When the Portland Trail Blazers begin a new season Wednesday night, it truly can be classified as a fresh start.
With four-fifths of their starting core having departed, the Trail Blazers tip off a transitional 2015-16 campaign against a New Orleans Pelicans team whose most significant offseason change was made behind the bench.
LaMarcus Aldridge’s decision to sign with San Antonio set off a chain reaction of moves that left one of the Western Conference’s prime contenders over the past two seasons virtually unrecognizable save for All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. Sharpshooter Wesley Matthews (Dallas) and center Robin Lopez (New York Knicks) followed Aldridge out of town in free agency and versatile forward Nicolas Batum was traded to Charlotte, removing nearly half of the Blazers’ scoring and rebounding total from last year’s 51-31 season from the roster.
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Portland will now forge ahead behind Lillard (21.0 ppg, 6.2 apg), coming off perhaps the best of his three NBA seasons, and a slew of new faces that will comprise the league’s third-youngest team.
"Coming into this season, we’re going to be underdogs and people may disrespect us, people may look at us like we can’t compete with them," Lillard told the team’s official website. "We’ve got to take that to heart. We’ve got to be offended by that and we’ve got to play like it."
While general manager Neil Olshey did bring in a few established veterans in Gerald Henderson, Al-Farouq Aminu and big men Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis, more will be expected of emerging players such as guard C.J. McCollum and power forwards Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh, a 2014 first-round pick of Charlotte brought over with Henderson in the Batum deal.
Henderson won’t make his Blazers debut Wednesday, however, while still recovering from offseason hip surgery.
In contrast, New Orleans retained mostly the same group that ended the franchise’s three-year playoff drought by edging Oklahoma City for the West’s eighth seed. A 45-37 record and 11-game improvement still wasn’t enough to save coach Monty Williams’ job, with Golden State associate head coach Alvin Gentry taking over after helping the Warriors to a title run that began with a quarterfinal sweep of the Pelicans.
Gentry received his championship ring as New Orleans opened its season at his former employers on Tuesday, then watched Stephen Curry ring up 40 points through three quarters and lead the Warriors to a 111-95 win.
”Some of those shots that Steph made, it doesn’t matter who’s out there, that’s just who he is,” Gentry said.
The Warriors also did a superb defensive job on Anthony Davis, holding the Pelicans’ star to 4 for 20 shooting and six rebounds while allowing 10 of his 18 points on free throws.
Gentry’s debut did come with his team down to nine players, with Tyreke Evans (knee surgery), Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik (calf) and Quincy Pondexter (knee) among those held out.
Holiday, limited to 40 games last season by a stress reaction in his leg, is slated to play Wednesday but hasn’t yet been cleared to participate in back-to-back contests.
The point guard will attempt to help New Orleans to its first win in Portland since Nov. 26, 2010. The Pelicans have lost eight consecutive games there and five straight overall in the series, including all three 2014-15 meetings.