BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Stotts: 'I really like our roster'/Lillard: 'Anything can happen'

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Damian Lillard fields a question as the Trail Blazers prepare to open training camp.Notes, quotes and observations from Trail Blazers media day at Moda Center …

• There was a different attitude from the players this summer as they prepared for the upcoming season. The previous two years, captain Damian Lillard gathered players in San Diego for a week of working out, bonding and socializing together.

This year, the players didn't convene out of town. Most of them spent much of the summer in Portland working out individually and collectively.

President of basketball operations Neil Olshey figures that's a result of circumstances the prior two seasons.

Before the 2015-16 season, Portland wasn't expected to be a playoff team. The Blazers finished 44-38 and upset the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. Last year, prognostications had Portland winning 50 or so games and perhaps going deeper into the postseason. The Blazers had to close strong to finish 41-41, then were swept by Golden State in the first round.

"It's more reserved this year," Olshey says. "Guys expect to be good now. We went on this Cinderella run two years ago. We caught lightning in a bottle and advanced further than anybody thought. That spiked expectations for last year. Guys went in thinking things could be given and not earned to a certain degree. We took it for granted, and the West got tougher."

Now Chris Paul is in Houston, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are in Oklahoma City, Jimmy Butler is in Minnesota, and other teams in the West are on the rise.

"We're facing it again," Olshey says. "One of the positives of such great players moving into the West, it's obvious to everyone on this roster we need to step up our game from Day One. Guys have been dialed in more.

"'Dame' didn't do his workouts in San Diego. This wasn't about bonding off-court. This was about getting back to Portland as quickly as possible, getting in the gym and getting to work. It's much more of a work-based effort more than a camaraderie-based effort."

Terry Stotts isn't sure his players took anything for granted.

"Last year, we forgot how hard it was to do what we did the second half of (the previous) season," says Stotts, entering his sixth year as head coach. "We did it by playing extremely hard. It wasn't easy. We had some big wins.

"I don't think we had the edge we had the last 25 games the previous year. And we were a little bit snakebitten. We lost a lot of close games. My first four years, a lot of those games went our way. That didn't happen last year. It was more about human nature than complacency."

The Blazers bring back 12 players from its 2016-17 team.

"I really like our roster," Stotts says. "I like the versatility of it. Our biggest challenge is to understand what it takes. We did that two years ago. There was a lot of excitement going into last season because of the way we finished.

"Now there's an understanding that nothing is a given as far as this year, but we have a lot of guys at or close to their prime. We have a roster that can compete in the West."

• While many other contenders in the West brought in big-ticket items, the Blazers stood pat.

Lillard believes the familiarity of the players will be a positive.

"There have been a lot of successful teams that have been able to win games off of how well they came together, the chemistry of team, playing well at the right time," says the Blazers' point guard. "Injuries happen. Rosters change over the course of the season, and you just never know. It's important for us to come into the season and really believe. Some people might think I'm crazy, but in my mind, anything can happen."

Lillard says it's crucial that each player truly believes in his teammates.

"When it's really in you, you have that drive inside you," he says. "You look to your left and your right and say, 'I believe in this guy. He can bring something that can make this a good basketball team.'

"I really have that with this team. I see more in my teammates sometimes than they may see in themselves. We're all talented. We all have athletic ability. We're happy to be teammates. When you have a belief like that, you go further."

• It's not that Blazer management wanted to stand pat. Olshey made futile efforts to acquire both George and Anthony, along with a few other impact-like players via the trade route.

"We tried to keep up in the arms race as best we could," Olshey says. "We made every effort. Most of the movement this summer was by trade. You need willing partners. We were incredibly aggressive. We protected pieces of our roster that we felt we irreplaceable. We did everything in our power to accelerate where we're trying to get to as a team.

"It didn't work out, but we didn't give up anything, either, in terms of the future of the roster and what we're trying to build. We're not the only team that didn't come up with those guys. There were 27 other teams in the league that didn't get those (high-profile) guys, either."

• Lillard and McCollum campaigned for Portland in trying to convince Anthony to approve a trade to the Blazers.

"I thought I went after him pretty hard," Lillard says. "I understood he could make us a better team. A lot of teams in the West are going after guys to add more firepower. We believe in what we have, but the more firepower we have, the better chance we'll have to compete for longer periods of time at a higher level.

"I was all about that. I was all over him to try to do what I could. The stars on our team would welcome him to the team. I thought it went well, but he just landed somewhere else."

• During his six years with the Blazers, Olshey has had difficulty acquiring big-time free agents, much as previous heads of the basketball side have had during their time in Portland.

"We're not a place where guys who aren't from here spend a lot of time," he says. "It's not an offseason destination. They go to different places to pick up and train in the summers. Getting players comfortable with what a great city this is, beyond the organization and our fan base, is a longer-term process.

"It's why we put so much emphasis on player retention. The guys here are happy playing here. The draft and trades are so important to this. We have to keep our guys here. They're the guys who see the city for what it is, and they buy into the lifestyle and the culture and the value of the organization and how they are treated."

Olshey was general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers when they traded for Chris Paul and drafted Blake Griffin.

"We were lucky enough to draft a young superstar," he says. "It raised the profile of the organization, and that opened the door to more success on the floor. It allowed us to become a destination. That's what we have to do here.

"We have to continue to build a roster. Players want to play with great players. We have some great players on this roster. They're also young guys. The higher profile our star players have, players gravitate to them."

• McCollum isn't sure all the off-season acquisitions will turn into more wins for the West contenders.

"A lot of teams got better on paper, but there's a different element to basketball," he says. "There has to be chemistry and cohesiveness and a willingness to sacrifice. It's yet to be determined how those other teams will fare in those categories. They have star power and good players, but there's only one basketball."

• Three Blazers will go into the season as starters — Lillard and McCollum at guard and Jusuf Nurkic at center.

"But after that, I have an open mind," Stotts says. "We'll see how it plays itself out."

• The Blazers are top-heavy on the front line, with Nurkic, Meyers Leonard and rookie Zach Collins at center and Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh and rookie Caleb Swanigan at power forward. Vonleh is expected to miss all of the preseason and perhaps the start of the regular season with a shoulder injury.

One of the ways to lighten the load is to play Aminu — who played most power forward last season — more at small forward.

"I like him at the 4," Stotts says. "He's our best defender at the 4. Having a 4-man who can shoot 3's is important. Because of our depth at the 4, he'll play a little more 3 than he did last year."

Aminu will compete with Moe Harkless and Evan Turner, along with holdovers Pat Connaughton and Jake Layman, for playing time at small forward.

• The backcourt isn't as deep. Behind Lillard and McCollum are Shabazz Napier and four players brought to training camp on non-guaranteed deals — Archie Goodwin, Isaiah Briscoe, C.J. Wilcox and Anthony Morrow. Turner and Connaughton also can play in the backcourt.

"We signed Evan last year because he is a Swiss Army knife," Olshey says. "He can play multiple positions. We've been really happy with Shabazz this offseason. He's one of the guys who has shown some growth.

"We have arguably the best, if not the second-best, backcourt in the NBA with Dame and CJ. It's not like you're going to have a third guy there as well. But we have a lot of versatility with them, and around them."

• The Blazers are high on the prospects for Turner, the swing man who was playing his best ball when he suffered a broken hand last February. After he returned, he was ineffective at the offensive end.

"I was playing at a high level," Turner says. "I had turned the corner in regards to shooting the ball. I was clicking defensively. For moments, I was the best player on the court. I was back to my all-around bag. Even when I didn't score, I was clamping down on people I had no business guarding. That goes under the radar. Right before I got hurt, I was finding my feet under me.

"Then karma hit. It's just how life works for me."

• Stotts plans to use Turner in a variety of spots, including at the post on offense, creating opportunities for teammates.

"Evan had found his niche with our team when he got hurt," the Blazer mentor says. "There was a comfort level at both ends of the court.

"This season, it's up to us to put him in position where he can be a playmaker. That's one of his strengths. We can move Dame and CJ off the ball a little more and take advantage of his strengths. He can defend different positions. He has a great basketball sense, and he's much more comfortable with our style of play."

• McCollum made an effort to grow closer to Turner, maintaining contact with him during the offseason.

"Evan is funny as … curse words," McCollum says. "He's one of the funniest guys I've met in my life. He has a good personality. He's going to be a crucial part to our team, and I wanted to build a better relationship with him, establish that connection.

"If you can trust someone off the court, it's easier to trust him on the court. If you have a better relationship with someone, you're more inclined to pass him the ball, to look out for him. He's just a good guy, a funny dude. I enjoy being around him."

• Lillard says he expects big things from Swanigan, the 6-9, 250-pound rookie from Purdue.

"Caleb is very impressive," Lillard says. "I like how physical he is, his knack of finding the ball. (During pickup games) he shot the ball well out to the 3-point line. He's very sure of himself. You don't see that in rookies all the time. Very attentive. He responds to what I tell him.

"Caleb is like an enforcer, a bruiser in the paint. He attempts to block every shot. He'll be really good as a rookie. He's good enough to play right away."

• Like Nurkic, Lillard has dropped some weight, though not so dramatically. The 6-3 guard, who weighed nearly 200 last season, says he is at 193 now, "and I want to start the season at 190."

Lillard's offseason conditioning program included boxing workouts at Gym Fitness in Tigard three to four days a week.

"I boxed more than I ever have," he says. "That was for conditioning, for balance and the mental part. It was a good change of pace."

About a month ago, Lillard switched to a vegan diet.

"It's about playing at a lighter weight and feeling better," he says. "I sat down with people who had been vegan for a while. I thought it was all hype. They're vegan, but they don't play sports.

"Once I did it and started playing pickup with the guys, it was different. Not only did I feel lighter moving around the court, but when I got winded and tired, I still felt strong. It might have its issues as far as recovery once we get into the season, and I'll address that, but it's truly made a difference in how I feel.

"I want to be able to play a faster, more explosive game, and to not be too hard on my joints. I've had issues with my feet the past few years. I'm getting a little older. It's more important to take care of my body. I'm being proactive with it, to make that transition to playing lighter, and trying to stay injury-free as possible."

Lillard says switching to a vegan diet "was definitely a challenge."

"I love Wendy's, Five Guys," he says. "The toughest part is being in a car coming from downtown and I'm driving back to West Linn and I'm hungry. But I wait 'til I get home, because I have food that's been prepared for me."

Lillard's favorite vegan dish?

"It's like a fake Sloppy Joe," he says. "They try to make everything that I like, but it's the vegan version. I've gotten to know mushrooms pretty well."

• Lillard says he believes Portland can be a top-five team in the West.

"It's going to be hard as hell," he says. "You know Golden State is going to be up at the top. You have San Antonio and Houston, and after that, there are probably teams people consider better than us. But after those top three teams, it can fall anywhere. That's where we want to be, right in there."

McCollum on the same subject: "We need to have a chip on our shoulder. Teams have gotten better, especially in our conference and in our division. The stakes have raised. You can't have bad road trips. You can't have as many bad losses. You can't have poor starts. A bad start to the season could be the end of the season before it gets started.

"Expectations may not be that high for us. We may not be favored to make the playoffs. It's about how we approach each game and this training camp. We could win 47, 50 games, or we could win 32 and be in the lottery."

Says Stotts: "Homecourt (advantage) in the first round is the first goal, but it's important for us not to get too far down the road. We'll focus on winning the games early in the season. You want to finish as high as you can."

Olshey doesn't want to project potential wins and losses.

"We want to get back to the playoffs where we have an ability to be a factor," he says. "The first step is to be a playoff team. The number of teams competing for those eight spots (in the West) grew. Even the bottom teams are going to be a threat to win games. I wouldn't mind shifting over to Portland, Maine, for the next seven months."

• Lillard says he has noticed a change in Leonard after an offseason spent working on his game, primarily in Los Angeles.

"You can tell Meyers came back trying to prove something," Lillard says. "He's been playing a super physical game on defense. The first week of pickup games, he would probably have fouled out every game. He came back with a different mind-set. He wasn't passing up shots. He was attacking the rim harder. He was being physical. You can tell mentally he's in a different place than he's been in the past."

Olshey on Leonard: "Meyers does what he needs to do in the offseason. He has been behind the curve (in previous seasons). He has gotten beat out multiple times by guys coming in. He has some minutes behind 'Nurk' this season. That takes some pressure off. But at the end of the day, he's going to have to make it work.

"It's about development, but it's about production. Meyers knows that. He's ready to compete. Now he has to prove to the coaches he can get it done when he's on the court."

• The Blazers will again focus on attempting to be a better defensive team. They finished 24th in the league in defensive rating last season.

"After the first 30 games last year, we were 30th," Stotts says. "Over the next 20 games, we were top 10. Over the last 10, we were top seven.

"We've shown we're capable of playing good defensive games. I don't see us making wholesale changes in how we defend. After we got Nurk, we were 11th or 12th over the last 25 games. It's not as much about schemes and technique as much as focus and effort and making that a consistent priority."

• The question about social awareness in the U.S., statements made by President Trump and actions by players in the NFL in regard to the national anthem — as well as the Warriors not visiting the White House — was raised with many of the players, Stotts and Olshey.

"I'm happy to see athletes taking a role in politics coming in our direction," Lillard says. "I'm more happy that some guys are actually informed. It's sad with all that is going on in the world, our president is concerned with football and basketball. That's crazy.

"What you saw (Sunday) with guys locking arms and guys kneeling and some teams not coming out for national anthem, it takes that type of togetherness to truly make a stand. The power is in the hands of the players.

"The reason they're taking the knee, the fact that there's opposition, that's the real problem. Colin Kaepernick doesn't have a job because of taking the knee. Do you have a problem with him taking the knee, or do have a problem with him taking the knee for the reason that he's taking the knee? If that's the case, there's a much deeper problem."

Says Stotts: "I've been pleased with the message NBA players have voiced. They're eloquent in their thoughts. It's about the right things. if there's a message, it's a right we have to speak. They've done a great job. Steve Kerr mentioned this might be the most vocal that professional athletes have been since the '60s. I think they're handling it extremely well."

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