Lillard embarking on pivotal season with Blazers
By ANNE M. PETERSON
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) For all the handwringing this summer over Damian Lillard's happiness in Portland, the Trail Blazers guard is staying put, hopeful the team's moves will pay off.
The biggest, of course, was parting ways with coach Terry Stotts after nine seasons. Portland hired Chauncey Billups, who has no prior experience as an NBA head coach.
The nucleus of Lillard, guard CJ McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic remains intact, but Portland shored up the roster with the addition of Larry Nance Jr., Cody Zeller and Ben McLemore. Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter have moved on.
While the team didn't strike any splashy offseason deals, Lillard believes the Blazers are in a better place,
"Obviously at the end of last season, I wanted to see our roster improve, I wanted us to have a better chance to win," Lillard said. "And we had our conversations throughout the summer about what that looked like and how we could take steps in that direction, and I come into this season with faith that that's going to happen and that we're going to do that."
Portland finished 42-30 last season and earned the sixth seed in the Western Conference. The team won 10 of its final 12 regular-season games but the playoffs ended quickly with the Blazers eliminated by Denver in the opening round.
Lillard is entering his 10th NBA season. The closest he's come to a title was a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2019.
He ranked third in the NBA with an average of 28.8 points last season, and was in the top 10 with 7.5 assists. But it may be Portland's last season with their All-Star and Olympian, unless the team gets results.
"I think we all know we've got to get over the hump," Nurkic said.
Portland didn't make any moves for a proven backup point guard in the offseason, an issue that's plagued the Blazers in recent years. McCollum has taken on those duties at times.
Anfernee Simons, going into his fourth year in the NBA, is looking to fill the role.
When Lillard was given the night off in a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings, Simons scored 24 points.
"He's continued to make strides and stay aggressive. I want him to always just be confident," Billups said. "Even some nights those shots aren't going to be falling, just him being aggressive and getting spots he wants to get to and playmaking."
Nurkic is excited about taking on a greater offensive role this season.
Nurkic was frustrated with how he was used last season under Stotts, who leaned on him defensively. Nurkic averaged 11.5 points and nine rebounds last season but missed time because of a broken wrist.
Billups told Nurkic in the offseason that he'd expand his presence on both ends. "I'm looking for a big year personally for me and the team," Nurkic said.
The Blazers are 100% vaccinated among the players and coaching staff. Lillard said when the vaccinations became available, he wanted to line up his whole family for the shot.
"I have a lot of people in my family who I'm tight with and spend a lot of time around, and I'm just not going to put their health or their lives in danger because I have to go do research," Lillard said. "As a kid I had to get shots my whole life, before I went to college I had to get shots. And I couldn't tell you one thing about any of them."
Trail Blazers assistant coach Milt Palacio was among 18 former NBA players who were charged in federal court this month with defrauding the league's health and welfare benefit plan. Authorities said the scam involved claiming fictitious medical and dental expenses.
As a result, Palacio was placed on administrative leave by the Blazers.
"The federal investigation is independent of the Trail Blazers organization and we will have no further comment pending the outcome of the legal process," the team said.
Former Trail Blazers Sebastian Telfair, Darius Miles and Ruben Patterson were also charged.
The Blazers backcourt didn't rest in the offseason.
Lillard got married to his college sweetheart, won an Olympic gold medal, and released new music. Not to be outdone, CJ McCollum announced he and his wife are expecting their first child, bought a winery and that he was named president of the NBA Players Association.
Lillard brought his gold medal to the team's annual media day, asking whether he should pass it around to the reporters present. Then he quickly changed his mind: "Y'all can't touch my medal."
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Updated October 12, 2021