MAILBAG: Coaching, Buyout Market, Justise Winslow Status Update, How to Build a Good Defense Around Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons
Answering subscriber questions in the latest mailbag.
At the beginning of the Trail Blazers' final extended road trip of the season, I put the call out to paid subscribers for questions for this month's mailbag column, so we're tackling those now with three critical games coming up against Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Remember, if you're not a paid subscriber and want to be able to submit a question for the next mailbag (as well as read the vast majority of my coverage of the team that's behind the paywall), you can sign up below.
Hi Sean... I love basketball but can't say I know anything about coaching. There is a growing part of Rip City twitter who wants Billups fired for coughing during a game and can't wait to blame him for every missed shot. My question is how much of this is coaching? On offense, it looks like a lot of guys standing around the perimeter waiting for someone to pass the ball instead of trying to be active in the play. And of course the defense is the defense. How much of that could reasonably be changed if someone else was leading the exact same roster? I'll hang up and listen.
- Alex P.
I think we saw the answer to the question of "How much could reasonably be changed if someone else was leading the exact same roster" at the beginning of last season when Billups came in for Terry Stotts after the person who built the roster said their first-round exit was "not a product of the roster." It didn't go well.
I'll be the first to admit I'm not the one to evaluate Billups' play calling from a technical standpoint, as that isn't my area of expertise (it is for a lot of Twitter, though, apparently). The part of coaching that I do feel comfortable evaluating based on time spent around the team is getting and keeping buy-in from the locker room. I've seen what it looks like when players tune a coach out and stop playing hard for them, and I haven't seen that from this group. They're competing pretty consistently even in losses, and I haven't seen or heard much discontent from players with their roles or the style of play.
Billups certainly hasn't been perfect—he'd be the first to tell you that—and I get that coaching is always going to be the easiest thing for fans to point to as the thing that could be changed. But I haven't heard anything to suggest he's in any kind of danger, or that anyone whose voice matters in the organization has lost confidence in him. If the front office is able to make the kind of legitimate upgrades they've been promising this summer and the team still underachieves, it could be a different conversation at that point.
Why are the Blazers not signing a player off waivers? Having another center should help the team aiming for the playoffs…unless that’s not what they are aiming for…
I definitely agree that it wouldn't be the worst idea in the world to have another player taller than 6-foot-9 on the roster while Jusuf Nurkic remains out. They've been completely overmatched going against any kind of size since he went down.
I will say, though, that we as an NBA-consuming public tend to greatly overestimate the impact of buyout-market free agents. I'm old enough to remember it being "unfair to the league" that the Nets were able to land Blake Griffin on a minimum deal after he got a buyout from Detroit. Who was the last one of those guys that actually swung a playoff series? On the high end of impact, you're probably talking about Markieff Morris with the Lakers during the 2020 bubble title run. These guys are available essentially for free this time of year for a reason.
As for why the Blazers haven't signed anybody, I don't have a firm answer on that but after the trade deadline, they no longer have an open roster spot. They'd have to waive somebody to clear space, which they could do (after the trades, they're far enough under the luxury tax that they could eat a minimum salary like Ryan Arcidiacono and stay under), but my guess is they don't see anyone out there that really moves the needle. Most buyout guys don't.
Someone like Nerlens Noel (to use the name of the best available center on the market right now) would undoubtedly help the Blazers, but is he the difference between this team being maybe a play-in team and not? Probably not. They're going to end up where they end up regardless.
Wtf is Tristan at?? How about WTF is Justise Winslow at? I can’t remember the last update we’ve had for him. The team’s decline this season has weirdly coincided with his absence. I doubt his return to the court would fix all our issues but his defense, versatility and playmaking off the bench are all needed. What’s up with the lack of updates on his status (maybe I’ve missed something) - wtf is Justise at??
- Peter C.
You're right about one thing, Peter: the Blazers haven't been the same without Winslow. To me, if we're pinpointing the exact moment the season went sideways after the hot start, it was the back-to-back losses in Oklahoma City on the December road trip. And it just so happened that the second of those games was the one in which Winslow suffered a high ankle sprain. He hasn't played since.
As far as when or if he's going to return this season, I don't have anything concrete for you. He's been doing on-court work, running and jumping a little bit from what I've been able to see at practice, but as far as I know he hasn't started doing full-contact five-on-five scrimmaging, which would be the last step before he can play in a game.
I wish I had a better answer for you. High ankle sprains can be tricky. It's certainly not a great sign that it's been over two months and he hasn't started doing full-contact yet, but that's where he is.
What’s the team’s plan to make the Dame/Ant pairing feasible on defense? If the team is forced to choose between Ant and Shaedon in a move to get a player that moves the needle, who do you think they should move/would prefer to move and why?
- Josh S.
We saw at least some semblance of the plan defensively early in the season—surround those two with big, athletic, defensive-minded wings. As we mentioned above, things have kind of gone downhill since Winslow went out—he was a big part of that defensive construction.
Long-term, they probably need a more mobile and athletic starting center than Nurkic in order to build a good defense around Lillard and Simons, too.
As for choosing between Simons and Sharpe: I do believe that's a choice they will have to make at some point, maybe even as soon as this summer. And I think in an ideal world, they'd love the one they keep to be Sharpe. From a physical talent and upside standpoint, it's not even close, and Simons' salary is a lot easier to include in a trade for a star. But Sharpe has to show more than he has, in terms of being ready to play big minutes on a contending team on Lillard's timeline, for that to happen. Simons is more of a short-term sure thing. It's going to be interesting to see which way they ultimately go.