The Portland Trail Blazers are instituting a new era under Chauncey Billups at a time when star guard Damian Lillard could be facing a career crossroads.
Billups takes the floor to coach the Trail Blazers for the first time on Wednesday night when the Sacramento Kings visit Portland.
It's great fortune to land your first coaching gig with one of the top players in the NBA on the roster. But rumors ran rampant most of the summer that Lillard has begun contemplating whether he needs to leave Portland to have a chance at winning an NBA title.
The six-time All-Star turned 31 in July and is well aware the franchise took steps backward over the past two seasons after topping 50 wins in three of the previous six seasons. His name was frequently mentioned in trade speculation.
But, shortly before training camp, Lillard signaled that he was all in for the 2021-22 season, which happens to be the first season of a four-year, $176 million extension that he signed in July 2019.
The Trail Blazers were a shaky defensive team under former coach Terry Stotts and ranked 23rd in scoring defense last season while allowing 114.3 points per game. Billups has vowed to have the team improve in that area, and Lillard is on board.
"We are not far off. We are not far off at all," said Lillard, who averaged 28.8 points last season. "It can look very bad, like it's no progress, because all it takes is one thing to (mess) it up. If one person is in this spot and the next person doesn't do their part where they can help this person, it's a breakdown. ...
"That's why we just have to get comfortable with it and get to where everybody is trusting what the next person is going to do."
The learning curve didn't equate to victories in the preseason as Portland went 0-4 and lost by an average of 23.8 points.
Billups was surprised with some of the bumpy occurrences in the preseason.
"Any time there's change, there's a period in there where it's going to take some adjusting to," Billups said. "It was a little bit up and down."
Sacramento experienced better results in the preseason by going 4-0 with an average winning margin of 11 points.
The Kings have gone 15 consecutive seasons without reaching the playoffs, so coach Luke Walton isn't about to project an end to the drought.
But he surely likes seeing progress.
"The regular season is a different beast," Walton told reporters. "We'll continue to evaluate how our team is playing and who is playing well together. ... We like what we've seen out of our guys so far."
Sacramento also was a poor defensive club last season, ranking 28th while allowing 117.4 points per game. Walton said the goal is to be a top-15 defense this season.
The Kings will again rely on point guard De'Aaron Fox, who averaged a career-best 25.2 points last season.
Entering his fifth season, Fox feels like he has shed the reputation of being more of an athlete than a shooter.
"I feel like, just as a person and as a player, my game has matured a lot," Fox said. "Obviously (I am) still working on the defensive side of the ball and still shooting the ball. But I feel like I've come a long way from just coming in and running fast."
The status of Kings big man Richaun Holmes (illness) isn't yet firmed up. Meanwhile, Trail Blazers swingman Tony Snell (foot) has been ruled out and could miss two more weeks after he experienced what Billups termed "a small setback."
Portland won all three of last season's meetings.
--Field Level Media
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