Lillard excited about the unknown as Blazers reboot
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - About the only thing that will feel familiar this season about the Portland Trail Blazers is Damian Lillard.
The All-Star guard is the only starter left after the dramatic departures of forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, center Robin Lopez and guard Wesley Matthews.
With that group, the Blazers went into last season expecting to vie for the NBA championship. Without them, this season is considered a rebuilding year.
In that sense, it's like the pressure is off, Lillard said: ''What excites me is that nothing is expected.''
Aldridge was a free agent who signed a four-year, $80 million contract with the San Antonio Spurs this summer. The departure marked the end of an era for the Blazers, who had traded to get him in 2006 after he was the second-overall pick in the draft.
Aldridge left a legacy in his nine seasons in Portland, leaving as the franchise's second-best scorer behind Clyde Drexler and the all-time rebounding leader.
Matthews, also a free agent, went to the Dallas Mavericks. Over his five seasons in Portland, Matthews became the heart and soul of the team, and when he ruptured his Achilles before the playoffs last season the Blazers struggled to replace him.
Batum, who played for seven seasons in Portland, was traded in June to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for guard Gerald Henderson Jr. and forward Noah Vonleh. And Lopez signed with the New York Knicks as a free agent.
''It's very different,'' guard C.J. McCollum said on Monday during media day to open fall camp, in perhaps the understatement of the day.
Portland was hit with injuries last season, including Matthews' Achilles, and still finished 51-31 and claimed the Northwest Division title. But the team couldn't overcome the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, falling in five games.
This season's team - and many to come - will obviously be built around Lillard, who signed a five-year, $120 million contract with Portland in the offseason. The two-time All-Star starting his fourth year averaged a career-high 21 points, 6.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds last season.
McCollum, who emerged in the playoffs last season in Matthews' absence, could likely have a big role. He averaged 17 points and four rebounds in the postseason, including a career-high 33 points in Game 5.
''I'm going to get more looks, I'm going to get more opportunities,'' McCollum said. ''It's just a matter of taking advantage of it.''
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.
Leonard emerged as a surprising 3-point threat and came off the bench for a double-double (13 points, 13 rebounds) against Memphis in Game 4.
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 Henderson, with six years in the league, and center Ed Davis, who has played for the Lakers, Toronto and Memphis over five NBA seasons. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu signed as a free agent after five seasons with several teams.
Everyone will be competing for a starting job.
''I think a lot of people on this team have stuff to prove,'' Plumlee said. ''And I'm one of those people.''
It goes without saying that Lillard is the only one who has his spot locked up. But he's optimistic.
''Now we're back at that stage where nothing is expected of us,'' Lillard said. ''But we've been working hard, I know that for a fact, and I do have confidence in what we have. I know it will take some time for us to jell together and get completely comfortable in a real game. But I think what we have is a lot better than what people think.''