For the better part of the off-season, Damian Lillard's name came up in trade rumours following the Portland Trail Blazers' first-round playoff exit to the Denver Nuggets
"Obviously where we are isn't good enough to win a championship if it's not good enough to get out of a first round series with two of their best three or four players not on the floor." Lillard said following the Game 6 defeat.
SEASON PREVIEW: Can the Blazers break through in 2021-22?
Succumbing to the short-handed Nuggets appeared to be the final straw in the eyes of many for the six-time All-Star, with Lillard disputing any reports of wanting a trade and upon returning from Tokyo with an Olympic gold medal, Lillard put Blazers' fans fears to rest, posting this image on Instagram with the caption "Back for more...#RipCity is my city."
On Media Day, Lillard re-affirmed his commitment to the franchise.
"I think over the years we've always had a competitive team, I think we'll be competitive again," Lillard said.
"Obviously, at the end of last season I wanted to see our roster improve. I wanted us to have a better chance to win. And we had our conversations throughout the summer about what that looked like, and how we could take steps in that direction. I come into this season with faith that that's going to happen."
The Blazers parted ways with head coach Terry Stotts, hiring former NBA champion Chauncey Billups in his place and while they didn't make any blockbuster moves, they added complementary role players in Larry Nance Jr., Cody Zeller, Tony Snell and Ben McLemore alongside their existing core of Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norm Powell, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic.
MORE: Powell says Lillard, McCollum recruited him to stay in Portland
"We've established so much as a team and as an organisation, we don't want to just go do something to just to say, 'I made a change,'" Lillard said. "You want it to be in line with something that could actually make us better, something that could send us to the level that we're trying to get to. We've done some things that I like. I didn't expect us to go out there and get Kevin Durant all of the sudden."
"I think that the conversations that we've had, what we've sat down and talked about I feel like it's genuine that we're trying to move in the right direction and give our team a chance to go get it done."
Lillard has spent all nine seasons of his NBA career in Portland with one lone trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2019 to his name and while the individual accolades have come in the form of six All-Star berths, six All-NBA selections, including one First Team (2018) team success has still eluded the Blazers during his tenure.
Billups, a first-time head coach after spending time with the LA Clippers as an assistant last season has his work cut out for him in a competitive Western Conference, Lillard says the new regime has a chance to breathe life into the team as they look to build on their sixth seed (42-30) finish in 2020-21.
"It was just basically a decade of we were the same team, the same style, just having a new staff that brings something different. New people, new faces, new voices. I think that's gonna probably automatically give us a step in the right direction because we're hearing something fresh," Lillard added.
"Just walking through things, talking through things that we've been doing while we had guys in the gym. I feel like the amount of detail, the focus on it, the amount of time we spend talking about it and pointing out spots on the court and things like that. [I] feel like we'll be a much better defensive team."
It doesn't get any easier for the Blazers this time around with plenty of teams bolstering their rosters with off-season additions, however if the Milwaukee Bucks taught us anything last season, there's no discounting a small market team defying the odds to bring home the Larry O'Brien trophy.
"Watching last year's postseason, I was even more convinced," Lillard added. "I know it can be done."
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