The Portland Trail Blazers can no longer depend on that feathery but deadly midrange jumper from LaMarcus Aldridge, those bow-and-arrow, three-point celebrations from marksman Wesley Matthews, the defensive versatility of Nicolas Batum or the untamed play and mane of mascot-mocking Robin Lopez. They still have an electrifying two-time all-star in Damian Lillard, but four-fifths of the starting lineup responsible for back-to-back 50-win seasons exited last summer, forcing a playoff contender to suddenly fall back into irrelevance in the unforgiving Western Conference.
In the absence of so many familiar faces, namely a franchise anchor for nearly nine years in Aldridge, the Trail Blazers have been thrust into a project that is more like a redirection than a rebuild. They aren’t exactly starting over, since they were already transitioning toward their current foundation, Lillard. But the initial results will at times be galling as General Manager Neil Olshey has invested in more uncertainty with intriguing but unproven talent.
“That’s one of things I’m looking forward to, is what this team is going to become,” Portland Coach Terry Stotts said last month. “The way Neil has constructed the roster, it’s a strong plan with a lot of young players that have a lot of room to grow. I think it’s a plan that is going to be challenging, fun and very rewarding.”
Aldridge didn’t officially inform the Blazers of his plan to join the San Antonio Spurs until July 3, two days after the free agent negotiating period got underway, but Olshey had already begun to prepare for that outcome in advance. The day before the NBA draft, Olshey traded Batum – a free agent in 2016 – to Charlotte for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh. A day later, he acquired big man Mason Plumlee from Brooklyn and selected Pat Connaughton in the draft.
Within minutes after teams could sign free agents, Olshey struck a deal with Al-Farouq Aminu. Olshey later signed Ed Davis and traded for Maurice Harkless to complete a roster makeover for a team that will be largely unrecognizable aside from Lillard, who signed a five-year contract extension with no early termination options worth roughly $120 million.
Once Aldridge decided to leave, the Blazers didn’t waste their time trying to chase Matthews (who signed a four-year, $70 million deal with Dallas), Lopez (who took a four-year, $52 million deal with New York) or even reserve Arron Afflalo (who left for a two-year, $16 million deal with New York).
Olshey didn’t feel the need to keep together the same core while simply trying to replace a four-time all-star because, “absent LaMarcus Aldridge, that group was not going to be good enough,” he said. “We judge ourselves by high standards and if we can’t compete at the highest levels, then we had to go in a different direction.”
After expressing frustration over being overlooked in a conference stockpiled with elite point guards last season, Lillard will either garner more attention by putting up insane scoring numbers or have a more difficult time beating out the likes of Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook or even Mike Conley on a losing team. But Lillard didn’t have to be sold on the youth movement, Olshey said, though it will likely result in a rare lottery trip for an organization that has made the postseason in five of the past seven seasons.
“I think Dame wants to play with guys who want to be in Portland,” Olshey said. “When LaMarcus informed us he wasn’t coming back, we went full bore with guys on the same career arc as Damian Lillard. Damian is our best player. … We want to have guys that when we are successful, it can be sustainable. That they’re all going to grow with our best players and that that will become the new core of guys that we’re growing with.”
In addition to Lillard, the Trail Blazers had some other talented holdovers in Meyers Leonard and C.J. McCollum. Leonard and McCollum are expected to assume larger roles after gaining considerable experience last season, when Portland experienced major injuries to Lopez and Matthews.
Stotts said he took over “somewhat of a rebuild situation” when he was hired in 2012, but the Trail Blazers were winning 54 games within two years. He benefited from Lillard’s rapid development and especially the presence of Aldridge but that duo, which had a strained relationship, was never able to get beyond the conference semifinals. Aldridge, 30, chose to chase a ring with the Spurs rather than stick around for the sentimentality of playing for one organization throughout his career.
“I think everybody knew it was going to be a close decision. It wasn’t an easy decision for him and it came down to the last minute. I certainly respect him for it because it was difficult,” Stotts said. “Personally, I thanked him for the three years that I was here with him. He had a great career in Portland and earned the right to be a free agent. We’re going to miss him. He’s moved on, we move on.”
The Trail Blazers’ new “model” – as Olshey likes to say – will involve providing opportunities for misused or underused young players and hoping that player development staff can unearth new gems. Vonleh had an injury-plagued rookie season and never was able to crack the Hornets’ rotation after going ninth overall out of Indiana in the 2014 draft. A versatile player who can compete at both forward positions, Vonleh showed an ability to shoot threes and put the ball on the floor during the summer league.
“I think it’s going to be a great spot for me,” said Vonleh, who turns 20 later this month. “I think I can come right away and get some good minutes. It’s an opportunity for me. We’re going to be in the Western Conference. The West is a beast. It’s a tough conference. We’re going to have to play Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph, and guys like that, all year round, so we’ve got to be prepared for that.”
Portland also has to be prepared to struggle during a season in which progress will now be measured by tangible improvement in individual players as opposed to wins and losses.
“I look at our roster and they’re going to play hard, they’re going to learn, they’re going to get better,” Stotts said. “That’s what coaching is, teaching and watching players improve. … It’s going to be fun, sorting things out.”