Lillard leads Trail Blazers into opener vs. Jazz

BY foxsports • October 24, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Damian Lillard has big plans for the 2016-17 NBA season -- for himself and the Portland Trail Blazers.

"I want to get to the Western Conference finals and give ourselves a chance to get to the (NBA) Finals," said Lillard, who leads the Trail Blazers into action Tuesday night against the Utah Jazz at the Moda Center in the regular-season opener for both teams. "I think it's possible."

Lillard's personal goal entering the season?

"MVP," he said. "I want to be the MVP. If we come out and do the things we're capable of doing as a team, if we win games, that means my performance will be at the level of an MVP."

There are people in high places who aren't scoffing at the possibility. In Oakland, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was asked about Kevin Durant's chances to claim the MVP Award in his first season with the Warriors.

"I think K.D. is kind of like Gary Johnson -- a third-party guy who is going to come in and take a few votes from Steph (Curry), takes some from LeBron (James), and then Damian Lillard wins the election," Kerr told Bay Area reporters. "That's my forecast."

Lillard, 26, had his best season in 2015-16, gaining second-team All-NBA honors for the first time. The two-time All-Star point guard finished eighth in MVP balloting, joining James, Curry and Russell Westbrook as the only players to place among the league's top 10 in scoring (25.1, sixth) and assists (6.8, eighth) during the regular season.

After finishing fourth in the Western Conference with a 44-38 record and advancing to the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated by the Warriors, the Blazers have reason to believe they can make a deeper run this season.

Except for reserve guard Gerald Henderson, they retain all the key components of the 2015-16 team. And they have added free-agent Evan Turner, who finished fifth in the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award balloting while with the Boston Celtics a year ago.

Portland has one of the NBA's deepest rosters. Lillard and CJ McCollum will start in the backcourt, flanked by Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee on the front line. The rotation to start the season is expected to include Turner, forward Meyers Leonard and swing man Allen Crabbe, plus perhaps forward Noah Vonleh and/or point guard Shabazz Napier.

Utah expects to show improvement, too, after barely missing the playoffs last season, finishing ninth in the West with a 40-42 record. The Jazz made three veteran offseason acquisitions -- point guard George Hill, swingman Joe Johnson and power forward Boris Diaw -- to a young nucleus that includes front-liners Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert.

"We get something from all three," shooting guard Rodney Hood told the Deseret News. "With Boris, his passing ability, his knowledge of the game. He's always teaching us little things here and there to make things easier. With George, pushing the pace, being a leader ... you're always hearing his voice. With Joe, he's always in my ear telling me little things I can do to make the game easier. All three have helped a lot. It's more than just the physical things."

The Jazz come to Portland with a decidedly short cast. Hayward, their best player, will miss the game with a left ring finger that was broken three weeks ago. Reserve guard Alec Burks, and probably Favors, will miss the game with knee issues.

That means Diaw and Johnson will likely team with Gobert on the front line in a Utah starting lineup that will include Hill and Hood in the backcourt.

Utah has being forecast to finish as high as fifth in the West.

"We're a little bit of a fashionable pick," third-year coach Quin Snyder said. "But that was with Gordon and Derrick and Alec."

Guards Dante Exum and Shelvin Mack and forwards Trey Lyles and Joe Ingles are among those who will come off the bench for the Jazz.

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