A championship is an unrealistic goal, but give these Blazers a chance
By Grant Lucas
PORTLAND — Players spoke calmly. Confidently. With feeling.
Only six players are back from last season’s Portland Trail Blazers playoff team. Eleven new faces were in town Tuesday for the first day of training camp.
The Blazers, 51-31 last season, lost four starters, including leading scorer and franchise rebounding record-holder LaMarcus Aldridge. Of the 17 players on Portland’s training camp roster, four are rookies and nine others have been in the NBA no more than three years.
Naturally, Blazers fans are anxious about the 2015-16 season, prepared to write it off as a rebuilding year.
Yet there was no apparent unease among Portland players, Blazers coach Terry Stotts or team president of basketball operations Neil Olshey at the Trail Blazers’ media day Monday.
At Moda Center, talk was only about excitement. About a fresh start.
There was only optimism in a time of what would otherwise be turmoil, and a chance to take advantage of a season in which there are few — if any — expectations of a Portland franchise that has reached the playoffs five of the last seven years.
No stress. No pressure. Perhaps to a fault.
Olshey emphatically noted how all 30 teams in the league have the same goal: make the playoffs. He added it would be a goal for the Blazers “as long as it was realistic.”
Is it, though?
After being eliminated in the first round of last season’s playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies, the Trail Blazers’ identity was stripped. Aldridge to San Antonio. Nicolas Batum to Charlotte. Wesley Matthews to Dallas. And so on. Four starting spots have been vacated. More than 60 percent of Portland’s offensive production from 2014-15 is gone.
Also consider that last season, of the 12 current Blazers not named Lillard, only one (Gerald Henderson) averaged more than 10 points per game. And of the other 11, only two (Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee) finished with more than eight points per contest.
And a host of uncertainties remain. For the first time in his four-year tenure with Portland, Stotts has no inclination as to who will join Lillard in the starting lineup. Although all players on the training camp roster have worked out and played pickup games with each other for nearly a month, nobody knows yet what each player’s role is, nor are they familiar with Stotts’ system.
But those unknowns do not dampen the team mood. Not yet, anyway. For now, expect the Trail Blazers’ training camp to be intense, players competing for those starting jobs and other roles — which is all you can ask for at this point.
“The bottom line is guys are going after each other,” Lillard said. “Everybody’s getting it, everybody’s attacking, guys playing hard. That’s what you want to see, guys out there who are just showing that hunger and that passion for something to prove, trying to show what they can do for the team.”
That was the Blazers’ tone on Monday and Tuesday. No stressing. No anxiety. Only confidence and excitement. A fresh start — for a leader like Lillard, the fourth-year guard who turned 25 over the summer and celebrated with a five-year, $120 million contract extension (the richest in franchise history) to solidify himself as the sole face of the franchise. And a fresh start, too, for a rookie such as forward Pat Connaughton, and for trade acquisitions like guard Gerald Henderson and forward Moe Harkless.
“It’s really exciting just having a bunch of the young guys coming together, some guys that didn’t get an opportunity — like me in Charlotte and Moe in Orlando and a couple guys who were on the team last year that didn’t get an opportunity,” said forward Noah Vonleh, whom Portland acquired from the Charlotte Hornets during the offseason. “Everybody’s hungry and real excited to go out there and try to make a name for themselves in this league.”
There was little talk about what had been accomplished in years past. Few discussions about what happened during the offseason — save for a joking Stotts, sitting among media members, opening the press conference with a question for Olshey: “Why didn’t you sign LaMarcus?”
Though Olshey did not say it directly — nor did any player or coach — it seemed clear that the Blazers have their sights set on another playoff appearance.
Perhaps there is naivete clouding their judgment. Maybe they are simply making chicken salad out of scraps. But Stotts and his squad never shied away Monday from referring to the postseason as a goal.
Realistic? Probably not — not in the rugged Western Conference. Miracles can happen, however. And the commitment Lillard has seen from his teammates in the last month, including a weeklong trip to San Diego followed by voluntary workouts and scrimmages back in Portland, has his head raised high and Olshey believing the Blazers are “further ahead of the curve than we could expect to be with the number of new players that we have.”
“It just showed that everybody was on the same page as far as the opportunity that’s been placed in front of us,” Lillard said. “I think we established that, with how many guys who decided to show up when we didn’t have to, the amount of time we spend around each other that we didn’t have to, guys coming to the gym the past few weeks and work out and play and we sit there and we talk, things like that. We’ve had a great amount of time where we got to know each other a little bit, and that was huge for us.”
Lillard has made a smooth transition into the primary leadership role — a transition he downplays. But Stotts and Olshey consistently noted how the All-Star guard and fellow returning players C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe have laid the foundation for an environment that resulted in trips to the postseason appearances each of the last two years and Portland’s first outright Northwest Division title last season.
But what do these Blazers have to offer, aside from perhaps the most dynamic point guard this side of Stephen Curry? Leonard as a 3-point-shooting stretch forward? McCollum as a secondary scorer? Henderson as the wily veteran and Harkless as a surprising athlete? Is that enough to thrive in the West, especially with so many new faces unfamiliar with the Blazers’ culture Olshey and Stotts so frequently talked about over the last two days?
“You aren’t trying to integrate one or two people,” said Blazers center Mason Plumlee, in his first season with Portland after being traded from the Brooklyn Nets. “Everybody’s new, so we’re all going to have to work together. If something goes wrong or right, you can’t just point to one person and have them be the fall guy. We’re all collectively responsible for making this work.”
“We have a new team, a young team,” added forward Ed Davis, a free-agent signing over the summer. “We have a lot to prove, so it’s going to be a fun year. We have a lot of guys that are trying to prove themselves, me included.”
Perhaps the Blazers know something we don’t. Maybe the uncertainties provide a smoke screen obscuring any accurate projection of this young team’s potential. I spent only two days with them. They have been together for nearly a full month — traveling, working out and scrimmaging together.
“I feel confident,” Plumlee said. “I’ve already read some other people’s expectations for our team. I think we’ll have our own internal expectations, and I think that’s what we’ll go by. But as far as what other people are expecting, yeah, I think we’ll surprise people.”