PORTLAND — After leading the Portland Trail Blazers to the Western Conference finals last season for the first time since 2000, All-NBA guard Damian Lillard has his sights set even higher after substantive offseason changes.
“We’re not coming into the season saying, ‘Oh, we made it to the Western Conference finals last season so that’s automatically going to happen,'” Lillard told reporters at Monday’s media day. “We’ve got a completely different team, a lot of building to be done. But this year, we’re coming in, our focus is to win a championship. I think our mentality has to shift to that.”
Despite being an underdog to beat Oklahoma City in the opening round of last season’s playoffs, Portland knocked off the Thunder in five games on Lillard’s series-winning 3-pointer. The Blazers then went on to beat the Nuggets, winning Game 7 in Denver, before being swept by the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals.
Three of Portland’s starters from the 2019 playoff run are gone after a busy offseason, leaving Lillard and fellow guard CJ McCollum as the two holdovers. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu and center Enes Kanter — the latter filling in for injured starter Jusuf Nurkic (leg fractures), for whom the team is not setting a timetable to return — signed as free agents with the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics, respectively, while the Blazers dealt forward Maurice Harkless as part of a four-team trade that brought center Hassan Whiteside to Portland.
Having added Whiteside and wing Kent Bazemore via trade and having signed veteran free agents Pau Gasol, Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver, Portland coach Terry Stotts believes this season’s team can be even better than the one that preceded it.
“I think it’s the deepest team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Stotts said. “There’s obviously some versatility, playmaking, we have good size. There’s a lot to like about the roster and certainly having the carryover of Dame and CJ, it starts with that, but the guys that we brought in I think really fit with how we want to play at both ends. There’s a lot to like.
“We had a really good year last year. I think we have a chance to be a better team this year.
Statistical projections aren’t as convinced.
FiveThirtyEight’s projections give the Blazers just a 35% chance of making the playoffs in the deep West, and both it and projections based on ESPN’s real plus-minus have the team finishing at or below .500 on average.
Lillard isn’t paying attention to those pessimistic projections, saying, “What the experts’ percentages of us making the playoffs are, that’s I would say the least of our concerns.”
Instead, Lillard — who signed a supermax extension this summer that keeps him under contract in Portland through the 2024-25 season — is confident the remade Blazers can compete with other West powers that loaded up this summer. Given the strength of the conference, Lillard isn’t eyeing any particular team as a favorite.
“I don’t see it as one team,” Lillard said. “The past few years for us, people didn’t look at us as a real threat, but this past season was a perfect example. We ended up being one of the final four teams. On paper, you never would’ve guessed it. So I don’t think it’s one team. I think it’s the struggle of being in the West.
“I think the challenge for us is to worry about everybody and not just say, ‘OK, who’s the team to beat?’ because any of these teams can get you.”