The Portland Trail Blazers ushered in a new era on Monday — one that won’t include Damian Lillard.
The Blazers paraded a slew of players in front of reporters for the NBA’s annual media day, where players, coaches and executives talk about the upcoming season and offseason changes. It was the first time in more than a decade that Lillard, the voice and face of the franchise, wasn’t there.
But his presence was still very much there.
“It is the end of an era with Dame,” said Chauncey Billups, the Blazers’ head coach. “We’ve all got to be so thankful that we were on that journey with him.”
Joe Cronin, the Blazers’ general manager who executed a series of trades in the past week that ultimately sent Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks, described Lillard as a “legend.”
“We’re rooting for him,” Cronin said of the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.
But the day wasn’t all about Lillard, whose trade to the Eastern Conference has dominated the NBA storylines in the past week.
Portland will be a new team with a new identity this season. Billups predicted an up-tempo offensive style paired with the size and physicality he’s craved for years. For much of the past 11 years, it was clear who would get the ball in the final seconds of a close game, now it’s anyone’s guess.
“We become less predictable,” Billups said.
Deandre Ayton, the 25-year-old center acquired in a trade with the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and two other players, said he felt invigorated by his new surroundings.
“I’m gonna try my best to do what I can to give you the best of me,” Ayton told Blazers fans.
But the talk of the media day may well have been Scoot Henderson, the Blazers’ rookie point guard selected with the number three pick in June’s NBA draft.
Henderson, 19, showed some hallmarks of a franchise star. He joked with reporters asking how he looked, talked about liking a tight uniform to show off his muscular frame and made clear that he was not feeling any pressure to replace Lillard.
“The only pressure that I have is from myself,” he said, adding that he is focused on being the best version of himself and helping the team win. “I’m not trying to be the new Dame, it’s a new era for a reason,” he said. “I’m here to be Scoot Henderson.”
Billups and Cronin said they’ve been surprised by Henderson’s skills already in scrimmages in recent days.
Billups, who played 17 years in the NBA in the same position as Henderson and Lillard, said he’s already witnessed Henderson’s leadership skills in action. “He has a way of bringing you with him,” he said.
But Henderson will have tough nights and struggle, Billups predicted, which is all part of learning on the job in the NBA.
Billups said working with Henderson this summer has “been a dream.”
“It’s beautiful to be able to watch him and teach him and watch film with him,” Billups said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Cronin said he has many questions about the season, including who will snatch the mantle as the team’s leader. He predicted someone would “come in and get” with their play and intangible leadership qualities.
But the expectations are different from when Lillard was running the show. Cronin said he wants to see “daily improvement” but fans can expect a fun and athletic squad.
The Blazers head to training camp on Tuesday in California, with the first preseason game scheduled for Oct. 12.
Their regular season begins on Oct. 25.