PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Damian Lillard‘s thoughts were already turned toward next season on the flight back to Portland following the Blazers’ final playoff loss to the Warriors. He pondered how the team’s surprising success would impact the tightknit group.
“I started getting worried already. I was sitting on the plane like, we had some success this year, it was unexpected, it was no pressure. People are going to expect a little bit more, and I started to get worried about too many pats on the back,” Lillard said. “But we don’t have those kind of guys. We’ve got hungry guys, we’ve got humble guys that work hard. We had a taste this season as a young group of how well we could do, and what it takes.”
He has added reason for that optimism: Many of the Blazers said Thursday they’d be sticking around this summer to work out together.
The Trail Blazers’ theme this season emerged over time as the team kept surpassing expectations. It wound up on the T-shirts that were left on seats for fans during the playoffs: “Never Doubt Rip City.” They even adopted the hashtag (hash)NeverDoubt.
But the motto could have just as easily been “Band of Brothers.”
“Guys care about winning and we care about each other, and I don’t think that’s very common in the NBA now,” Lillard said.
From a preseason bonding trip to San Diego, where the team hammed for photos on the beach, to Lillard’s team dinners and trips to a roller skating rink, the young Blazers became a cohesive group.
The group that was assembled was the third-youngest in the NBA and included players who, for whatever reason, hadn’t really caught on elsewhere. Many never thought the Blazers would win more than 30 games, let alone make the playoffs, but Portland went on to finish 44-38 with the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
The Blazers beat the injury-depleted Clippers in the first round.
Portland had a daunting task in the defending NBA champion Warriors and MVP Stephen Curry in the second round but put up a fight. After dropping the first two in Oakland, Portland claimed the third at home but lost the fourth in overtime – with Curry coming back from a knee injury and scoring 40 points, including 17 in the OT. The Warriors closed out the series with a nail-biter in Oakland on Wednesday night.
Lillard averaged a career-high 25.1 points in the regular season, becoming just the third Portland player to average more than 25. He also averaged 6.8 assists.
CJ McCollum averaged 20.8 points in his first year as a starter, giving the Blazers their first backcourt duo with an average of 20 or more points apiece in a single season.
McCollum was named the league’s Most Improved Player for more than tripling his scoring average from the 2014-15 season.
Those two will almost certainly be back next season, as will fellow starters Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee. Forward Maurice Harkless, who started all 11 postseason games, backup guard Allen Crabbe and reserve forward Meyers Leonard are all restricted free agents.
Leonard injured his shoulder late in the season and required surgery. He was still wearing a sling Thursday.
“To be honest, I haven’t had a conversation with my agent about this (free agency),” said Leonard, who said his focus was on rehab. He and Crabbe said they’d like to stay in Portland.
The Blazers have a team option on coach Terry Stotts for the coming season, but the team is looking to quickly firm up a long-term deal. The 58-year-old coach has a 182-146 record in four seasons with the team. He’s led the Blazers to the playoffs in each of the last three years, and to the conference semifinals twice.
Stotts finished second to Golden State’s Steve Kerr in NBA Coach of the Year voting.
“You just look at what he got out of his guys all year,” Plumlee said. “He should have been coach of the year.”
Lillard and McCollum, meanwhile, are already planning the team’s collective offseason getaway.
“Coming into this season we weren’t even expected to be a playoff team. We didn’t accept what everybody expected of us. We had our own goals, we had own plan in mind,” Lillard said. “I think the next step is not accepting, `All right, let’s just get there, let’s get there and compete.’ Now it’s `Let’s get there and let’s go win it.”‘