Expectations high for stable Trail Blazers
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Among the themes for the Portland Trail Blazers this season is to embrace the idea they belong with the elite teams in the West.
The Blazers exceeded expectations last year by winning 54 games and advancing to the second round of the playoffs, where they fell to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.
The Blazers return nearly the entire roster from that team, including All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, and fellow starters Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez. The team addressed needs in the offseason with the acquisition of center Chris Kaman and the return of guard Steve Blake.
Portland’s stability is a big reason why most onlookers don’t see last season as a fluke. Now the Blazers need to believe that, too.
“There are clearly high expectations and we need to start acting like an elite basketball team and I think the guys get that,” general manager Neil Olshey said.
Lillard echoed the sentiment on Monday when the Blazers held their annual media day before the start of training camp.
“People expect us to be a good team because of what happened last year,” Lillard said. “We need to expect that of ourselves.”
The Blazers exercised their fourth-year option on Lillard, who made the All-Star team his second year in the league last season. Lillard averaged 20.7 points and 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds.
His celebrity really took off because of The Shot — his last-second 3-pointer that gave the Blazers a Game 6 victory over the Houston Rockets and sent the team to the conference semifinals for the first time since 2000.
Lillard will be backed up by Blake, who is embarking on his third stint with the Blazers after Mo Williams’ departure. Williams, a free agent, landed with Minnesota.
Blake, who became a fan favorite during his first two stints in Portland and kept a home in the area, signed a two-year deal with the Blazers this summer. Last season he averaged 6.9 points and 5.6 assists, splitting the season between the Lakers and Warriors.
The Blazers also brought in Kaman, a burly 7-footer who has averaged 11.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks over an 11-year NBA career. He will back up Robin Lopez.
Both Lopez and Kaman will provide the levity in the Blazers locker room. Both are known for their quirky humor, although Lopez joked that the two big men are on “opposite ends of the crazy spectrum.”
Coach Terry Stotts suggested that he may look for ways to get Lopez and Kaman on the floor at the same time. Olshey said the addition of Kaman means that Aldridge will always have a 7-footer on the floor with him.
“They chose to be here,” Olshey said of the summer additions. “They had multiple options. They believed in what we’re doing.”
Aldridge reiterated that he plans to re-sign with the Blazers next summer when he can command more money and a longer-term deal. Olshey and team owner Paul Allen visited with Aldridge and his agent this summer to pledge the team’s commitment to the three-time All-Star.
Aldridge had career highs with an average of 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds last season with Portland, his eighth with the team.
Last year, the Blazers were considered an iffy pick to even get to the playoffs, let alone make it past the first round. But Portland opened 24-5 to rise to the top of the Western Conference standings.
The Blazers had a rough March, but won nine of their last 10 games to clinch the West’s fifth seed in the playoffs. Once there, the Blazers dispatched the Rockets with Lillard’s 3-pointer but fell to the Spurs in five games.
Portland bettered its record by 21 wins over the previous season for the biggest turnaround in franchise history.
The Blazers start workouts for this season on Wednesday. They open the preseason on Oct. 7 at Utah, and the regular-season opener is on Oct. 29 when Portland hosts Oklahoma City.
“I definitely feel like we can be one of the top teams in the league,” Aldridge said. “It starts tomorrow.”