Blazers Get To Know Each Other In San Diego

by Casey Holdahl
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The NBA season, to put it simply, is long. Roughly seven months elapse between the start of training camp at the end of September and completion of the regular season in mid-April. And during those seven months, it’s not at all uncommon for teammates will see each other almost every day, whether it’s during practices, meetings, flights, bus rides, appearances or any number of other events that fill the time in between playing 82 games.

Given how much time they spend together, it's reasonable to assume individual players might prefer to protect their alone time in the run up to training camp. But it’s precisely because they’ll be together so much in the coming months that players on Portland’s roster decided to put together a meet up in San Diego for a week of workouts and, more importantly, some get-to-know-you time.

“I thought it would be good for us all to get together and know each other before we came in here for camp,” said Lillard, who came up with the idea. “Just getting familiar and getting comfortable with each other.”

That hasn’t been much of a concern that last few seasons, as the core of Portland’s roster had been relatively consistent since Lillard and Meyers Leonard were selected with the 6th and 11th picks, respectively, of the the 2012 NBA Draft. But with 11 new players under contract, the holdovers from last year’s team thought it wise to touch bases outside of a gym before training camp.

“I thought it would be a good idea so I reached out to all the guys on the team to see who could make it and who was available,” said Lillard. “Eleven guys made it out, the guys who could make it out made it out. We worked out together every morning, we hooped together in the afternoon. I took everybody out to lunch, went to dinner a few times, we went to a Padres game together. Just kind of bonding and putting some work in together, building that foundation, because we’re going to be together.”

Beach work #SanDiego

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Which is an understatement. Playing 82 games in six months pencils out to roughly one game every two days, with practices and travel eating up most of the time in between. And while there are technically “off days” in which the team neither plays, travels nor practices, most players are still coming in to get treatment, lift weights or receive one-on-one instruction from the coaching staff.

So in actuality, there are really very few instances in which a player will go 24 hours without being around his teammates. But while it’s somewhat paradoxical to make a point of spending additional time with a group of individuals who you’ll already be in close quarters with for the next half year, it sets the Trail Blazers up to hit the ground running once camp starts rather than spending the first days of the season building rapport.

“Some of these guys, I’d never even shook their hand before,” said Meyers Leonard. “You play against them, but you want to get to know them a little bit, because once you know each other and trust each other on more of a personal level, it’s much easier to be communicative on the court and have better chemistry and just kind of know each other outside of basketball as well. It was a phenomenal week.”

While working out and playing pickup games against each other is a good way for new teammates to better understand each other from an on-court perspective, it’s arguably less important, at least at this point, than getting their personal relationships to a point where they feel comfortable challenging each other. That’s especially true players like Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis, who join the Trail Blazers this season after playing with the Nets, Mavericks and Lakers, respectively, last year.

“Playing together, you’ll get that in training camp,” said Plumlee. “But to spend time, to go to lunch, to go to dinner, just get to know each other personally is very valuable.”

It’s even small things, like knowing what name a new player prefers to go by or what kind of music he prefers, can go a long way toward smoothing out some of the initial awkwardness that goes along with meeting new coworkers for the first time. That’s not to say that a week in San Diego is going to instantly smooth over the rough patches the Trail Blazers are sure to endure this season, but it at least gets the process of establishing a culture well underway.

San Diego livin'

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“It doesn’t mean it’s all going to be sunshine and rainbows,” said Plumlee. “Every team has trials and it can go one of two ways: it can either make you better or it can break you. San Diego was more getting to know each other, having conversations off the court, but you really get to know each other during the season.”

Throughout the season, a team as young as the 2015-16 Trail Blazers are going to need to hold each other accountable in the absence of long-time veterans, and that’s much easier to do when there’s an established interpersonal relationship. After all, it can be a bit hard to take advice and/or criticism from someone whose nature and motives are unknown. But if there’s a baseline of respect, it’s much easier to be receptive of whatever the message might be.

“I came to the gym yesterday and Luis Montero was playing one-on-one and I jumped in, just challenged him a little bit,” said Lillard. “Like, I got real physical with him and I went hard on him, kind of beat him up a bit in the one-on-one. You could tell he looked a little shocked.

“But now, me and him just had a long conversation about international play, stuff like that. You can tell that me being around instead of trying to be a star — I get my workout then I disappear or I lift separate from everybody else, not communicating — you can tell it really has an impact. Now when I walk up to him and I’m like ‘Luis, you got to have your ass in the corner! You got to be there!’ he’s just gonna say ‘Alright Dame, I got you’ instead of him thinking I’m just coming down on him because I think I’m a star. I think that’s why being around each other is so important. Now we can hold each other accountable.”

Which one hopes will be an enduring legacy of that trip to San Diego throughout the coming months and years in Rip City.

“When Wes (Matthews) would yell at me, I could take it because I know Wes,” said Lillard. “Me and Wes are boys and we had been on the same team for three years, so I could take that from Wes. If one of these dudes come in here and try to yell at me, I don’t know how I’d respond to it if I had never met them before. We spent that time in San Diego and now I can come in here like ‘What up Ed?’ shake his hand, shove him, whatever because we shared a week together. We actually spent time around each other. It definitely helps, and this definitely feels like a different environment. It just feels so fresh, everybody is so receptive.”

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