Damian Lillard sees opportunity in a transformed Western Conference

While the Western Conference remade itself with superstars moving teams or retiring, the Trail Blazers kept their core intact. Damian Lillard says he believes this new West will play right into Portland's hands. Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Before we get to Damian Lillard's expectations for his Portland Trail Blazers this season, we need his reflection on his hopes for last year's team, the one everyone thought was headed to lotteryville after losing LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez.

"Make the playoffs," Lillard said. "Last year I said we were going to make the playoffs, and we did that."

Ok, so maybe it wasn't as bold a proclamation as Lillard makes it out to be. On media day last year his first reaction when the playoffs topic was raised was, "I don't see why not." Then he added qualifiers, as if wary of producing a headline for a story he wasn't sure he could write.

"I'm not sitting here saying that, 'We're going to make the playoffs,' " Lillard said that day. "I would like to, and I think that's what our goal is, but it's not as far-fetched as some people would make it seem."

At least he isn't going around bragging that he knew the Trail Blazers would be in the second round of the playoffs, which is where they found themselves against the Golden State Warriors after bouncing back from a 2-0 deficit in the opening series while the Clippers dealt with injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

He has earned the right for us to store his 2016-17 expectations in the reality room. He's neither selling his team short through artificial modesty, nor ordering law enforcement overtime pay to block off the championship parade route.

"This year I want to get to the Western Conference finals and give ourselves a chance to get to the [NBA] Finals," Lillard said. "I think it's possible."

It is, especially if the Trail Blazers wind up away from the Golden State Warriors' side of the Western Conference playoff bracket. The Oklahoma City Thunder are weakened from the loss of Kevin Durant. The Clippers have yet to prove that they can get past the second round. The San Antonio Spurs are, if not necessarily worse, different without Tim Duncan. Besides, there haven't been many points in time over the past 20 years when the Trail Blazers could say they've won as many playoff series as the Spurs over the past two seasons.

"This year I want to get to the Western Conference finals and give ourselves a chance to get to the [NBA] Finals. I think it's possible."
Damian Lillard

Unlike last year, the Blazers brought their core back, even if it was a very expensive way to stay the same. While other teams, even the heavily stocked Warriors, need a discovery period, the Trail Blazers already found out what they needed to know in last season's playoffs.

"We learned we had some fight in us," Lillard said. "We wanted it."

He doesn't consider the Clippers series a fluke. He notes the Clippers were at full strength when the Trail Blazers beat them in Game 3, and Portland had the lead when Paul and Griffin went down in Game 4. And speaking of having the lead, did you know that after the Warriors controlled Game 1 of the second round, the Blazers held the lead for 137 minutes to the Warriors' 61 minutes the rest of the series? They just couldn't close out games the way the Warriors did.

"We could've easily laid down, even against Golden State," Lillard said. "We could've said: 'All right, we got out of the first round ... this [Warriors] team lost nine games.' We could have laid down, but we didn't."

The Trail Blazers could get credit for that last year. Not just credit, but hefty contracts for returners C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless, and an extension for coach Terry Stotts. All that cash means no more credit. Teams don't commit a third of a billion dollars in new contracts to be content winning five playoff games again.

Two things bode well for the Blazers. First, their best player is getting better. Lillard is only 26, on the cusp of his prime, and in his fifth season he says the game is slowing down for him, making more sense, even getting easier. Second, the NBA is coming around to the Trail Blazers' style of play. They used to be criticized for being perimeter-oriented, then were forced to grow even more so when Aldridge left for San Antonio. But the league as a whole shoots more 3-pointers now, and the Trail Blazers are better at it than most teams; their .370 three-point shooting percentage tied for fourth best in the NBA last season.

Stotts is trying to present this season as a continuation of last season, rather than a separate entity. Retaining so much of the roster allows him to do so. His point guard sees it the same way.

Lillard also sees this team playing deep into May. We never talk about vision as one of Lillard's best attributes. Maybe that's about to change.