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Blazers look to bounce back from tough off season

With four of last year's starters gone, Portland must rely on Lillard

POSTED: Aug 13, 2015 5:32 PM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Terry Stotts On Blazers

Portland head coach Terry Stotts joins GameTime to talk Blazers basketball.

Neil Olshey didn't blow up the Trail Blazers. He is sure of it. He is also right, if that detail matters. An injury with an impact that never could have been imagined followed by a bad playoff series followed ultimately by a franchise crossroads of a decision is to blame.

Except that detail may not matter. Someone has to be accountable for the most-wincing offseason in the NBA, for that crater where the roster of a Western Conference contender once stood, and Wesley Matthews' previous left Achilles' tendon is not a candidate. Brandon Roy and his knees, Greg Oden and his knees -- been there, felt that.

Portland is about the last place that can stand another re-start dictated by circumstance more than internal decision. And that means Portland the city, Portland the special fan base, not just the franchise. Speaking of details that matter.

A crushing summer most anywhere else is more like the bottom falling out from the Trail Blazers again. They had real potential for a long stay near the top and had built the third-best record in the West by the morning of March 5 and then Matthews tore his Achilles that night against the Mavericks, a two-way player and critical locker-room presence is lost for the season, the Blazers went out meekly in a 4-1 defeat to the Grizzlies despite Memphis playing much of the way without Mike Conley. Then LaMarcus Aldridge bolts for San Antonio.

GameTime: Matthews Injury

The Game Time crew break down the the injury to Wesley Matthews and its effect on the Blazers.

Olshey, the general manager, believes the events are related -- if Matthews never gets hurt the Blazers at least put up a decent fight against the Grizzlies, and if the Blazers have something other than a blank stare on their face in that first round Aldridge has a lot more reason to stay. Something surely changed from February, because Aldridge never encouraged the front office to deal him by the deadline, a logical request that might have allowed him to get a better contract in July from the destination team, if it was a place he was interested in staying.

Management took it from there. The Blazers getting rolled by short-handed Memphis became a statement for more than Aldridge, because if Portland couldn't at least be competitive in the first round, with or without Matthews, then it had to face reality: this was no championship roster. So small forward Nicolas Batum was traded to Charlotte for Noah Vonleh. Shooting guard Matthews left because the Blazers had no interest in coming close to the four years and $57 million on the table from the Mavericks, not for someone coming off a major injury, a contract that eventually reached four years and $70 million. Center Robin Lopez left for the Knicks. Power forward Aldridge left for the Spurs.

What now? Four new starters, that's what. It is enough running room for Damian Lillard, the lone holdover from the opening lineup, to reach yet another new level among the league's best point guards. It gives a big chance for Meyers Leonard, the projected Aldridge replacement coming off a strong postseason.

"I think initially people were kind of caught off guard," Olshey said of the summer developments. "I think people just assumed we'd be in a position to bring LaMarcus back. It's my job to kind of look beyond that and do what's best for the long-term health of the franchise. Our goal was to bring LaMarcus back. We were in the mix. He chose to take his career in another direction. But what we weren't going to do was compound a negative situation and make it worse by signing long-term contracts and taking away flexibility for a team that, quite honestly, wasn't going to be good enough. You have to be honest with yourself when you put a team together and you have to understand that was a group that got beat 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs with LaMarcus Aldridge, so it's not reasonable to assume that that group as constructed, with no cap flexibility to bring in other players was going to be capable of competing at a high enough level to justify giving up a future that can be a lot brighter as long as people understand it's not going to happen overnight.

"I try to be somewhat self-effacing for myself and my staff, but we inherited (in 2012) a toxic culture, no head coach, a disgruntled superstar (Aldridge) and a lottery team, and in 12 months we were a 54-win team and in the second round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade and a half. At some point there's got to be a leap of faith. It's going to be incredibly hard for me as well because I left a situation with the Clippers where I'd been there for eight years, we were one of the premier teams in the Western Conference, we were in the second round of the playoffs, we were peaking -- and I left and came to a rebuilding situation. Twelve months later, we're back to being a second-round playoff team. This past year, I honestly think we were one of the top three or four teams that had a chance to win the championship, if Wes hadn't gotten hurt. He did, and that's the reality. The reality is Wes did get hurt, LaMarcus did leave, and at the end of the day you have to deal with what the reality is, not what you want it to be."

He doesn't want to hear about the history of Trail Blazer anguish. To Olshey, rightly, that cannot dictate decisions in June and July of 2015, even if he does understand the emotional connection between the team and the town goes beyond most places, the way the Blazers are passed from generation. Players stay after retiring or come back to work at the end of their playing careers. It's different there.

But, man, do loyal Blazermaniacs take fierce hits. This is the latest. A little more than four months from wondering how long the playoff run will last to asking if anyone got the license plate of the 18-wheeler that just ran them over. Early-March to mid-July and the end of the biggest of the free-agent moves, not to mention the end to a lot more.

The Blazers are Lillard plus C.J. McCollum, Leonard, Gerald Henderson, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee, among others trying to prove they can be dependable. The playoffs, an automatic a year ago at this time, seem somewhere off in the distance with the new season approaching and a lot of people dropping Portland out of the top eight.

"Probably so," said Allen Crabbe, another one of the young players who now gets a big opportunity. "We lost LaMarcus. We lost four of our five starters, so I'm pretty sure they are. But it's good to have a chip on your shoulder going into the season. A lot of people may take you lightly in games. It just gives us more motivation to go out there and practice harder, get ready for games and play as a team and just deal with that."

There will be a lot of dealing with it going on. The former Trail Blazers are history. Welcome to the re-start, again.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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