Now that the ping balls have finished bouncing, the Portland Trail Blazers find themselves with the No. 3 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. They also find themselves with a whole host of questions on how best to use it. They could use it in a trade package to bring in veteran players to pair with Damian Lillard, use the pick on any number of solid players that figures to be available at No. 3, such as Scoot Henderson, Brandon Miller, either of the Thompson twins, or they could trade Lillard, take the best player available and go into a full-on rebuild.
The most likely option for the Blazers would seem to be option No. 1. It would get Lillard the running mates he craves and deserves and keeps the team’s franchise player happy for now. However, that option takes two to tango, and the Blazers may be unable to swing a trade to their liking. That could leave them in the awkward position of trying to explain to Lillard that they tried their best, but they are adding another young, developmental project to their roster.
No matter how they go, they will need the right leadership on the bench to help turn the team into a contender. A veteran team needs a veteran coach to guide them, while on a team with a singular star and a pack of young players, a veteran coach can help give the team the credibility it lacks. Current coach Chauncey Billups, while he should be thanked for trying over the past two years, is neither one of those.
Billups was an awkward fit from the start. He was hired as a rookie head coach to learn on the fly on a team that professed it was still trying to contend. Instead, he has presided over a team with a mess of a roster that has tanked for draft positioning for the past two years. Many, including myself, disagreed with his hiring, to begin with. Regardless, Billups has not had much of a chance to be successful and hasn’t made the most of the few chances he has had. It also just so happens that there is a glut of championship-winning or championship-contending coaches on the open market right now. The Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, and Philadelphia 76ers all canned their coaches after coming up short of an NBA title in the playoffs. Looking at the Blazers’ performance during the Billups era, just making the playoffs seems pretty nice right now, and there are multiple candidates to do just that.
Mike Budenholzer turned both the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks into playoff contenders and won a championship in Milwaukee in 2021. However, when the Bucks flamed out in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs this year, he was the one that paid the price. He has experience in quickly turning around teams, which he undertook in Atlanta, and inheriting a team trying to leap with a star centerpiece, which he did with Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The 76ers fired veteran coach Doc Rivers after the team lost in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, with Philadelphia GM Daryl Morey feeling he had taken the team as far as he could in three seasons guiding Joel Embiid. Rivers has jumped into and out of star-studded teams, hoping to make a quick splash, jumping from the Celtics to the Clippers to the 76ers over the past decade. While he may jump at the chance to help Lillard get a title, Rivers may want more control over the roster and decision-making than the Blazers would be willing to give.
Also on the market is former Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, fired after the team’s slow and steady decline after winning an NBA title in 2019 and losing Kawhi Leonard. While Nurse was able to keep the Raptors competitive, he could never get them back to their high point. The Raptors are also facing some big decisions of their own, and if the Blazers were to grab him, they could potentially reunite him with Pascal Siakam if they use their top-three draft pick to entice Toronto to make a deal.
If the Blazers want a coach who has head coaching experience in the Western Conference and knows how to guide a team from the bottom to the top of the standings in a hurry, Monty Williams was recently let go by the Suns despite leading them to the No. 1 overall seed in the West this past season. The team’s new ownership wanted to go in a different direction. Still, there is no excuse why their loss should not be the Blazers’ gain.
While I can understand the Blazers preaching patience by hanging on to Billups and ownership’s unwillingness to pay for a new coach as well as the remaining three years on Billups’s contract, they should not make another mistake simply because they are unwilling to admit they made one to begin with. The time for the team to take its next step is now-whether that is going all in for a championship immediately or going through a rebuild. Hiring Billups was a mistake, giving him a five-year contract was a mistake, and the Blazers shouldn’t double down on that by not taking advantage of the chance to grab one of several marquee coaches who are available right now. All five of the coaches I mentioned all figure to be candidates to replace each other on teams that are already playoff contenders. If the Blazers want to join the conversation, they need to act fast to help secure a coach who can take them to the next level.