New kids in town: Young Blazers hope to compete
The Portland Trail Blazers' theme for this season is ''New Dream. New Team.''
After a major makeover, the team certainly looks new. But it might be a few years before the dream becomes reality.
The most familiar faces on the team, All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, French forward Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews will be surrounded by a young, largely untested cast, including first-round draft picks Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard.
''Emerging, I think is the word,'' new general manager Neil Olshey said when he was asked to describe his team. ''I think we're further ahead of a lot of teams that you might consider in a youth movement.''
Portland's overhaul started before last season ended with a 28-38 thud. The team let go of longtime and well-liked coach Nate McMillan, vets Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby were dealt in trade deadline deals and often-injured former No. 1 draft pick Greg Oden was finally waived.
The rebuilding began in earnest over the summer when the team hired Olshey after operating for a year under interim GM Chad Buchanan, the team's director of college scouting. Olshey spent nine years at the Los Angeles Clippers, building a team that went to the second round of the playoffs last season with All-Stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
In the draft, Portland landed Lillard out of Weber State with the sixth overall pick, and 7-foot-1 center Leonard out of Illinois with the 11th selection. The Blazers also acquired promising guard Will Barton with the 40th overall pick.
Portland made a play for 7-foot-2 restricted free-agent center Roy Hibbert, but the Indiana Pacers matched. The Blazers also got into a poker match with the Timberwolves over Batum, eventually matching Minnesota's four-year offer sheet worth more than $45 million for the 23-year-old.
Portland's next move was to hire head coach Terry Stotts, who was 115-168 as coach of the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks but spent the past four seasons as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, where he won a championship.
Stotts said it's not about wins and losses for the young Blazers.
''Like everybody, I'm going to judge this team by the way it competes. That's one of the things that players, coaches, fans and anybody who follows the NBA (will see), the team is going to compete every night. If you're showing improvement, if you show that the team is going in the direction, it's playing a style of play that fans enjoy, that the players enjoy, that takes care of itself.
''The wins and losses at the end of the season we'll evaluate but my number one concern is how the team competes every night.''
Aldridge, still young at 27, is charged with guiding the team on the court. He showed leadership this season when he gathered the players for pre-camp workouts in Portland.
He's be working closely with Lillard, whom Olshey has labeled the team's franchise point guard. The sixth overall pick in the NBA draft, Lillard averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds and four assists as a junior last season at Weber State.
The 6-foot-3 rookie was impressive in the NBA Summer League, averaging 26.5 points, 5.3 assists and four rebounds in four games. In the preseason, he was among the top rookie scorers.
''He's a confident, poised young man. He'll have some bumps along the way but he's going to have the ball in his hands a lot,'' Stotts said. ''My expectation is that he's going to be very good opening night and he's going to continue to get better.''
In addition to Aldridge and Lillard, the Blazers are likely to start Batum, Matthews and J.J. Hickson, at least at the outset. Leonard will likely need more seasoning. Other newcomers to the roster include Victor Claver and Joel Freeland, former Portland draft picks who were brought over from Europe.
A lot is expected of Batum, especially after the Blazers fought to keep him from the Timberwolves. Batum averaged career highs with 13.9 points and 4.6 rebounds last season.
Batum admits he was angry with himself last season when the Blazers didn't get to the playoffs. This season he vowed to make more of an impact.
''You'll see,'' he said. ''I'm ready to face the challenge. I'll be there every night.''
Olshey believes Batum - as well as Aldridge and Matthews - will look just as ''new'' as the new guys.
''I think the process is further along than people believe because you guys are looking at Nic and Wes and LaMarcus as guys that have been here. I'm looking at them as completely new players based on the offense we're going to run, the coaching staff we're going to have, the system we'll have. I think they are going to flourish,'' Olshey said.
The Blazers open the season on Oct. 31 at home against the Los Angeles Lakers.