TUALATIN, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers have ascended from would-be bottom feeders to the NBA’s new “it” team.
Suddenly LeBron James is singing their praises on the other side of the country and Draymond Green is talking about how much he respects them, how good they will be.
But as the Blazers looked back at their body of work following Wednesday’s elimination at the hands of the Warriors, they made clear that it speaks for itself.
They’re done trying to impress people, they just want to win.
“I think we have a winning culture, we’re trending upward with a lot of young talent,” CJ McCollum said when asked what he would say to entice potential free agents at Thursday’s exit interviews. “If that’s not enough for somebody, they don’t deserve to play here.”
“I’m not going to try and sell anybody on anything,” Lillard said. “I think being on a team with guys that care about the guy next to them. Guys that work hard. We don’t have jealousy. Guys care about winning and guys care about each other. I don’t think that’s very common in the NBA now because of how we started: a young team, guys that didn’t get much of an opportunity. We brothers.”
“I think we are good team right now but I think we are on the door step of becoming an elite team,” McCollum said.
For the Blazers, it meant something to earn the respect of the Warriors. To look the Warriors in the eye and not blink. To, as Lillard said, force them to be champions.
Lillard admitted he feared “too many pats on the back,” would get to his team on the flight home but after hearing many of his teammates would stay in Portland was a sign that there is something building.
“I think the next step is not accepting lets’ just get there and compete,'” Lillard said. “Now it’s lets get there and lets go win it. And it all starts in your mind.”
ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz reported Thursday that retaining head coach Terry Stotts is the “first order of business,” as he has a team option for the 2016-17 season and that both his representatives and the Blazers will explore an extension beyond next season.
Almost every Blazer who spoke at exit interviews campaigned for an extension and a raise for their coach on their final day at the office though there has been no official announcement.
Neil Olshey has sung his praises at every turn. Another reason it would be a surprise if he didn’t get an extension is the support Stotts has from Lillard, who credits his coach with fostering a culture of positivity and improvement.
“Lillard would never let them remove Stotts,” a league source said.
Lillard again went to bat for his coach when asked what a Stotts extension would mean Thursday.
“That would mean everything to me,” Lillard said. “I haven’t always been a fan of change first of all. You come into a situation like this to have a guy as open as he is. The freedom he allows guys, how comfortable he makes guys. He’s a really good coach and as long as I’m a part of this organization, I would want him to be a part of this organization.”
Stotts said that this season was his most rewarding coaching job and that it was “a great start,” on their journey.
Retaining Stotts appears to be just a formality, but this team will change.
Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard are all restricted free agents who have upped their value. Gerald Henderson, another big part of the team’s success, is an unrestricted free-agent.
As the Blazers exited the office for the last time in the 2015-16 season, Olshey was in Chicago at the draft combine and McCollum was already plotting destinations for another summer retreat.
Things are different now, but the key figures within the Blazers are doing their part to make sure things only get better, which starts by keeping things the same.