Offseason trip builds bond among young Blazers
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) With all the upheaval in Portland, guard Damian Lillard thought maybe the best thing for the Trail Blazers would be a vacation. Together.
Things had changed dramatically in the offseason for the Blazers, with the departure of starters LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez. Portland acquired 11 new players via free agency and trades.
Lillard thought it would be good to get all the new faces on the roster together to work out, but moreover, just to get to know each other. So, with the input of fellow guard CJ McCollum, he put together a group getaway to San Diego.
Nearly a half-dozen of the new teammates worked out for a week early last month at San Diego State, but also got in some beach time and even went to a Padres game. Mostly it was about bonding.
Only six of the 17 players on Portland’s preseason roster were on the team last season. And, with an average age of 25.3, the Blazers are the third-youngest team in the league. Only two players have more than five years of NBA experience.
”It showed that everybody was on the same page as far as the opportunity that’s been placed in front of us,” Lillard said.
The trip also solidified Lillard’s role as the leader of the team. The All-Star was also among the players who joined in daily workouts at the team’s practice facility three weeks before the start of fall training camp.
”We worked out, we played, we’d sit around there we’d talk, things like that,” Lillard said. ”We had a great amount of time where we got to know each other, and that was huge.”
Last season, Portland finished 51-31 and claimed the Northwest Division title. But the Blazers struggled after losing Matthews to a ruptured Achilles, and the team couldn’t overcome the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.
Lillard, who signed a five-year, $120 million extension with the Blazers in the offseason, averaged a career-high 21 points, 6.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds last season. Now, he’s the only sure starter on the roster.
He’s joined by McCollum, who emerged in the playoffs last season in Matthews’ absence, averaging 17 points and four rebounds, including a career-high 33 points in Game 5. Also looking to have an increased role is 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard, who made seven starts for Portland last season and appeared in all five playoff games.
Among the newcomers is 6-foot-11 Mason Plumlee, who spent his first two NBA seasons with the Brooklyn Nets. He was acquired, along with the draft rights to rookie Pat Connaughton, from the Nets in a deal that sent guard Steve Blake to Brooklyn.
The most veteran of the newcomers is Gerald Henderson, who has six years in the league but is still recovering from hip surgery, and forward Ed Davis, who has played for the Lakers, Toronto and Memphis over five NBA seasons. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu also signed as a free agent after five seasons with several teams.
Other new arrivals include forwards Noah Vonleh and Maurice Harkless, and guard Tim Frazier.
”I think everybody’s aware of what people are saying (about the Blazers),” McCollum said. ”But that doesn’t really matter, it’s more about us coming out and working. I think everybody has a bit of a chip on their shoulder, whether it’s a contact year or guys being traded, and they feel like they should be playing, or like this is their chance.”
After the bonding trip to San Diego, the Blazers returned to Portland for daily workouts at the team’s practice facility – three weeks before the opening of training camp.
The Blazers played their opening preseason game on Monday night, falling 109-105 in overtime to the Sacramento Kings. Lillard finished with 17 points and there were several promising signs, like Vonleh’s 12 points and 11 rebounds, and Harkless making 5-of-6 shots from the floor and finishing with 14 points off the bench.
”It’s still going to take us time to get to know each other. It’s going to take more than a week in San Diego, or getting here early before camp” Lillard said. ”It’s going to take more than that. Being out together in the preseason, we’ll learn more about each other. … I think it’s about the growth, the process.”