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A lot of people think the Portland Trail Blazers are headed straight down the Western Conference tubes.
That kind of makes sense. After all, star forward LaMarcus Aldridge split for San Antonio and the Blazers received nothing in return.
So scratch four starters off last season’s 51-31 team. That record was good enough for the West’s No. 4 playoff spot — and many considered the Blazers to be a younger, up-and-coming bunch that only needed a few more years to do something special.
Now, only Damian Lillard remains as a real hope.
Of course, Lillard is a pretty good place to start. The 6-foot-3 point guard is still only 25 years old, and coming off a season in which he averaged 21.0 points and 6.2 assists. He is a brilliant playmaker, a winner, a guy who knows how to take over a game and keep his teammates happy.
This year, Lillard may get an idea of what Kyrie Irving must have felt like in Cleveland prior to LeBron James’ return.
Lillard will have to direct an entirely new unit — a unit that looks significantly less talented than the one that gave the Blazers so many reasons to believe.
Free agent signees Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu, and offseason trade acquisition Mason Plumlee, will likely form the starting frontcourt. Gerald Henderson, obtained in the Batum deal, is likely Lillard’s running mate in the backcourt.
Meanwhile, the bench is a mish-mash of youth, new faces and untapped potential – with the likes of everyone from big men Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh, to swingmen Allen Crabbe and Maurice Harkless, to guards C.J. McCollum and Phil Pressey, playing fairly large roles.
None are bad players. None are Aldridge or Batum or even Matthews or Lopez. At least not yet.
On the bright side, Terry Stotts is entering his fourth full season as Blazers coach, and has proven he knows how to get the players’ attention. That can count for a lot when you’re considered fairly undermanned.
Lillard hasn’t hung his head publicly over all the departures. Far from it.
“I’m looking forward to having a bigger role, to being the leader of the team, and I think it’s going to be fun,” he said in a press conference after signing a contract extension in July. “I’m going to continue to be the same person. I’m going to continue to attack things with confidence like I always have. And, hopefully, it’ll all work out like I plan for it to work out.”
Of course, this is the West we’re talking about — a loaded conference with the Spurs, Rockets, Clippers and NBA champion Warriors all expected to finish near the top.
Memphis is another rugged playoff returnee, as is New Orleans. And Oklahoma City is expected back with the return of a healthy Kevin Durant.
So even with the old group, the Blazers would have had to really fight to hold their ground. Now? It may take a basketball miracle.
Then again, sometimes being counted out can really motivate a team. It happened in Denver not long after the Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony to New York in 2011 — when the Nuggets banded together without a true star and surprised their way to the postseason.
These Blazers will have to try to do something similar, and if they have anything going for them, it’s the fact no one expects them to do much. Most expect them to be forgotten.
That could indeed be the case. But at least the team’s clear-cut leader is promising to try to do his part.
“We’re a young team,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports last month. “There are going to be ups and downs. But I’m not giving up on anything. I don’t doubt that we can still compete.
“We got a lot of young athletes. I don’t feel like it’s going to be [solely] me up there. I feel like we got guys capable of stepping up and doing more than they’ve done in the past.”
If he’s right, maybe the Blazers can pull together. Maybe they can find some resolve, maybe they can overachieve.
And maybe, their travel down the chutes won’t be as dramatic as some are predicting.