The Trail Blazers enter the 2017-2018 season in familiar territory: a massive underdog, almost forgotten among the seismic changes in the Western Conference, which might be a good thing for this group.
After last season, when the Blazers sputtered to a 41-41 record -- during which top executive Neil Olshey said “I think guys went in thinking things could be given and not earned, to a certain degree,’’ -- these Blazers seem to have found a familiar preseason stance: Discount the Blazers at your caution.
“I think we are flying under the radar, like a couple of seasons ago,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We are back to being the underdog, and all of us embrace that mentality. And I think that gives us a different type of edge, a chip on our shoulders.’’
With 12 returners, and a rookie bigman in Caleb Swanigan whom the veterans raved will come in an make an impact, the Blazers know things won’t be easy in a Western Conference that has the defending champion Golden State Warriors and dramatically enhanced rosters in Oklahoma City (Paul George, Carmelo Anthony), Houston (Chris Paul), Minnesota (Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague), Denver (Paul Millsap) to name a few.
It’s why the team’s pulse, captain Damian Lillard, says it’s important for the Blazers to adopt a simple, one-word concept: Belief.
“I think we just have to truly believe,’’ Lillard said. “It’s one thing to get up here and say I believe we can be a good team, and I believe we worked hard, and I believe we got better. But when it’s really in you .., that drive inside you, and you look to your left and right and say I believe in this guy and he can bring something to the table that can make us a good enough team? I know that I really have that.’’
Instilling that belief will be one of the subplots to a training camp that will feature competition for starting roles at small forward and power forward, and questions about the team’s big-man depth now that power forward Noah Vonleh is out for at least a month with a shoulder injury.
“I think I see more in my teammates sometimes than they see in themselves,’’ Lillard said. “I think that’s what it comes down to: We are all talented, have ability and are happy to be teammates, but when you have that belief, you can go further.’’
Among the Las Vegas oddsmakers, the Blazers are projected to be a borderline playoff team, better than Memphis and Utah, but behind Minnesota, Denver and the Clippers.
Last season, the Blazers found that talk is cheap. They thought they were ready to take the next step after finishing fifth in the West, but instead struggled to make the playoffs while playing with a losing record from Dec. 10 through April 1.
Now, as three All-Stars (George, Butler, Anthony) have moved from the East to the West, the margin for error has become even smaller.
“One of positives of such great players moving to the West is it’s obvious to everyone on our roster that we need to step up our games from day one,’’ Olshey said. “So guys have been dialed in more.’’
Odds and ends: One player Olshey went out of his way to praise: point guard Shabazz Napier. “He’s had a really nice off season.’’ … Olshey said he was “incredibly aggressive” in trying to upgrade the roster this offseason, presumably referring to his attempts to acquire Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in trades. “Look, we tried to keep up in the arms race as best we could,’’ Olshey said. “We made every effort … most of the movement was by trade and you need willing partners when it comes to trades. I can tell you we were incredibly aggressive. We protected certain pieces of our roster that we felt were irreplaceable … we did everything in our power to try an accelerate where we are trying to get to as a team.’’
Coach Terry Stotts said three starters are locked in cement: Lillard at point guard, CJ McCollum at shooting guard and Jusuf Nurkic at center … Blazers’ team president Chris McGowan said the Blazers have been notified by the NBA they will not be under consideration for the 2020 or 2021 All-Star Game … After nearly coming to a deal with one client, McGowan said he has renewed pursuit of a partner to advertise on the Blazers’ jersey. He said a deal likely won’t happen until mid-season or next season.