Kurt Thomas fills an important niche for the Trail Blazers

kurt thomas.JPGView full sizeKurt Thomas, who played for the Chicago Bulls last season, is one of the the oldest players in the NBA.As
free agent signings go, it didn’t raise eyebrows and it didn’t break the
bank, but the Trail Blazers’ deal Sunday with veteran big man Kurt
was just what coach Nate McMillan wanted for his team.

who at 39 is the oldest player in the NBA, is a rugged 6-foot-9,
230-pound forward/center who is regarded as a good defender, solid
rebounder, textbook screen setter and respected locker room presence.
He signed a two-year deal and will backup LaMarcus Aldridge at power
forward and Marcus Camby at center.

“It’s a very good pickup for
us,’’ McMillan said. “We need experience. We need a big man. And we need
someone who knows how to play, because we don’t have a lot of time to
teach in this training camp before the season starts. So as far as the
players we could go after – even if we had so-called big money – he
would have been a guy we would have considered.’’

Thomas is
entering his 17th NBA season after spending last season with Chicago,
where he played in 52 games and averaged 4.1 points and 5.8 rebounds in
22.7 minutes a game. He started 37 games last season when Carlos Boozer
and Joakim Noah went down with injuries, and McMillan likened Thomas’
skills and savvy to former Blazers veteran Juwan Howard.

In Chicago, the Bulls accepted Thomas’ departure with regret and respect.

wanted Kurt back,’’ Bulls general manager Gar Forman said Sunday at the
team’s media day. “And we offered Kurt a contract. He was a big part of
what we did a year ago. Kurt had to evaluate the situation from his
perspective and obviously he must have felt that Portland presented a
better opportunity for him.’’

Added Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau:
“You can’t say enough about him … a great pro, a great leader. He was
great in our locker room. He’s going to be a big plus for (Portland).’’

said he chose Portland over Chicago, Boston, Memphis and Miami, and did
so because the Blazers offered a two-year contract and because he was
coming to a team that needed him. He is scheduled to report for his
first practice on Monday.

“This gives me an opportunity to come
in and contribute,’’ Thomas said by phone. “No player wants to come in
and sit on the bench. I want to come in and play.’’

general manager Chad Buchanan would not release the terms of the deal,
but he said Thomas’ signing did not exhaust the Blazers’ free agent
money, and that he expects to add another free agent before the season
starts on Dec. 26. Thomas brings the Blazers roster to the NBA-maximum
15 players, meaning the Blazers would have to waive a player – most
likely center Earl Barron or perhaps Brandon Roy – before making another
Thomas is reunited with Camby, who was a teammate for
four years in New York. Camby will turn 38 this season, giving the
Blazers the oldest center tandem in the league. Thomas quipped that he
was upset when Shaquille O’Neal retired in June, making him the oldest
player in the NBA.

“I kind of hated it when Shaq retired, because
I didn’t mind being the second oldest player,’’ Thomas said. “But I
just take it in stride and enjoy it, knowing that it’s something my
teammates are going to razz me about.’’

Despite his age, Buchanan said the Blazers were convinced Thomas can be an effective rotation player.

though people look at his age, we feel like we have a guy in Kurt who
can fill a role for us,’’ Buchanan said. “We needed to add beef and bulk
to our front line, and we feel he’s still playing at a productive
level. He’s going to be a good fit for us.’’

Thomas said he has
kept himself in shape by developing a workout routine and sticking to it
throughout his stops in Miami, Dallas, New York, Phoenix, Seattle, San
Antonio, Milwaukee and Chicago. During those years, he honed what
McMillan calls “the tricks of the trade” – the subtle holds, tugs and
pushes that go unnoticed by referees. In fact, Camby said players around
the league regard Thomas as the master.

“He’s the No. 1 guy – 
all that holding and grabbing your jersey,’’ Camby said chuckling. “He’s
very clever with that. When you go up for an offensive rebound, he’s
grabbing your arm so you can’t go up. I’m glad he’s on our side now.’’

said he envisions Thomas helping one of the Blazers’ weaknesses from
last year – shooting – by setting good screens. After the Blazers traded
Joel Przybilla last season, the team was void of a wide body to pick
off defenders and give the shooters space to release their shot.

don’t screen, we have a bunch of guys who exchange positions,’’
McMillan said. “But he doesn’t mind giving up his body. I think it’s
something we needed and it’s something he will be able to bring.’’

Buchanan said the Blazers are still “weighing their options” on whether
to waive Roy with the amnesty clause. Teams have until Friday to make a
decision … Buchanan also said he hasn’t totally given up hope of
signing Przybilla. The former Blazers center told The Oregonian he is
not retiring this season, but wanted to spend the holidays with his
family in Milwaukee before making a decision on signing a contract …
Aldridge, who had a heart procedure on Dec. 9, wrote on Twitter that he
expects to return on Friday, but Buchanan said that hasn’t been cleared
by the Blazers’ medical staff … McMillan said point guard Raymond
Felton continues to impress in training camp.

–Jason Quick:

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