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Blazer goal: Stick together, get better

Of all the comments made at the Trail Blazers' media availability following exit interviews Friday at the team's practice facility, this one by general manager Neil Olshey most caught my attention:

"We're out of the talent acquisition mode. We are out of the asset acquisition mode. Now we're about winning games."

And advancing beyond the second round of the playoffs, the plateau Portland reached this season for the first time in 14 years.

Said Olshey: "Everybody has a taste of what it's like to being in the second round of the playoffs, and being really close to where we all want to go, which is to still be playing in June."

Olshey believes the best way to do that is to allow the current group to stay together. That includes coach Terry Stotts, who earned a contract extension that runs through the 2015-16 season, with a team option for the following season.

"It's as much of a no-brainer as any contract extension I've ever done," Olshey said.

Stotts said Friday he will retain all five of his assistant coaches next season.

All five starters, and most of the reserves, who helped the Blazers to their 54-win regular season and playoff series victory over Houston are under contract for next season.

The only players who are unsigned are sixth man Mo Williams, who will opt out of his contract, and reserve point guard Earl Watson, who may retire and enter the coaching field.

Williams said he is looking for a "good contract," a three-year deal, and would be amenable to re-signing with the Blazers. "Hopefully, I'm here for a long time," he said.

Said Olshey: We can't talk to free agents until July 1. Mo's a critical piece. We'll talk about it when I'm allowed to talk about it."

If the Blazers don't release second-year guard Will Barton by July 31, his contract (for about $915,000) is guaranteed for next season.

"I'm sure we are" going to retain Barton, Olshey said.

Glibly, Portland's second-year GM added, "How do you get rid of someone who sends a text to his coach, congratulating him on his extension, and signs it, 'The Thrill?' "

The Blazers have no picks in the upcoming NBA draft. They could trade for one, but with eight players on the current roster with one or two years of NBA experience, that seems unlikely.

"Everybody gets caught up in the draft," Olshey said. Since the Blazers own no selections, "it's more complicated for us than any draft I've been in. We have to be prepared from (picks) 1 to 60. You just don't know when the phone's going to ring, when a player is available you can pursue.

"With the reality of having potentially only two roster spots available, we have to be judicious with what we add."

Portland has both the biannual exception (about $2 million) and the mid-level exception ($5.3 million) to offer free agents.

"Adding veteran talent is important, but we're not going to pigeonhole ourselves into saying we need one specific position," Olshey said. "Even if it's a redundancy, if a guy is more talented, we'll be interested. You're looking for the five best players you can put on the court and coaching them within that framework."

Olshey is open to obtaining players through any means possible.

"We're going to be creative," he said. "We'll be aggressive in free agency. We'll be opportunistic in trades. It's my goal and my job to move the organization forward, to give Terry the tools he needs in terms of roster composition, to compete at the highest level.

"If we can find a player who moves that process forward, then we'll be aggressive -- draft, free agency or trade. The goal is to have a better team on the floor Oct. 1 than we did this past Oct. 1."

The players believe that's going to happen.

"We should be in the top four next year," small forward Nicolas Batum said.

That would mean the Western Conference finals.

It's a logical progression, but easier said than done.

The West will be loaded again, with San Antonio and Oklahoma City and a host of other playoff contenders.

The national perception of Portland has changed. Expectations will be elevated, though at least one starter doesn't seem to fully realize it.

"They'll still pick Houston ahead of us, or Golden State, or Dallas," Wesley Matthews said. "But regardless of what people think of us, we are still a group of underdogs. That's our mentality. That's not going to change."

What has changed are the Blazers' goals.

"We're not a team fighting for a playoff spot," Matthews said. "All that writing is out the window. Now it's, 'How do we get out of the second round?'

"We saw what it takes against the Spurs. We couldn't have asked for a better situation, other than beating them."

Portland's starting five stacks up with any in the league. Rating them in order of importance, LaMarcus Aldridge would be No. 1, with Damian Lillard as 1A, followed by Batum, Matthews and Robin Lopez.

Few teams, if any, have players the quality of Matthews and Lopez as their fourth and fifth guys. Would you trade them to Miami for Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier? To Oklahoma City for Thabo Sefalosha and Kendrick Perkins? To Indiana for Lance Stephenson and George Hill? No, you wouldn't.

Olshey is unlikely to mess with the Portland starters. At some point this summer, he'll negotiate a contract extension for Aldridge, who has one more year on his deal at $16 million.

"LaMarcus is the No. 1 priority in the organization right now," Olshey said. "It's a goal of ours to keep LaMarcus here a long time.

"The biggest thing is, LaMarcus wants to be here, and we want him here. That's the challenging part. The economics take care of themselves."

Aldridge told me at midseason he was amenable to contract extension discussion this summer. After Game 5 of the San Antonio series, I asked if anything has changed.

"No," he said. "I'm going to sit down with my agent (Arn Tellum) in the next week or two, and we'll talk about it."

It's still possible they'll decide to have Aldridge, who turns 29 on July 25, play out next season and go into free agency next summer. It's something to keep an eye on.

The bench is where Portland needs help. In their four victories, the San Antonio reserves outscored their Blazer counterparts -- with Williams missing the final three games due to a strained hamstring -- 180-51.

"One of the things I want to do is utilize the bench better," Stotts said.

The Blazers seem likely to add a pair of veterans through free agency, or perhaps a trade. Stotts said he is also counting on each of the reserves to return to training camp an improved product.

"Those guys need to make a jump," he said. "They all have to get better -- not just one guy."

Barton, Joel Freeland, Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, C.J. McCollum and Allan Crabbe will be members of Portland's entry at the Las Vegas Summer League in July.

Aldridge and Lillard are among candidates for the U.S. team that will participate in the world championships at Barcelona in September. Batum is uncertain whether he will represent his native France there.

When they convene in Portland in late September, they'll all have one goal.

"We had a good year," Batum said. "Next year can be a great year."

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