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What to make of Portland’s explanation for not hiring Becky Hammon

Are the Trail Blazers in damage control mode, or is there more to take from their unflattering comments?

NBA: Washington Wizards at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Something’s rotten in the state of Oregon, and it’s not the record heatwave. A jaunt to Twitter or sites like Blazers Edge show fans are not happy with the Portland Trail Blazers recent hire of Chauncey Billups as their new head coach, in no small part thanks to a tarnished past.

In 1997, he and former Boston Celtics teammate Ron Mercer were accused of sexually assaulting a woman in the home of Antoine Walker after leaving a comedy club. Although charges were never filed, they settled a civil suit with the victim as a medical examination supported her testimony. In this day and age, such acts are not easily forgiven, and they were brought up again when he was hired over Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon, even after rumors emerged that she was the preferred choice of Blazers owner Jody Allen.

If you asked me personally how I felt about the snub, my response would be while I’m sorry she has been passed up (yet again) for the opportunity to be the first female head coach in NBA history, the greedy person in me is glad she’ll likely be sticking around San Antonio and remain hopeful that she will someday be Gregg Popovich’s successor. I am also of the belief that the most qualified candidate should be hired for a job regardless of race, gender, religion, etc.

Portland’s goal right now is clearly to satisfy Damian Lillard, who reportedly is growing tired of first round exits and skeptical of the club’s ability to build a contender around him. The fact that Billups had Lillard’s endorsement seems like a good enough reason to hire him, so what can I say to disagree? I wasn’t there, I can’t claim to know enough to provide an opinion, and as a Spurs fan it almost comes natural to trust that the front office knows what it’s doing, even if they don’t let much behind-the-scenes information out. Because of that, I wasn’t planning on talking about their passing of Becky for the job . . . until now.

Possibly in response to the backlash they have received, it would seem the Blazers are letting their hiring process get leaked out, and it’s not so much their reasons for hiring Billups that’s getting Spurs fans’ goat as much as what they had to say about not hiring Becky. According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report:

Hammon impressed Portland officials and was generally liked among Blazers staffers, sources said. But when Portland reached out for intel from San Antonio figures, the background on Hammon was not nearly as complimentary pertaining to various aspects of day-to-day coaching responsibilities. That sentiment has been echoed by sources around the league. Blazers personnel then cast doubt that Hammon was the candidate to steer the ship through such delicate waters with Lillard.

Blazers chair Jody Allen was the strongest champion for Hammon, sources said. Allen was energized by the idea of hiring the first female head coach in NBA history, also evidenced by the team contacting South Carolina women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley.

That’s quite an unflattering statement, leaving a lot to unfold here. First of all, if this is true, did Portland not do a deep enough dive during the first interview before naming her a finalist and letting it be known that the owner was so high on her? That is quite a fall from grace and seemingly reflects more poorly on their coaching search team than Becky, but that’s just small stuff compared to the smear they put on her “coaching resume” itself. It’s honestly kind of hard to know what is even being implied here. They seem to be saying she hasn’t been given enough responsibility over the years to show she can handle a head coaching position.

To put it bluntly, that’s hard to believe. For one, she not only coached the 2015 Spurs Summer League team, but she led them to a championship, and mind you this was a group without any lottery picks or highly heralded players, just some end-of-the-first round picks, second rounders, and G League players. There’s also these words from former Spur Pau Gasol when he wrote about female coaches for the Player’s Tribune in 2018. Can anyone give a better account than someone she has coached and one of the most respected names around the league? Doubtful.

”I’ve played with some of the best players of this generation … and I’ve played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports, in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach. I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.”

Then there’s this: not only has she been working for Pop — a contender for GOAT coach — for seven years, but he is known for spreading the work around and putting different assistants in charge of different games, from scouting all the way to the team preparation for games in practice, the video room, and shootaround, and they are the lead assistant for those games. (That’s how Tim Duncan ended up coaching an NBA game before Becky did despite the huge gap in coaching experience: it just so happened to be the game Pop missed was one Duncan was in charge of.) That would mean that Becky has in fact done everything except sit in the head coaching chair at the opening whistle for many games over the years, which is a lot more than can be said for Billups’ one-season resume as an assistant coach. What more can you want from someone who hasn’t actually been a head coach before? Everyone has to start somewhere.

More so, if the problem with Becky’s “lack of experience” with day-to-day coaching responsibilities lies with how Pop spreads out the assistant coaching duties, perhaps he should be receiving more blame instead of Becky taking the unflattering smear here. Then again, if that is the case, why have so many of his assistants been hired before? While it’s admittedly been a few years since a Pop assistant was hired directly away as a head coach, “lack of head coaching experience” has not stopped other Pop disciples (or any other assistant coach who made their first jump to head coach) from being hired directly off the bench before, so why is it suddenly a problem for Becky?

Similar to what I said above about not passing judgement on Portland’s hiring of Billups, I can’t claim to have any more knowledge about how Pop runs the organization than what has been released to the media. That being said, I can’t help but feel like letting this unflattering information out on Becky is more of a coverup on Portland’s part than based in fact. That fact that they even felt the need to let the world know the logic behind their coaching hire process suggests they’re feeling the pressure for their decision and are now having to back it up. Otherwise, that statement discrediting Becky’s credentials as a coaching candidate would have been entirely unnecessary.

My only hope is if all this is untrue, the Spurs will come out publicly and condemn it, or at least back her up. Beyond that, like all Spurs fans, I’m just hoping she will stick around long enough to be the Spurs’ next head coach, and if I had to venture a wild guess, despite what other organizations believe, Pop will have her more than ready for the job.