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Dec. 2, 2023

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Blazers begin new era without Damian Lillard

Players like Anfernee Simons, Jerami Grant, Scoot Henderson, Deandre Ayton part of new lineup

By , Columbian staff writer
7 Photos
Portland Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons poses for a portrait during the NBA basketball team's media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Oct. 2, 2023.
Portland Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons poses for a portrait during the NBA basketball team's media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer) Photo Gallery

PORTLAND — As Anfernee Simons fielded questions from reporters Monday morning during the Portland Trail Blazers’ media day, the sixth-year guard was hit with a dose of reality.

Simons, 24, is suddenly the longest-tenured player on the team, following the departures of Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic via trade last week.

“That’s crazy,” Simons said with a grin, upon hearing that revelation. “That’s crazy.”

Welcome to the beginning of a new era in Rip City.

Lillard, Portland’s franchise pillar of 11 years, requested a trade July 1 that materialized nearly three months later when he was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a three-team deal that also sent Nurkic, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson to the Phoenix Suns. The Blazers acquired Deandre Ayton, along with Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon in a subsequent deal with the Boston Celtics on Sunday.

The recent flurry of activity and the void left by Lillard means the Blazers are building a new identity with different players looking to emerge as leaders.

Based on comments from players, head coach Chauncey Billups and general manager Joe Cronin during Monday’s media day at the Rose Quarter, it will be a committee of voices stewarding the transition.

“You’re probably going to have a situation where there’s going to be so many different guys night in and night out who lead the team in this or that,” Billups said. “To me, there’s so much beauty in that. You become less predictable when you have those type of teams.”

For one, returning starters Simons and forward Jerami Grant will likely be tasked with larger roles.

Simons was elevated to a full-time starter last season alongside Lillard in the backcourt. That transition proved to be awkward at times, Billups said, because of the instinct to defer to Lillard, undoubtedly the Blazers’ top player.

Now, the runway is all clear for Simons, who averaged career highs in points (21.1), assists (4.1) and field goal percentage (44.7) during the 2022-23 season.

“Coming into the NBA, that’s kind of like the dream — being able to be ‘the guy’ on the team and demand that out of you and your teammates as well,” Simons said. “I just take it along as a challenge and just a step into a new direction in my development as a player, as a person and my life in general.”

Grant, 29, is now the second-oldest player on the team to Brogdon, 30, who was not in attendance Monday.

A major reason why Grant sought to play in Portland was to team up with Lillard. Grant signed a five-year, $160 million contract on June 30 to return to the Blazers, just a matter of days before Lillard asked to be traded.

But, Grant noted Monday he’s played for five teams in 10 years and is accustomed to change in the NBA.

“It’s a lot, it’s definitely a lot. It’s part of the business. Got to keep moving forward regardless,” Grant said. “We lost a lot of big pieces. We also got a lot of big pieces as well. So definitely looking forward to making it work.”

The presumed long-term replacement for Lillard is highly-touted rookie point guard Scoot Henderson, who the Blazers selected with the third overall pick in June’s NBA Draft.

Cronin and Billups spoke highly Monday of Henderson’s playmaking ability, noting the 6-foot-2, 195-pound guard is operating at even higher level than they saw during the pre-draft scouting process.

Along with Simons, Brogdon and second-year guard Shaedon Sharpe, Henderson will be vying for playing time in a crowded backcourt, though less so now than when Lillard was still on the roster.

Henderson said he doesn’t feel pressure to replace one of the best players in franchise history in Lillard.

“I’m not trying to be a new Dame. It’s a new era for a reason. So I’m here to be Scoot Henderson,” he said.

Ayton, 25, is another player who talked openly Monday of taking on a bigger leadership role after getting dealt to the Blazers from Phoenix where he spent the first five years of his professional career.

Ayton and Williams give the Blazers an intriguing one-two punch at center with a knack for defense and playing above the rim. Both players also bring a winning pedigree to the Blazers, having appeared in the NBA Finals with their former teams.

“A new beginning. I get to show the world (and) show you guys who I am as a player, on and off the court, when it comes to leading,” Ayton said. “Especially helping young guys on this team win, teaching them how to win (and) teaching them how tough it is to win in this league as well.”

Despite the unknowns of this latest iteration of the Blazers, fan interest appears to be healthy.

President of business operations Dewayne Hankins reported the season ticket renewal rate was at 92.5 percent this year, which is the highest figure the franchise has seen since 2019 when it reached the Western Conference Finals.

How the team will measure success this season, Cronin said, is daily improvement.

“This is going to be a group that, while very talented and capable and hopefully fun to watch, they have a lot to improve on,” Cronin said. “They’re extremely young and haven’t played together for the most part.”

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