, but perhaps in no more crucial manner than the way he's helped Henderson improve since his early rookie season struggles.

Chauncey Billups has been instrumental in developing Scoot Henderson

Scoot came into the league as a rookie of the year candidate along with Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren. It was surprising to some people in the NBA that he fell to the third pick in the first place.

Things started so poorly for Henderson that the word "bust" was thrown around after only a handful of weeks. The 19-year-old started his first five games and his stats were (and still are) hideous to look at: 8.8 points, 4.6 assists, 4.0 turnovers, 4.0 personal fouls and 34.6 percent shooting from the floor and .095 from three.

Then he injured his ankle and missed nine games, so through the first month of the season, that stat line is all anyone had to judge Henderson by.

When he returned on Nov. 22, Billups made his first major decision in Scoot's development: He brought him off the bench. Things got better over the next month, but not dramatically. Henderson averaged 11.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists while cutting his turnovers down to 2.8 per game and his fouls down to 3.7. His shooting splits went up to 37/30/79.

Things improved after Christmas. From Dec. 26 to Jan. 14, Scoot averaged 16.1 ppg and 6.5 apg and hit 37.7 percent of his 4.8 3-point attempts. He started getting to the free-throw line more to the tune of 4.2 times a night. That stretch included a 33-point, 7-rebound, 9-assist, 3-steal game against the Phoenix Suns.

Before the all-star break from Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, Henderson put together a four-game stretch that saw him average 20.3 ppg on 43/47/97 splits to go along with 4.8 apg and only 2.3 turnovers. Days later, Billups named Scoot the Trail Blazers' starting point guard for the remainder of the season.

The theme here is clear: improvement. Henderson struggled mightily, got injured, came off the bench when he returned and has since become what the organization hoped he would be when it drafted him. And who does Scoot credit for this development? Per Sean Highkin of The Rose Garden Report (subscription required), that would be his head coach:

"Chauncey is real with me and lets me know when I’m messing up. Taking me out of situations where I’ve messed up a couple times. That’s his way of letting me know, ‘Take a deep breath and when you get back out there, turn it up a notch.’ I appreciate it a lot, having a coach like that and a mentor like that. Seeing other players’ development, you don’t see that a lot. Having Chauncey on my side as a head coach is great to have."

Blazers point guard Scoot Henderson

Billups outlined his plan for Henderson and how it changed this season based on the rookie's progress. The plan has worked to perfection:

"My job is, I want to do the best I can at developing him, but also protecting him. When I made the decision to bring him off the bench, he was really struggling. I felt like he was playing with so much pressure on him. So I had to protect him from that. But he’s made so many advancements. And I also felt like as a young player, I want him to earn it. He’s playing so well right now on both sides of the ball."

Chauncey Billups on Scoot Henderson

That decision to slow play Scoot's development has been 100 percent the right one. He was overwhelmed at the start of the season. That's not a knock on a 19-year-old entering the NBA playing the league's most difficult position with the expectations that were placed on him. But nothing needs to be slow played anymore; Henderson has earned the starting point guard job.

And Billups is beginning to build a track record. Shaedon Sharpe played 22.2 minutes a night and averaged 9.9 ppg as a rookie before exploding down the stretch of last season and into 2023-24. Jabari Walker barely cracked the 11-minute-per-game mark last year and has doubled that this season while breaking out as a sophomore. Duop Reath entered the year on a two-way deal and just signed a long-term contract after becoming a key rotation player.

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The Blazers were never going to win many games this year. Everything was about developing players and fielding a team that competes. Billups has done both, but perhaps most importantly, he's pushed the right buttons to turn Henderson into what the organization can confidently feel is the point guard of the future.