PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — It was Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts who first addressed the elephant in the room.
General manager Neil Olshey took the stage to face the media at the start of fall camp, and Stotts jokingly lobbed the first question: “Why didn’t you sign LaMarcus?”
LaMarcus, of course, is LaMarcus Aldridge, a fixture on the Trail Blazers’ roster for the past nine years, who left for San Antonio as a free agent in the offseason.
Aldridge wasn’t the only starter to leave: So did guard Wesley Matthews (Mavericks), center Robin Lopez (Knicks) and fellow forward Nicolas Batum (Hornets). Those four, along with point guard Damian Lillard, anchored a team that went 51-31 before getting bounced from the first round of the playoffs by Memphis.
Lillard, the only starter standing once the summer was over, now shoulders the “face of the franchise” tag.
He’d prefer the focus be on team.
“I’m not too interested in all this leadership talk to be honest with you. It’s kind of funny that it has become the story,” he said. “Everything that we’re doing is going to be based on the group. I’m not going to be the hero.”
Lillard, an All-Star who signed a five-year, $120 million contract with Portland in the offseason, averaged a career-high 21 points, 6.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds last season.
He’ll be surrounded by a yet-to-be announced cast of starters, from a roster that ranks the third-youngest in the NBA.
Some other things to watch for when it comes to the Blazers’ upcoming season:
MCCOLLUM AT POINT: Coach Stotts in the preseason played guard CJ McCollum at point guard, suggesting he will be Lillard’s backup. McCollum saw minutes at shooting guard late last season, stepping in after Matthews tore his Achilles, averaging 17 points and four rebounds in the postseason, including a career-high 33 points in Game 5.
“It’s a comfortable role for me, and one that I can thrive in, I just have to get more reps at the NBA level,” McCollum said.
OH MEYERS: 7-foot-1 Meyers Leonard, poised to break out in his fourth season with Portland, made seven starts for Portland last season and appeared in all five playoff games. Athletic for a big, he also emerged as a surprising 3-point threat and came off the bench for a double-double (13 points, 13 rebounds) against Memphis in Game 4 of the playoffs.
It’s possible the Blazers slide him to power forward because of his athleticism and shooting ability.
NEW FACES: The new guys include 6-foot-11 Mason Plumlee, who spent his first two NBA seasons with the Brooklyn Nets. He was acquired, along with the draft rights to rookie Pat Connaughton, from the Nets in a deal that sent guard Steve Blake to Brooklyn.
The most veteran of the newcomers is Gerald Henderson Jr., with six years in the league, and center Ed Davis, who has played for the Lakers, Toronto and Memphis over five NBA seasons. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu signed as a free agent after five seasons with several teams.
CONNAUGHTON GOES WITH BASKETBALL: At least for now, it appears Connaughton has settled on chasing his hoop dreams. The rookie out of Notre Dame has a 96 mph fast ball and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2014 before deciding to return to the Fighting Irish for his final season of basketball.
The 31st overall pick by Brooklyn, Connaughton averaged 12.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists last season at Notre Dame.
SO THAT STARTING 5?: Only the Blazers know for sure, and they’re probably still trying to figure it out, too. Portland is still waiting on Henderson to get healthy from offseason hip surgery. But it appears that it will be Lillard at point (McCollum at backup), Henderson at shooting guard, Aminu at small forward, Davis or Leonard at power forward and Plumlee at center.