PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – “They had to learn the hard way,” Damian Lillard said with a bit of a smirk at the Portland Trail Blazers 2019 Media Day that kicked off the team’s 50th anniversary season.
Among a crowd of new faces taking their headshots in Portland’s red, white and black for the first time, Lillard’s familiar jersey stood out with the big number 0.
“When people look at Portland they don’t look at it as the most attractive place,” Lillard continued. “A lot of the positives of being here you can’t see unless you come be a part of it.”
This summer the President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Neil Olshey landed four players Portland had courted before: Pau Gasol, Mario Hezonja, Kent Bazemore, and Hassan Whiteside. They all had declined back then, but Olshey said the time was right for them to say yes now.
“I think we get guys at the right time,” Olshey said. “We chased Pau as a free agent, we chased Mario as a free agent, we chased Baze in free agency — it wasn’t the right time.”
But now, Olshey said, there’s a certain comfort level for these players.
“You may miss the first time you go after guys but the next time it comes back around, they know they’re walking into a situation they had evaluated previously. This team and the leadership of the team has lived up to what we had pitched them in their meetings the last time.”
It certainly made a difference for Gasol and Hezonja. Gasol, the legendary big man, had been seriously courted by the Blazers before deciding to sign with San Antonio in 2016. Reports indicated the Blazers and Raptors were the final 3 teams Gasol had considered then.
Gasol said Portland’s persistence then and now made it an easy decision to pick the Trail Blazers this time around.
“They were excited,” Gasol said. “Almost as excited as they were three years ago. To me that was important because some of those teams were not knocking on the door as loud.”
Hezonja had chosen the New York Knicks the last time he was searching for a new team, despite Lillard FaceTiming him on the first day of free agency.
“I was already leaning towards New York,” Hezonja said. “The story was just too good and I wanted to experience New York, the fans there and how it is.”
Hezonja’s year in a Knicks uniform was riddled with ownership drama. New York is a team down in the cellar of the association — that culture likely filtered down into inconsistent play for the Croatian who many feel has yet to reach his potential.
When the option to join Portland came back up, Hezonja didn’t hesitate.
“I knew. I knew everything, I knew the situation,” he said. “I just knew this is a great team for me.”
CJ McCollum, who also just signed a multi-year extension with the Blazers, echoed Lillard’s reasoning for why it took some free agents time to realize what Portland was preaching was the real deal.
“Trial and error,” McCollum said. “Maybe they thought the grass was greener somewhere else and it wasn’t.”
That was the situation for Bazemore. He has spent the last five seasons in Atlanta, a team that missed the playoffs the last 2 years and was in the middle of a rebuild.
“Atlanta has a special place in my heart,” Bazemore said. “But teams change and they went younger and I kind of found myself on the outside looking in.”
This made his choice to leave that much easier.
“The day I made the decision to try and find somewhere that wanted to win,” he said. “Portland was a team I watched play all playoffs and I just envisioned myself in a Trail Blazers jersey.”
Center Hassan Whiteside had also passed on the Blazers in a previous free agency, opting instead to go to Miami. In the years following his breakout 2015-2016 season, Whiteside struggled to find his place with the Heat.
“It don’t matter where you live if you’re not happy on the court,” Whiteside told reporters. “This is a place that I wanted to come and I wanted to come here for years, and when I was finally able to come here I really didn’t care about nothing else except the basketball.”
Different journeys, different reasons for saying no then, different reasons for saying yes now — they all eventually made their way to Portland.
“People have different journeys in the past,” Lillard said. “I think they see from the outside that this is real, it’s a real situation and they weren’t going to miss out on it a second time.”
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