By Joshua Vinson / @TheJoshAVinson
There are three seasons in the NBA: the regular season, the postseason and the free-agency season, which may be just as interesting as the first two. Every team goes through this, but one team saw a complete face-lift to its starting core this offseason. The Portland Trail Blazers, a team that was a tweak or two away from competing in the NBA Finals, saw Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge all leave, which left the Blazers faithful nervous as to what this team will bring this coming season.
Damian Lillard has been a stud these past few years, picking up prestigious honors like Rookie of the Year and being named an All-Star twice. Now, he’ll have to come together with C.J. McCollum, who’s no stranger to big moments, to get the squad on the same page and compete in the tough Western Conference. Despite things being different, McCollum would be the first to tell you that nothing changes the way he’s approaching the season.
“My mentality doesn’t change heading into the season. I am preparing the same way I would if we returned our entire roster,” McCollum said. “Obviously, the team dynamic will be different, and I will be in a position to contribute more due to opportunity and a change in roles. My mind-set is to take full advantage of this tremendous opportunity. I’m looking forward to it.”
The Blazers need a leader to take over for the departed Aldridge, and they have one in Damian Lillard. This is a great opportunity to see exactly how Lillard reacts to adversity and dealing with a new roster. Many forget that this will be Lillard’s fourth year in the league, and that he is relatively young at the age of 25. McCollum spoke about Lillard’s leadership and the importance of it coming into this season.
“He leads by example and vocally, and he works hard on a daily basis,” McCollum said. “There’s a reason why he’s heading into his fourth year and is the franchise player coming off two consecutive All-Star appearances. When he talks, people listen, and the team will follow his lead. He’s been in a leadership position for years being the point guard and floor general. So the only difference is we lost some leaders so his role will be magnified.”
Many people have written off the Portland Trail Blazers already, but the team isn’t listening to the outside noise. The players are focused on coming together as team under the leadership of Lillard. This season will be a defining moment in his career given the circumstances. However, this is breakout year for C.J. McCollum.
McCollum is entering his third season and really showed his talents this past postseason, especially in the Memphis series. McCollum shot 28/46 in the last three games against Memphis and is a sure starter this season.
“I think I’m a versatile player who can score the ball in a variety of ways,” said McCollum. “I’m a knock-down shooter, good floater and ability to break down defenders and get into the lane. I’m a high-character guy who truly loves the game and am blessed to be able to play a game I love for a living — a game I’ve played for free my entire life and allows me to make a living and provide for my family. I’m a thankful man who knows I didn’t make it on my own and will continue to need help along the way. I’m only as good as my work ethic and God-given talent.”
Damian and C.J. are a great pair and play off of each other very well, though we didn’t get to see that too often on the previous loaded rosters. However, McCollum loves how their games complement each other.
“We have good chemistry and play off each other well. His ability to dribble, pass and shoot is elite and makes the game that much easier for me,” he said. “Defenses have to focus on him, and when I’m on the court with him, I take some of the pressure off him as well with my ability to create shots for myself and others. We will continue to gel as we get further into our careers and get more experience together.”
Damian and C.J. bond, and the chemistry off and on the court among the players will play a huge role in how successful this Blazers team will be. They know nothing will be easy, and honestly, they are content with that. This team has gone younger and will continue to grow over time. There will be times when the players’ patience will be tested, but how they overcome the adversity is testament to this team’s character as a whole. Moments like these are the moments in which players like McCollum thrive the most. He now has the opportunity to showcase his skill set and make a name for himself in this league.
Lillard will have heavy shoulders this season, but his entire life has been about being overlooked and facing obstacles hailing from the Brookfield section of Oakland, California. Expectations may be low for the Blazers this coming season, but this team’s growth and future is definitely bright thanks to the capable hands of Lillard and McCollum.
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