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Blazers forge ahead as Melo speculation ends

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard acknowledges the crowd during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz in Portland, Ore., Saturday, April 8, 2017. Lillard scored a franchise-record 59 points as the Blazers won 101-86. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — After a summer of seemingly endless speculation about Carmelo Anthony, the Portland Trail Blazers are opening training camp without him.

Anthony is heading to Oklahoma City after more than six seasons with the New York Knicks. The Knicks had long been trying to deal him and speculation surfaced during the summer that Portland was — possibly — in the mix for the 33-year-old forward.

Portland guards CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard weren't shy about their desire to bring Anthony into the fold. McCollum even posted a Photoshopped image of Anthony in a Blazers jersey to Instagram.

Lillard said Monday that he was "all over" Anthony to lure him to Rip City.

"I thought I went after him pretty hard, just off the fact that I understood that he could make us a better team," Lillard said. "A lot of teams in the West are going after guys and adding more and more firepower. Obviously, we believe in what we have, but the more firepower we can add, we'll have a better chance of competing for longer periods of time at a higher level."

But it wasn't to be, and Anthony will join Russell Westbrook and Paul George in a loaded Thunder lineup.

That leaves the Blazers (almost) where they left off last season, when the team finished 41-41 and was eliminated by the Golden State Warriors in the opening round of the playoffs.

The Blazers have 12 returning players, including the intriguing trio of Lillard, McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic. Lillard finished the season with a career-best average of 27 points per game, along with 4.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Backcourt teammate McCollum also finished the season with a career-best 23 points per game.

Nurkic came to the Blazers in a trade last February and quickly developed chemistry with his teammates. He averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers, who were 14-5 with him in the starting lineup.

His season was cut short by a non-displaced right leg fibular fracture. Now fully healed, Nurkic is again embracing his role with the Blazers. He dropped 34 pounds this summer in an effort to be quicker and more agile.

The Blazers acquired another big man, 7-footer Zach Collins out of Gonzaga, on draft night. The team also landed 6-foot-9 forward Caleb Swanigan out of Purdue with the 26th pick. The Big Ten Player of the Year averaged 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds last season as a sophomore.

Gone this season is Allen Crabbe, who was traded to the Brooklyn Nets. A 6-foot-6 wing, Crabbe averaged 10.7 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists off the bench for Portland last season.

The Blazers' winningest starting lineup included Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic and forwards Noah Vonleh and Maurice Harkless. Vonleh, however, won't start training camp this season because of a shoulder injury.

Coach Terry Stotts and most of the players who spoke at media day said it's critical the Blazers get off to a good start this season.

Portland struggled at the start last year and went just 4-11 in December. The team dipped 11 games below .500 with a 120-113 overtime loss at Detroit on Feb. 28. A 13-3 March helped put the team back on track.

"I think for us it's important to come into the season and believe," Lillard said. "No matter who we got or who we didn't get."

QUOTABLE: Lillard was asked about the weekend's protests in response to President Donald Trump's Twitter comments about the Warriors and the NFL.

"I'm happy to see athletes take a role in, I guess, politics, coming in our direction, but I'm more happy that some guys are actually informed. It's kind of been brought to us now, and I'm happy that there are guys who actually know what's going on," he said. "I think it's sad that with all that's going on in the world and in the United States, that our president is concerned with football and basketball. I kind of think that's crazy. I think what you saw yesterday with guys locking arms and guys kneeling, and some teams not coming out for the national anthem, I think that's what it will take. It takes that kind of togetherness to truly make a stand."

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