• The Blazers tried to thread the needle right to the very end of the Damian Lillard era, re-signing Jerami Grant to signal another year of attempted competition, only to hang onto the No. 3 pick in the draft rather than flip it for win-now help. Lillard requested a trade shortly thereafter and the Blazers were off and running on a new chapter for the organization. They assembled a collection of legitimate NBA talent, but not in a way where the pieces all fit together in a functional way. Still, the Blazers at least have a real direction now, and that’s not nothing.

    How’d It Go?

    The Blazers finally ripped the band-aid off, trading Damian Lillard after holding firm and using the third pick in the draft on Scoot Henderson, who slots in as Lillard’s heir apparent. Of course, that already happened after the team forked over a ton of money to Jerami Grant, not that he’s ever been upset about taking a ton of shots even if his team is bad. The teardown continued as the Blazers swapped Jusuf Nurkic to take a chance on Deandre Ayton, while they flipped Jrue Holiday to Boston for Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon. The Blazers were totally remade, and not bereft of talent.

    Set to build around Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons, the Blazers had a timeshare on their hands, with Brogdon’s addition further muddying the waters. It wasn’t a bad problem to have considering all four are starting-caliber (or at least will be, in Henderson’s case), with enough variety in their skill sets to see how a four-man split could function even if it wouldn’t let anyone shine. Injuries eased the burden immediately as Simons got hurt on opening night and missed a full month, with Henderson and Sharpe missing significant time not too far down the line. Brogdon would also get hurt, and while the absences allowed different players to step into the spotlight at times, it also meant limited reps for the team’s core guys together, and limited reps in functional lineups whenever Brogdon or Simons was out.

    Up front, Ayton wasn’t exactly unleashed despite getting out of Phoenix. He started off slowly and didn’t grab the bull by the horns until other regulars were dropping like flies, looking like the same passive-but-talented guy that frustrated Suns fans. Ayton did heat up as the season wound down, in his defense, but it would’ve been nice if he delivered like that when the games actually mattered.

    The Blazers were a longshot for a Play-In spot and their direction was confirmed by a 3-11 start. It would’ve been nice if the team got more intel about how all of the pieces fit together, and Henderson in particular hit some bumps in the road, but a lot of losses and a long run of silly season was the general expectation.

    Coaching

    You have to feel for Billups in a certain capacity; he’s handling a job that he didn’t sign up for. Billups was supposed to lead a Lillard-led squad over the hump, but injuries and questionable roster-building let to the end of that era. Now he’s stuck covering a rebuild — and yes, for all the NBA-level talent that Portland brought in/retained over the summer, they are most definitely rebuilding — and the numbers reflect the rough ride it has been. Billups has a record of 81-165 through three seasons, with 86 Lillard games in that span. Things haven’t gone well, but the scope of Billups’ job has shifted significantly.

    It doesn’t feel like he’ll be around for the long haul, but the Blazers may not have a ton to gain by moving on this summer. Touted as a strong communicator, Billups does seem to have the support of his players, but their development is now the main criteria for his job evaluation. Systems-wise, the Blazers haven’t been strong, and they no longer have an all-world player to build a system around. If they do make a move, the team will likely be settling for another unproven coach who is looking to get his foot in the door, and a new voice is not going to keep this squad from losing a ton of games. If the next hire fails, the Blazers will be running the risk of giving Henderson (and Sharpe) three coaches in their first five/six years, which is rarely an environment that breeds success.

    You could also argue that keeping Billups’ voice installed for a fourth straight losing season won’t help anyone either, and perhaps the young players’ development is best served by a coach who outwardly has a better grip on Xs and Os. It’s safe to say that Billups hasn’t done a great job here, but how harsh you want to be will depend on how much you weigh the shifting goalposts. He might not be the problem but the writing is on the wall in that he won’t be part of the eventual solution, either.

    The Players

    Deandre Ayton
    C, Portland Trail Blazers
    SeasonTeamGPGSMPG FGMFGAFG% FTMFTAFT% 3PTM3PTA3PT% PTSREBAST STLBLKTO
    23-24 POR 55 55 32.4 7.8 13.6 57.0 1.2 1.4 82.3 0.0 0.2 10.0 16.7 11.1 1.6 1.0 0.8 1.8
    22-23 PHO 67 67 30.4 7.8 13.2 58.9 2.3 3.0 76.0 0.1 0.4 29.2 18.0 10.0 1.7 0.6 0.8 1.8
    21-22 PHO 58 58 29.5 7.6 12.0 63.4 1.8 2.4 74.6 0.1 0.3 36.8 17.2 10.2 1.4 0.7 0.7 1.6

    ADP: 49.3/68.3 (Yahoo/ESPN) | Total Value: 97/87 (8/9-cat) | Per-Game Value: 43/40 (8/9-cat)

    Ayton was finally moved by the Suns, where his lackadaisical effort and status as the coaching staff’s favorite scapegoat made things untenable to say the least. The hope was that the former No. 1 overall pick would take on a primary scoring role for a team that was set to retool, at long last allowed to log heavy minutes and take the shots to match. Ayton… was more or less the same guy he’s been in recent seasons, though he did climb the rankings a bit thanks to overall increases in rebounds and free throw percentage despite a disappointing dip in scoring.

    The Blazers were tanking it up but Ayton outlasted most of the other regulars, and managers who were able to tread water for most of the season with Ayton doing his so-so act got rewarded handsomely. Ayton was dominant down the stretch, landing as a top-15 player from the trade deadline onward, even sporting first-round value for a multi-week stretch. Now the big question is whether Ayton can hit those levels or if his numbers were simply a product of being the last NBA-caliber scorer available on a tanking team playing exclusively meaningless games. His reputation suggests more of the latter than the former, but you never know.

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