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Portland Trail Blazers Fail Transparency Test with Chauncey Billups Hire

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2021

The hiring of Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups, left, has come under fire this week. Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, right, has overseen the hiring process.
The hiring of Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups, left, has come under fire this week. Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, right, has overseen the hiring process.Associated Press

TUALATIN, Ore. — The day Neil Olshey introduced his newly hand-picked head coach was supposed to be triumphant. But the decision to name Chauncey Billups the next coach of the Portland Trail Blazers has been shrouded in controversy, and Olshey spent a lot of Tuesday asking people to take his word for things.

It's a benefit of the doubt he hasn't earned and has made no case for earning over a disastrous past two weeks.

Olshey started off the team's first in-person press conference in almost 18 months by addressing the 1997 rape allegation Billups and then-Celtics teammate Ron Mercer settled out of court in 2000.

"With all sincerity, and you have my word," Olshey began. "... We took the allegations very seriously and we treated them with the gravity that they deserve."

Olshey said the team commissioned an independent investigation into the allegation, which he says "corroborated Chauncey's recollection of the events, that nothing non-consensual happened."

When I asked for basic details about their investigation—what firm the team hired, who they talked to, what specific information led them to feel comfortable hiring Billups—Olshey said it was "proprietary."

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"You're just going to have to take our word that we hired an experienced firm that ran an investigation that gave us the results we already discussed."

See the full press conference here:

Shortly afterward, after Billups addressed what happened in 1997 in his opening comments and talked about how it "shaped his life," another reporter asked Billups a follow-up question about what he'd learned in the 24 years since and was shut down by the moderator.

These were questions Olshey and Billups should have been expecting, that they should have been prepared to answer with more introspection than what was on display Tuesday.

It marked the unsatisfying conclusion to a coaching search that from the beginning has been messy and fraught.

There was Damian Lillard's failed power play in the form of a public endorsement of Jason Kidd, which the superstar point guard almost immediately softened following widespread public backlash. (Kidd later withdrew his name from the running.)

Then there was the very public candidacy of Becky Hammon, who was backed by team governor Jody Allen and received plenty of attention for being the first woman to advance to the final stages of the interview process for an NBA head coaching job. (Asked about Hammon on Tuesday, Olshey praised her interview and called her advancing to the final round "an endorsement.")

In early June, Olshey said the search would include "20 to 25 names." In the end, he went with the one he wanted to hire all along, going back to Terry Stotts' firing.

The 1997 lawsuit against Billups—the details of which are pretty ugly, if you want to read them—resurfaced on social media in May, when the 17-year NBA veteran and former Finals MVP was linked to head coaching openings including Portland.

It lingered on the periphery as a concern for some fans, and then moved into sharper focus when Billups accepted the job late last week. The conversation around the team considering a female candidate and then hiring someone with this allegation in his past became impossible to ignore.

Responding to fan concerns about both Billups and Kidd, Lillard tweeted he was unaware of their histories during the coaching search. He later posted an Instagram message that read, "Your greatest test will be how you handle people who mishandled you." A report from Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes over the weekend suggested tweets from fans calling out Lillard's role in Billups' hiring could, in part, drive him to request a trade from Portland.

Will the poorly handled hiring process have any impact on Lillard's short-term or long-term plans to stay in Portland? Only he knows. But his name is now definitively tied to the backlash in unshakeable ways.

"There were definitely people that had a bigger body of work, more things we could point to and we interviewed some of them," Olshey said Tuesday. "I think we were looking for somebody that I know has natural gravitas, leadership skills. Someone with a history on the defensive end of the floor. And we were willing to bet on the upside, quite honestly, instead of kind of knowing the known."

That belief in Billups, which Olshey later pointed to as a reason he gave a first-time head coach a five-year deal, is apparently strong enough to supersede any concern for the firestorm he created. But if Olshey believes in him that much, why did the moderator prevent Billups from answering the follow-up question? And if they didn't feel comfortable letting him answer a question at a press conference, why did they feel comfortable offering him the job in the first place?

Relitigating the details of a nearly 25-year-old settled lawsuit is beside the point, and neither is it the place of reporters and outside observers to decide whether someone with this sort of allegation should be allowed to be a head coach in the NBA. But with so many qualified names out there—not just Hammon and Mike D'Antoni, but dozens of others who could have received more consideration—Olshey could easily have avoided this mess if he was less dead-set on hiring Billups and only Billups.

What's left is a situation nobody's happy with that will only grow more toxic if things continue as they are. In pushing through his desired coaching hire despite very real concerns about Billups' background, Olshey has alienated a sizable portion of the team's fanbase, not to mention some employees. With Lillard taking the brunt of the public outcry for a hire that was ultimately his, Olshey has given the franchise player a convenient reason to want out.

This is going to hang over the organization for months to come unless something gives—Olshey reverses course and pulls the plug on Billups, or ownership pulls the plug on Olshey, or Lillard pulls the plug on his often-stated desire to play his whole career in Portland. As it stands, the latter option is the one that appears likely.

Asked about Lillard's future, Olshey insisted the two of them talk "all the time" and that Lillard has told the organization that he "wants to retire a Trail Blazer."

The unspoken part: You're just going to have to take his word for it.

But the broken process that led to the Billups hire, the complete lack of transparency about the team's investigation and the total misreading of fan and community reaction makes it hard to take his word for much of anything.

     

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.

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