For Blazers, defense top priority as training camp set to open

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

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PORTLAND – At the dawn of the season, media day is a chance for each NBA team to put on its best public face. Optimism reigns.

Monday, the Portland Trail Blazers’ tone was defensive. And that’s a good thing if the Blazers want to fulfill the playoff aspirations coaches and players spoke of before today’s start of training camp.

Last season, Portland ranked 21ist in points allowed at 100.7 per game. It was the first time the Blazers have allowed a triple-digit average since the 1993-94 season.

“That’s going to be our number one priority,” head coach Terry Stotts said. “For us to do what we want to do this year, we’re going to have to improve defensively.”

Whether the team improves defensively likely hinges on Robin Lopez, whom the Blazers acquired in an offseason trade. Coming off career highs in points (11.3), rebounds (5.6) and blocks (1.5) with New Orleans, Lopez said he wants to be the physical presence near the basket the Blazers have recently lacked.

“I want to be someone who makes people think twice about driving to the basket,” Lopez said.

Speaking of defensive, general manager Neil Olshey bristled when asked about unsubstantiated rumors LaMarcus Aldridge demanded a trade last season.

"Oh dear God, could you guys get over it?" Olshey said. “I don’t think LaMarcus’s motivation ever waned. Look, if L.A. wasn’t happy, he wouldn’t be here.”

Aldridge said he’s happy to be with the Blazers and excited about the season.

"The people who know me knew I never said any of those things," he said.

Aldridge praised the team’s offseason acquisitions. Beyond Lopez, the team gained veteran leadership in Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Earl Watson. The trio bring a combined 31 years of NBA experience to the team that has eight players with one year or less in the league.

“I had opportunities where I would start,” said Williams, a guard who will come off the bench. “But this was the best shot for making the playoffs.”

The Blazers also acquired lottery-level talent in Thomas Robinson. The No. 5 overall pick in 2012, the forward was dogged by inconsistency in 70 games for Sacramento and Houston, which traded him to Portland.

“You guys have seen a limited sample of Thomas Robinson, but you’re going to be really surprised just how gifted this kid is,” Olshey said. “He’s got a renewed energy. He knows we’ve invested in him and he’s responded.”

One proven commodity is Damien Lillard, who is coming off one of the best rookie campaigns in NBA history. Lillard said he will be a more vocal leader in what he hopes will be an all-star season.

"When you want to get better, you give yourself something to be hungry for,” Lillard said. “We didn't even make the playoffs, so making the playoffs is something I can be hungry for." 

Notes

  • On Monday, the Blazers announced they had exercised third-year options on Lillard, Robinson and second-year center Meyers Leonard.
  • Blazers president Chris McGowan said fans will notice changes beyond the name at the newly christened Moda Center. While not revealing details, he said gameday felt too much like a generic arena experience. He said live music is being considered and that there will be a replacement for the Chalupas fans used to get if the Blazers scored 100 points.
  • Nicolas Batum spent the offseason with France’s national team, which won the EuroBasket championships in Slovenia. Batum, who showed off his gold medal Monday, said he’s energized for the season despite his busy summer.
  • Robin Lopez said he’d a big fan of allowing nicknames on the back of jerseys, an idea the NBA is considering. The bushy-haired center said he would be Screech, Sideshow Rob, RoLo or Big Simba.