Chauncey Billups knows it's unrealistic for his team to get much more efficient offensively.
The Trail Blazers' 117.1 offensive rating last season wasn't just a hair less than the Brooklyn Nets' for best in the NBA, but the second-highest single-season mark of all time. That incredible level of success wasn't even much of an outlier for Damian Lillard and company, either. It was Portland's third season straight season finishing top-three in offensive efficiency.
Obviously, Billups doesn't need to reinvent the wheel for the Blazers on that side of the ball. The improvement he seeks is all about process, adding a palpable sense of versatility and variability to an elite offense that's often been too predictable in the playoffs.
Every tenet of modern offense Billups has preached goes toward accomplishing that goal. But an overall emphasis on ball and player movement, downhill attacking and consistent pace won't be enough for Portland alone, at least if the goal is still a championship. Flexibility at basketball's absolute highest level is more about personnel than playing style, and the Blazers' decision to run it back absent a single significant addition to the roster still leaves them lacking it in one major way.
Does this team have the personnel to play small at all, let alone when its hand is forced?
Lineups featuring Robert Covington and either Derrick Jones Jr., Nassir Little or Tony Snell up front will no doubt see the floor throughout the regular season. Portland hemorrhaged points with Covington at nominal center last season, posting a 125.1 defensive rating over a fairly significant sample size, per Cleaning the Glass. But they nearly made it up for it on the other end, and Billups surely believes his much-discussed edict about commitment defensively will have even the Blazers' most physically challenged lineups playing a bit stouter.
The problem is those units will be the best Portland can do when circumstances of time, score or opponent—during the regular season but more importantly, the playoffs—call for Billups to downsize.
Just the presence of Lillard and McCollum starts the Blazers from a position of weakness defensively. Their collective size creates inevitable problems to which there are only so many answers. One of them is surrounding Lillard and McCollum with rangy, athletic wings who check multiple positions and make an impact away from the ball, but those players are increasingly expensive and en vogue.
Another is protecting them with an all-court terror at center, the rare big man as adept at protecting the rim as he is switching onto ball handlers. Jusuf Nurkic is sorely underrated on defense outside Rip City, and Cody Zeller represents a massive upgrade off the bench compared to Enes Kanter. Just like Lillard and McCollum, though, both possess physical traits that limit their scheme versatility.
Terry Stotts took tons of local flak for his vanilla defensive style and reluctance to make in-game or even mid-season adjustments. But just how aggressive and malleable can a defense deploying two undersized, offense-first guards and a non-switchable seven-footer really get?
Portland found out to an extent in the 2019 Western Conference Finals. Nurkic wasn't much better equipped to handle Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and the Golden State Warriors—playing without Kevin Durant, remember—than Enes Kanter or Meyers Leonard. The Blazers, even starting the defensive-minded Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, wouldn't have been stingy enough to dethrone Golden State if Nurkic was healthy.
Portland's flexibility, or lack thereof, isn't a new problem. The issue now is the Blazers have a coach whose two-way playing preferences will at least occasionally hinge on it being available.
Maybe Billups' talk about newfound offensive continuity and dedication to defense deflects from Portland's biggest roster hole during the regular season. But come playoff time, when the likes of Draymond Green or Anthony Davis slide down to center, that looming deficiency is bound to come back to the fore, and it would shock if even the Blazers' best efforts will be able to stifle it.