McMillan finds new company on bench

Bickerstaff, Ociepka, Williams join as assistant coaches

By Brian T. Smith, Columbian Sports Writer

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TUALATIN, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers’ summer of change continued Tuesday.

But instead of adding or subtracting a player or general manager, the team went for a somewhat more traditional approach by shaking up its coaching staff.

Bernie Bickerstaff, Bob Ociepka and ex-Blazer Buck Williams were introduced as assistants during a press conference at the team’s practice facility.

The trio will help Portland head coach Nate McMillan guide the team through the upcoming 2010-11 season, and round out a staff that also features assistants Bill Bayno and Kaleb Canales.

Former assistants Dean Demopoulos, Monty Williams, Maurice Lucas and Joe Prunty left the team for a variety of reasons following the 2009-10 campaign.

“I told my coaches in May that I was going to look at making changes,” McMillan said. “And that with all the jobs that were available, that they should look at opportunities if the opportunity presented itself.”

Soon, a new home appeared for Bickerstaff, Ociepka and Williams. And each are expected to add a unique set of assets to the Blazers.

Bickerstaff, 66, will be looked upon to provide experience, wisdom and a no-nonsense approach. He has been in the NBA for 36 years, and was McMillan’s first coach when Sarge was a rookie with Seattle in 1986.

Bickerstaff joked Tuesday that he was initially afraid that the SuperSonics had made a mistake when they drafted McMillan.

Now, the mistake is his boss. And as McMillan has rebuilt the Blazers from a doormat into a championship contender in six years, Bickerstaff said he signed on with the knowledge that minor alterations can sometimes make the most impact.

“What we’ve been telling Nate is this is a good basketball team,” Bickerstaff said. “I think the changes have to be very subtle, in terms of what you do. We’re coming in to assist him, not to make any drastic changes. But he’ll get a different voice. He’ll get an honest opinion.”

McMillan said he will embrace that opinion.

Despite opening and warming up in recent years, McMillan can still cast a long shadow with Blazers. His intense mindset and results-driven focus are in many ways the main forces that contribute to the team’s personality and on-the-court character.

However, back-to-back 50-win seasons that have been followed by disappointing first-round playoff exits have forced McMillan to realize that the time has come for change.

He acknowledged as much Tuesday, stating that he is open to any ideas his new assistants can contribute, while conceding that even the team’s methodical style of play is up for debate.

“I want them to bring their egos in here. We’ll find a way to get along. Disagreeing is OK. That’s OK,” McMillan said. “As long as when we walk out of that room, we are on the same page with what we want to do. And that final decision will be mine when we walk out of that room.”

Meanwhile, Ociepka is expected to strengthen a Portland defense that ranked third in the NBA last season in average points allowed (94.8), but whose perimeter-based weaknesses were clearly exposed during a 4-2 playoff defeat to Phoenix.

Ociepka, 61, said his initial meeting with McMillan lasted three hours and stretched until 12:30 a.m.

The connection was instantaneous, and the chemistry was evident.

In McMillan, Ociepka discovered a coach who subscribed to the same foundations of old-school basketball in which he believes. In return, McMillan found a new assistant who epitomizes the term “coach.”

“He gets excited when he talks about basketball,” McMillan said. “When he was talking to me about the game and what he felt he could bring to the staff, I could hear the excitement in his voice.”

Lastly, the 50-year-old Williams stated that he will gladly help mold Portland big men such as Greg Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge. Yet Williams does not want to be boxed in and cornered with the title. What Williams really wants to contribute is a particular mindset and approach to the game.

One founded in a strong work ethic and fundamental basketball — but one that also breeds the same type of playoff-winning pride to which Williams became accustomed during his eight-year playing career with the franchise.

Williams said that when he retired from the NBA in 1998, he had several opportunities to coach. But he decided to turn them down so he be around his children.

This time, he decided to accept McMillan’s offer because the knowledge that Williams had left the game without winning an NBA title had never left his mind.

“I see this team here is primed — there’s a lot of talent on this team,” Williams said. “It’s a great organization. Great community.”

He added: “This has been a very special for place me. ... It’s like playing in college. It’s a one-town team, and they really love the Trail Blazers.”

Notes

• The Blazers remain open to trading guard Rudy Fernandez, team sources said. It is unlikely Fernandez will be waived or release. But the team views him and guard Jerryd Bayless as possible trade assets following the recent signing of guard Wesley Matthews.

• A decision has not been made about the future of guards Patty Mills and Armon Johnson, a team source said. Both players improved their stock during Summer League play, and their value to the organization will be assessed during meetings this week.