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ON THE NBA/BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Bigger lineup, with biggest goal - NBA championships

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - NBA All-Star guard Damian Lillard (right) prepares to meet with media on Monday at Memorial Coliseum, flanked Jim Taylor, Trail Blazers senior vice president, communications. Taking a look at the Trail Blazers, who began practice Tuesday, after Monday's media day at Memorial Coliseum ...

• It's been awhile since we've seen such optimism as was being delivered on the eve of Portland's first practice session.

"It's the deepest, most talented, most experienced team we've had since I've been here," said president/basketball operations Neil Olshey, in his eighth season with the club.

"Our mentality has shifted after getting to the Western Conference finals (last season)," point guard Damian Lillard said. "This year, our focus is to win a championship."

Six new faces have joined a nucleus headed by guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Hassan Whiteside will start at center as Jusuf Nurkic recovers from a broken leg. Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver will help fill the breach at forward with the jettisoning of Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Meyers Leonard. Veteran Pau Gasol will provide depth in the post and mentorship of the Blazers' young big men. And rookie forward Nassir Little will apprentice with the hope of contributing at some point through the season.

"We have versatility, playmaking, good size," said coach Terry Stotts, who takes a 345-264 record into his eight season at the Blazer helm. "There's a lot to like about the roster. It starts with 'Dame' and CJ, but the guys we brought in fit with how we want to play.

"We had a really good year last year. We have a chance to be a better team this year."

• The Blazers also may have the most size of any NBA club, including the 7-1 Whiteside, the 7-foot Gasol, the 7-foot Nurkic, 7-foot Zach Collins and 6-11 Skal Labissiere.

"When 'Nurk' gets back," Olshey observed, "it's the biggest team we've had."

In an era when teams are going smaller and shooting more 3-pointers, is that a good idea?

"When people talk about going small, that's off the bench," Olshey said. "Teams start big. We gave ourselves the flexibility to ... have a choice. Last year, we played power basketball with Zach and 'Nurk.' We were able to pound the glass; we were able to play inside and out.

"We have a better shooting team, more playmaking, better size this year. We haven't gone away from anything that made us successful a year ago, but we've built on it by being both strong in the post and active on the perimeter."

• The national focus has been all about the improved rosters in Los Angeles with the Clippers and Lakers. The Blazers believe they should be considered with the front-runners but know there is plenty of competition.

"We were in the conference finals last year, and got better," Olshey said. "So did Houston, the Clippers, the Lakers, all the way down. There are no nights off in the Western Conference. This isn't Wiffleball out here. This is no joke. It's an arms race. Every year, there are teams raising the bar. We knew we needed to make some changes, but other teams made big adds, too."

Lillard said it's unwise to think of any team as the favorite to win the conference. Underdogs can rise up and surprise people.

"Like us," he said. "The past few years, people didn't look at us as a real threat. This past season was a perfect example. We ended up being a 'Final Four' team. On paper, you never would have guessed that.

"Besides us, you have the Lakers, the Clippers, the Jazz, the Spurs, the Rockets ... all who are going to be good teams. The challenge for us is to worry about everybody, not just the supposed teams to beat. Any team could get you. It's going to be a brawl. Every team is going to be a challenge. It's a matter of us being consistent and being ready to protect our position every night."

• The only player guaranteed not to be available for Portland's Oct. 23 season opener against Denver at Moda Center is Nurkic, who is rehabbing from the multiple compound fractures suffered against Brooklyn on March 25.

Working with the Blazers' medical and training experts, the 7-foot Bosnian stayed in Portland until mid-July, then headed for his homeland, where he remained for almost two months. Physical therapists Logan Sullivan and Jessica Cohen spent a majority of the time there working with Nurkic.

"We had someone with him there constantly," Olshey said. "We didn't want him to have a setback."

Olshey said he will stay "purposely vague" about Nurkic's timetable for a return to duty, but said he is "tracking on a proper time line." That would suggest he'll be back around the All-Star break, perhaps before that.

Nurkic was on hand for media day, walking without a limp on a leg fortified with a metal rod that will remain. He said he is walking on a treadmill, shooting baskets, lifting weights and doing what he can to "get stronger with my leg. I'm doing what they tell me to do." Nurkic said he has been pain-free since the surgery and is in a great frame of mind as he continues his rehab.

"I've been injured before," he said. "What I've been through now, there are harder things in life than this. Injuries are part of the sport, part of the job. It's going to heal, and I'll be good."

When? Nurkic won't guess.

"I'm exactly where they want me to be," he said. "I don't have a month or a date. I'm going to be back when I'm back. I'm taking it one day at a time. When doctors decide to give me the green light, I'll see if I'm ready and decide."

• The only other player not fully cleared to practice is Gasol, the 39-year-old coming off May foot surgery.

"We'll be a little bit cautious with Pau," Olshey said. "By next week, he'll go full bore as long as the load (management) goes well. He's ahead of where we thought he'd be as far as the surgical time line."

The future Hall-of-Famer from Spain said he is in "a very good place" in the recovery process and said he is "hopeful" to be available for the regular-season opener.

"I'm a positive thinker," the 7-footer said. "That's what I'm going to strive for, but it's not critical to be fully available for Game One."

How much does Gasol have left as he begins his 19th NBA season?

"Hopefully, a lot," Stotts said. "He's extremely skilled. Physically, he looks good. He has come back from the injury well. He's motivated to play. Last year was a tough year for him.

"Vince Carter is still playing. If the body holds up and the mind is willing to go through it, a lot is possible. He's going to be an effective player for us."

• The other new big man, Whiteside, is unique in terms of the defense he provides.

"What he does naturally is different from the guys we've had in the past," Lillard said. "The kind of shots he blocks, like floaters at the top ... we haven't had his length, his paint presence before."

Through September pickup games at the Blazers' practice facility, Whiteside and Collins have been matched up often against each other. Collins will be given every opportunity to inherit the starting power forward job from Aminu and play alongside Whiteside.

"I'm very excited about being at the rim with him, seeing how effective that will be," Collins said. "He's just a big human."

In his eighth NBA season, Whiteside said Collins will be "the best shot-blocker I've played alongside."

"Zach is a phenomenal shot-blocker," Whiteside said. "I didn't know he was that good. He don't stop. You can dunk on him, and he'll keep trying to block shots, competing at the rim. That wears on guys."

Olshey said Whiteside will help out on the offensive end, too.

"We haven't had the guy where you can throw it up in the vicinity of the rim and he can go get it," Olshey said. "That will open up opportunities for all of our guards, and Mario and 'Baze' as well. We're going to see plays we haven't seen before in the flow of our offense."

Asked for personal goals, Whiteside shot big: "I want to lead the league in blocks and rebounds."

• Last season, Portland ranked third in offensive efficiency and 16th in defensive efficiency, the latter a drop from eighth the previous season.

"Going into every season, my goal is to be in the top 10 on both offense and defense," Stotts said. "That's the goal this year."

Stotts said he doesn't see "big changes" in Portland's fundamental defensive system. David Vanterpool, who left after the season to become associate head coach with Minnesota, was in charge of the Blazers' defense. That role will now go to assistant coaches Nate Tibbetts and Dale Osbourne.

"Jim Moran will take Nate's spot as far as focusing on the offense," Stotts said.

• Bazemore and Tolliver are among the players brought in to help with Portland's 3-point shooting.

The 6-5 Bazemore is a career .352 3-point shooter who dropped to .320 while coming off the bench for the first time in four seasons with Atlanta last year. Bazemore believes playing for Stotts will be similar to when he played for Mike Budenholzer from 2013-18.

"My 3-point shot is in a good spot," said Bazemore, 30. "I believe I'm a great 3-point shooter. I'm going to look for my shot. With Coach Stotts, it's about playing free. He don't want us to be robots."

The 6-8 Tolliver has shot .378 from beyond the arc in his 11 NBA seasons. He shot it at a .376 clip coming off the bench for the Timberwolves last season. Tolliver has even extended his range in recent years, a la Lillard.

"I'm very comfortable extending the range out," said Tolliver, 34. "The further out, the more space I give my teammates.

"I started realizing my range about 3 years ago, then finally started shooting some of them a couple of years ago in Detroit. I don't usually shoot the first one of the night from that far — want to get a little rhythm going at first — but I'm comfortable out there."

• Bazemore, who played at Old Dominion, said he feels a kinship with a couple of teammates who also played at lesser-known schools — Lillard (Weber State) and McCollum (Lehigh). Bazemore, who was undrafted, said he has been impressed with their leadership, too.

"One thing that blew me away about 'Dame' and CJ is how vocal they are, making sure everyone is on the same page," Bazemore said. "That's good to see from two guys who could easily say, 'We'll do our own thing.' I have a lot of respect for those guys. They spend a lot of time hanging around after practice, too. Spending time chatting with teammates goes a long way. That's how you build brotherhood."

Lillard singled out Bazemore as the newcomer who has made a big impression on him. The two came into the league together in 2012 and were "partners" during the NBA orientation program for rookies.

"You can see he's eager for a fresh start," Lillard said. "I like his playmaking, his defense, his ability to shoot the ball. He's a vet who understands things. He affects a game. It's not loud, but you can tell he's going to be a presence."

• Tolliver has played for 11 teams during his NBA career, but has been on only three playoffs teams and has never advanced beyond the first round.

"This group is crazy talented," he said. "I've never been on a team this talented overall. And the organization, from top to bottom, is top-notch. I can already feel it's going to be a great year. There's no choice but not to be a great year."

Tolliver had a previous stop in Portland, and it was a brief one during his second season in 2009-10. He was signed as a free agent in December and waived 12 days later after drawing four minutes of action in two games.

"I don't remember much," he said. "I remember flying on the private plane, which was unique — that might be about it. I do remember there was a snowstorm. I went to a movie about a mile away. Took about three hours to get there."

• Beginning his seventh NBA season, McCollum carries a career scoring average of 17.8 points and has averaged 20 points or more in each of his last four seasons. He has never seriously been considered for the All-Star Game, though, in part due to playing in the backcourt with Lillard, who has made it four times.

"It's definitely a goal," McCollum said. "Some of (All-Star selection) is circumstantial. I want to have a great year, and if that's good enough, great. The biggest thing is to play well and help my team win. If I do those things, it should happen. If not, I can live with it."

• Portland enters the season with the second-highest payroll in the NBA at $149.5 million, behind only Houston ($151.9 million). The salary cap is $109 million. The luxury tax threshold is $132 million.

Asked about owner Jody Allen, Olshey said this: "We wouldn't be facing a $20-million luxury-tax bill if she wasn't committed."

"She wants to win," Olshey said about the sister of the late Paul Allen, the Blazers' owner for 30 years until his death last year. "(Commissioner) Adam Silver asked her about goals. Her response was, 'We want to win a couple of championships.' She sets a very high bar. Her benchmark and baseline is the Western Conference finals."

Olshey said he expects Allen to be more of a presence around the club this season.

"She is a phenomenal leader," he said. "She pushes us every day, but also allows us to do our jobs. She really enjoyed the process of putting the team together. She's the one who signed off adding money (to acquire) Rodney Hood, on adding Enes Kanter from the buyout market last season, knowing it would make us better. That's the kind of leadership that gives us the confidence to know we're going to be held at a very high standard, but with the resources necessary to get things done."

Lillard and McCollum, incidentally, are due a combined $360 million in salary over the next five seasons. In 2023-24, Lillard will receive $50.75 million, McCollum $35.8 million.

• With a projected starting five of Whiteside, Collins, Hood, Lillard and McCollum to open the season, Stotts' major lineup decisions will come with the rotation.

"I like the idea of the bench having an identity," he said. "You'll see us start that way, and we'll see how it evolves. I'll have some difficult decisions on various nights because of our depth. It's easier for me to have a nine-man rotation, but there will be nights where it will be more than that."

One player who will garner minutes to start is second-year guard Anfernee Simons, who will back up both Lillard and McCollum.

"He wouldn't be where he is if he hadn't been with us last year and been around Dame and CJ," Olshey said. "He's as gifted a player as anybody I've drafted in my 15 years in the league. We have the best backcourt in the NBA and the best young guard in the NBA."

Simons, who turned 20 in June, has grown an inch to 6-4 and said he weighed in Monday at 193 pounds, up from 180 a year ago.

• Lillard was asked why players such as Hood, Gasol, Hezonja and Tolliver chose to either re-sign or sign as a free agent with the Blazers.

"They just learned the hard way," Lilard said with a smile. "When people look at Portland, they don't see it as the most attractive place. There are a lot the positives you can't see unless you come be a part of it. They come in, it's raining, it's cold, it's far away from a lot of places.

"But when you get here and you see what type of work environment we're in, the people we work with, the media — the bad is not so bad. It's a great place to be. You have to come here to experience that and to see what our fans are like and experience all that success."

Whiteside arrived as part of a four-team trade, but the destination was to his liking after five years in Miami.

"It don't matter where you live if you're not happy on the court," he said. "This is a place I wanted to come. I've wanted to come here for years. I don't really care about nothing else but basketball."

NOTES — The Blazers' annual Fan Fest intrasquad scrimmage is Sunday at Memorial Coliseum. The free event has first-come, first-served general-admission seating, with doors opening at 4 p.m. ... Portland opens the preseason next Tuesday against Denver at Memorial Coliseum. The Blazers also face Maccabi Haifa on Oct. 10 and Phoenix on Oct. 12 before a pair of road games to end the preseason. Portland begins the regular season against the Nuggets at Moda Center on Oct. 23. ... Simons, who carried a "My Little Pony" backpack and fetched donuts for veterans last season, was asked if he'll be rough on rookie Nassir Little this season. "I got to wait four, five, six years before I start messing with the rookies," he said, smiling. ... Lillard on the maturation of Simons: "He didn't say two words the whole last season. Now he actually chimes in and has conversations and is more a part of the group." ... Lillard was asked if he kept in touch with Nurkic this summer. "He loves to Facetime me, when it's daytime in Bosnia and I'm knocked out," Lillard said. ... Collins, on having Gasol as a teammate: "When we signed him, I tried to get his (phone) number right away. I told him how much a fan I was, how much of a sponge I'm going to be. He's a legend, a Hall-of-Famer, and a good dude. He couldn't be more of a great guy, someone you can sit down and talk to about non-basketball things. He seems very open to teaching as well."

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