PORTLAND, Ore. – The Trail Blazers got a taste of playoff success last season and that’s shifted their mindset. Simply making the playoffs is no longer the goal, a championship is.
Damian Lillard is once again joined in the backcourt by CJ McCollum but the supporting cast changed in the offseason with the Blazers bringing in Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Tolliver, Kent Bazemore and Pau Gasol.
“It’ll be tough in the West, but it’s always tough,” McCollum said. “A lot of teams are good, a lot of teams are deep. Obviously, injuries will play a factor in what happens this year – that’s always a factor as the playoffs get closer and closer, the team that stays healthy has the best chance. Hopefully we can be one of those teams that’s healthy.”
The Blazers finished 53-29 last season and clinched the third seed in the Western Conference, earning home court for the first round. Portland wrapped up their first-round series in five games, capped by Lillard’s memorable walk-off 3-pointer, and went on to make the conference finals for the first time in 19 years.
And the Blazers were able to go deep despite a key injury.
Starting center Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg during a game in March and was out for the playoffs. He was averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds when he got injured.
The Blazers were able to turn to Enes Kanter, who was waived by the New York Knicks following the trade deadline and signed by Portland for the rest of the season, to get them through the playoffs. Kanter moved on in the offseason to the Celtics.
So, it makes sense the Blazers shored up their options at center while Nurkic continues to rehab, adding Whiteside and Gasol.
Whiteside was acquired from the Heat in a four-team deal that sent Meyers Leonard to Miami and Moe Harkless to the L.A. Clippers. Whiteside averaged 12.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.89 blocks per game last season in Miami, something of a dropoff from his previous three seasons with the team.
“I feel wanted. I feel like there was an urgent, urgent need at the center right now. That dominance force, coming in the paint, shot blocking, rebounding,” Whiteside said. “I really feel like I can help this team.”
How he gels with the team will be key to Portland’s success this season.
The 39-year old veteran has been limited in fall camp because of a surgery he had in February. It ended a frustrating season that started with the Spurs and ended with the Milwaukee Bucks. He is grateful to have landed in Portland and said he believes he can contribute to the team.
“I hope to add leadership on and off the court, experience, and also quality of play. I’m excited after a difficult health year, (which was) frustrating,” he said. “I’m excited to just work on my body and be healthy so I can do what I do on the floor and just have fun with the guys and compete and play as hard as I can.”
It is uncertain when Nurkic will be able to return – and when he does it will be with a steel rod that was placed in his left leg to help repair multiple compound fractures.
President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey said the team would be purposely vague about the rehab because he doesn’t want to make the season “Nurk Watch 2019.” Nurk himself said he’d be ready when he’s ready.
“Every time I talked to him, he was training,” Lillard said. “That’s not made up. He was really trying to get going.”
Lillard maxes out
The team’s on-court leader is set to be in Portland for a long time. Lillard, who averaged 25.8 points and 6.9 assists and earned his fourth All-Star nod last season, signed a super-max contract extension in the offseason worth $196 million.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that we have that commitment to each other,” Lillard said. “But also that I’m still able to push forward with my personal goals, which is to win the championship here and to be the best player to ever play here. It allows me that much more time to continue pursuing that, and to be here. So, it’s an honor for me.”
The Blazers are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the franchise. During the preseason they held a game at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the team played from 1970 to 1995. Other events are scheduled throughout the season. The team’s court has also been repainted to commemorate the event.
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