PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — No longer the NBA’s surprising overachievers, Damian Lillard says the Trail Blazers need to stay true to the process.
Portland went 44-38 last season despite losing four starters to free agency the previous summer. The team got the fifth seed in the Western Conference and played past the injury-depleted Los Angeles Clippers into the second round of the playoffs.
With greater expectations, the Blazers embark on this season hoping to build on the last.
“It’s something we’ll have to continue to push ourselves to do, but I think we just grow on what we started last year,” Lillard said. “You continue to stay true to the small things that we committed to last year and get better that way. I don’t think you come back and say, ‘It’s a new year, let’s go change this and change that.'”
The Blazers fell to the Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals, and this season Golden State again looks to be the team to beat with the addition of Kevin Durant. The Blazers counter with a deep bench and should vie again for the Northwest Division title.
“We have a lot of players who can have an impact to finish games. The first three years, we were relying on the starters. Last year, the depth was versatile and helped us get through the season, and we improved on that this year,” coach Terry Stotts said. “We look at the season as a continuation of last season.”
Lillard averaged a career-high 25.1 points in the regular season, becoming the third Portland player ever to average more than 25. He also averaged 6.8 assists.
Backcourt teammate CJ McCollum averaged 20.8 points in his first year as a starter, giving the Blazers their first backcourt duo with an average of 20 or more points apiece in a single season. He was named the league’s Most Improved Player.
Mason Plumlee returns as the starting center, with Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward. Maurice Harkless and offseason addition Evan Turner have been competing in training camp for the other starting nod.
Other things to consider as the Trail Blazers prepare to open the season:
NEWCOMERS: Portland signed Turner and free agent forward Festus Ezeli, while trading for guard Shabazz Napier and rookie forward Jake Layman. Ezeli played last season for the Warriors and averaged seven points and 5.6 assists.
Turner, who agreed to a four-year, $70 million contract, is adjusting to his new team in the preseason. Last year with the Celtics, the 6-foot-7 wing averaged 10.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists as Boston’s sixth man.
Lillard recently offered Turner some advice: “I said to him, ‘Don’t worry about what this person thinks or what that person is saying. We want you to play. You’re a playmaker and you score the ball. … We need you to play off your instincts. That’s what you do well. That’s what you do well in practice. We want you to do it in a game so we can adjust to what you do and learn that way instead of you trying to get used to us all the time.'”
ROAD TRIP!: The Trail Blazers once again embarked on a preseason team-bonding excursion to San Diego. The trip south was started by Lillard and McCollum in 2015. The team worked out at San Diego State and shared meals. “I always knew they were cool guys and they had good chemistry,” Ezeli said. “But I didn’t know the team was this tight.”
DEFENSE: Stotts has always emphasized defensive improvement, and this season is no different. The Blazers ranked 20th in the league for points allowed per game, 16th for opponents’ field-goal percentage and 17th for opponents’ points per shot.
INJURY UPDATE: Center Meyers Leonard has returned to the court ahead of schedule following shoulder surgery. Noah Vonleh has also returned from a procedure on his thigh. But the Blazers continue to wait on Ezeli, who had a left knee procedure in August. There is no timeline for his return, and the Blazers are acting cautiously.
MULTITALENTED: Lillard’s first rap album “The Letter O” was released Friday. Lillard, who musically goes by Dame D.O.L.L.A., worked with artists including Jamie Foxx, Raphael Saadiq and Lil Wayne. His first single is the song “Hero,” with Saadiq. Lillard has been involved with music since coming to the Blazers: He hosts the popular freestyle challenge #4BarFriday on Instagram, and the video for his song “Bigger than Us” premiered on TNT in January.