Candace Buckner: Blazers upgrades in the works

Candace Buckner: Commentary




TUALATIN, Ore. — On Thursday, I was reminded that progress doesn’t always have to look like much for it to make an impact.

Inside the Portland Trail Blazers practice facility, progress looked like a shaggy-haired 7-footer and a double-sleeve tattooed shooter.

One half is better known as Brook’s twin brother, and the other a have-three-will-travel free agent who averaged only 9.2 points last season.

The signings of center Robin Lopez and wing Dorell Wright, as well as second-year power forward Thomas Robinson and veteran point guard Earl Watson — the four newly acquired players introduced by the Blazers on Thursday — do not “move the needle,” as general manager Neil Olshey has been known to say.

They’re not sexy names that will spike sales in Blazers’ merchandising anytime soon. But — and this is important — they don’t need to be.

They are, instead, the moving pieces that distance the team away from its franchise tying 13-game losing streak and closer to competitiveness. The promissory note signed by Olshey and sent to an almost too-loyal fan base that ‘We, the Blazers, owe you one for last year.’ The evidence that the front office knows its limitations but will work around them to move in the right direction.

They are progress.

“We were identifying skills as much as we were identifying players,” Olshey said about the team’s offseason goals. “I know everybody on the other side of the computer wants to look at names but names don’t always get it done, teams get it done.”

Not every constructed quote that tripped smoothly along Olshey’s tongue could be taken as scripture. When recalling how Portland’s 2012-13 reserves created the weakest bench in the league, Olshey actually called it “by design” — which is like saying, I totally meant to get caught cutting Mr. Anderson’s eighth-grade biology class so I could spend an entire Saturday afternoon inside a lunchroom that reeked of yesterday’s macaroni.

However, Olshey’s view about signing on name recognition versus fulfilling needs was spot on.

Think about the Blazers’ greatest necessities heading into this offseason: a starting center, improved defense and rebounding and more backup on the perimeter. Now scratch them off the list.

Portland solved all of these problems.

When Lopez, a 7-foot, 255-pound creation, specifically mentioned that he’s here to block and alter shots, somewhere, Theo Ratliff must have shed a single tear of pride. Portland’s interior defense needed an upgrade and a guy who averaged a career-best 1.56 blocks last season is a nice start.

Starting center and defensive upgrade — check.

As Robinson, still fatigued from the morning’s practice, flexed his sculpted arms next to Lopez, just that sight alone confirmed that this 22-year-old can come in and rival Meyers Leonard for strongest man on the roster. But unlike Leonard, Robinson uses those muscles for bullying and rebounding. Though Robinson was tossed around during his rookie season — traded from Sacramento to Houston — and received decidedly fewer minutes and opportunities on the court, he still averaged more rebounds (4.5) than Leonard (3.7).

Improved toughness — check.

Watson may equate to simply Ronnie Price version 2.0 — a veteran who stays in his patriarchal lane as a locker-room mentor — but his calming influence will do wonders for the Blazers young point guards, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. However, fans will see more of Wright and his 36.7 percent 3-point shooting on the floor. Wright’s size and versatility allows him to play from the two-guard to the stretch-four, so you can uncover your eyes now. No more reaching for the remote when Terry Stotts looks down his bench.

A better rotation — check.

Portland may never attract the Dwight Howards and Chris Pauls through free agency, but the team is excelling in the alternative — drafting wisely and luring the second-tier players who can make a difference. Just with these additions, the Blazers should win more games than last year.

“There’s no question we’re a more talented team,” Stotts said. “We’ve added shooting, length, playmaking, rebounding, defense, leadership. So I think top to bottom, we’re a better roster.”

Baby steps, but it’s progress.

Candace Buckner covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. She can be reached at 360-735-4528 or email at Her Twitter handle is @blazerbanter