FanPost

The #1 Underdog


The intention is that this essay will published in a 5 day series in the Oregon State school newspaper. My favorite Blazer moment was selecting Greg Oden. Sorry about the length.

 

In 1984, the Portland TrailBlazers made what many consider the biggest mistake in NBA history. The team drafted young center Sam Bowie with the #2 overall draft pick. With pick #3, the Chicago Bulls selected some guy named Michael Jordan. Bowie was voted as "the biggest NBA draft bust of all time" in a USA Today reader’s poll.[1] His career is known for its mediocrity and his inability to stay healthy. In Filip Bondy’s book, How the 1984 NBA draft changed basketball forever, the renowned basketball writer says,

The clock was running, and now it was time for one of the biggest mistakes in the history of sports to occur in clear public sight and earshot. ‘Portland selects Sam Bowie, University of Kentucky,’ said Stern. The commissioner generally used the whole franchise name at these affairs, including the nickname. He shorthanded this one, turning basketball’s worst blunder into a very brief pronouncement. It was as if Stern, with great prescience, had wanted to speak the words quickly, sweep this disastrous pick under the rug for Inmans sake. The crowd knew better than the Blazers. The (fans) booed the choice."[2]

Michael Jordan, meanwhile, would go on to lead his team to six NBA championships, earning MVP honors in all six of his finals appearances as well as winning ten scoring titles and five regular season MVP awards along the way. He is considered by most as the greatest to ever play the game. ESPN sporstscentury ranked him #1 in their "Top 100 athletes of the 20th century".[3] You think the Blazers might pick MJ if they could do it all over again? Me too.

 

On May 22nd, 2007, the Portland TrailBlazers overcame 20 to 1 odds and won the NBA draft lottery, landing the #1 pick in the 2007 NBA draft. That night, there was a now infamous draft party in Portland which hundreds attended. Joe Becker, a reporter for Portland-based news station KGW, said that, "other than a game…it was the most exciting thing I have covered with the Blazers in more than 20 years. The fans were going crazy".[4] If you have a chance, I suggest going onto YouTube and watching the mayhem take place. The pandemonium that ensues after winning that battle of the ping-pong balls still gives me goose bumps. The Blazers were a team on the rise that now had the opportunity to select one of two great players: Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. The legend was born.

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via 4.bp.blogspot.com

 

The Blazers had a tough decision. Picking #1 overall, they could either select Durant, the offensive powerhouse who many consider the greatest college freshman ever, or Oden, the defensive monster who Phoenix Suns GM Steve Kerr called "a once-in-a-decade" type of player.[5] Either way, experts pointed out, the Blazers were going to add a future star. The draft came and the Blazers selected Greg Oden with the first overall selection. Management had made their decision and the city of Portland was generally in favor of it. Even the biggest of pro-Durant pessimists could see the light. All was well in the city of Roses. That is, until Oden had micro-fracture knee surgery that sidelined him for the entire season, his would-be first. Durant went on to win Rookie of the Year and became an immediate star. In the 2008-2009 season, Oden returned to the court, rusty and out of shape. He struggled to return from injury, and just when it looked like he was rounding into form he went down with another knee injury. He finished his rookie year healthy, but many fans considered it mediocre. Oden was pegged by some as a bust. That same year, Durant continued his climb to stardom and the Bowie/Jordan comparisons were endless. Portland area journalists used a bottomless pit of ink trying to convince the public that Greg Oden was not Sam Bowie. Well, I can assure you that not only is Greg Oden not Sam Bowie, he is a focal point of the TrailBlazers’ hopes of winning an NBA championship. While most NBA pundits and fans believe the Portland TrailBlazers made a mistake in the 2007 draft by selecting Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant, Oden was the right selection at the time and is still the right selection looking back.

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via www.sportsfangoods.com

 

Greg Oden has been hyped as the greatest thing since sliced bread dating back to his early teenage years. The hype train really took off in 2004 when Sports Illustrated published a centerpiece article on the young phenom. Written by Tim Layden, the article entitled "Way Ahead of Schedule", chronicles the potential of a 16 year-old Oden. Layden immediately sparks the reader’s interest when he writes, "Greg Oden of Lawrence North High in Indianapolis has become the Next One. The next Kobe. The next KG. The next Dwight Howard".[6] The high praise and expectations don’t stop there. Layden quotes one NBA executive as saying, "He’s the next great, difference-making big man from the United States. When he ends up in the NBA, whatever team gets him will become a contender".[7] Those are not words to be taken lightly. Basketball fans who didn’t already have Oden on their radar did now.

Greg wouldn’t disappoint. He went on to win back-to-back basketball boys national player of the year awards (2005 & 2006) and play in the McDonald’s All-American game.[8] He chose to attend Ohio State University on a full basketball scholarship, although he likely could have gone to any school in the country. As a freshman, he was named First-Team All-Big Ten Conference and was the conference’s defensive player of the year.[9] He led his team to the National Championship game where he scored 25 points to go along with 12 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. He was named to the Associated Press All-American team and was widely considered the sure-fire #1 draft choice in the 2007 NBA draft.

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via craigsagerssuit.files.wordpress.com

 

When the Blazers selected Oden #1 overall, no one was shocked. The analysts, fans, teams and players all knew what was going to happen. The reason? Players like Oden don’t come around very often. Here’s a true 7-footer who can run like a gazelle, jump like a kangaroo and has the charisma of a movie star. He isn’t a thug, has a great attitude, smile and sense of humor. His goofiness makes him lovable yet his intelligence is undeniable. He can dominate a basketball game on both ends of the floor, and he could end up as an all-time defensive great. He is the all around package. That is something you might have read in an NBA scout’s notebook. It’s not hard to see why the Blazers selected Mr. Oden first overall.

 Although Oden was the obvious pick in the eyes of many, there were still plenty of prominent media personalities on the Kevin Durant bandwagon. Ben Golliver, writer for blazersedge.com, started a blog cleverly titled DraftKevinDurant. As you might guess, Golliver spends vast amounts of time trying to convince the public that Kevin Durant is superior to Greg Oden and the rightful #1 selection. In one pre-draft entry, he writes, "the Blazers organization and their fans, have overwhelming amounts of evidence that only one man is the rightful #1 selection in the 2007 NBA draft. That man is Kevin Durant".[10] His primary argument supporting the prior claim is well summed up in this paragraph from his June 26th, 2007 entry:

There is certainly no player in this draft who made the impact that Durant did in the NCAA’s last season. Quite possibly, no freshman in the modern era has had the impact that Durant did, as he set freshman scoring records, out-rebounded Oden (which should squelch recent concerns about his upper-body strength), led his team in both blocks and steals, and managed to play more than 35 minutes per game. It came as no surprise when Durant took home every major player of the year award and everyone from his own coach, Rick Barnes ("he’s the most talented player we’ve ever had") to the illustrious Bobby Knight ("He's really good... Jesus... the guy is 6'9"... mobile... he's quick... he's fast... there's no secret... the guy is a great athlete that can really play basketball.)" fell all over each other in praising his singular talents. Already viewed as the odds-on Rookie of the Year candidate Durant displayed an immense work ethic and maniacal drive to improve his game throughout his freshman season. His outstanding pre-draft workout in Portland caused Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard to publicly state, "That was an incredible workout. He's in great shape." Certainly, this performance was no accident; Coach McMillan agreed, "Sometimes God creates you to do certain things, and he was put here to play basketball. He's going to be a special player".[11]

Golliver goes on to claim Durant should have been the pick, an increasingly popular opinion. Agreeing with him is ESPN writer Bill Simmons, the most widely read pro-Durant voice. Quick to label Oden a bust, Simmons supports his reasoning in an ESPN the Magazine article where he describes the first time he saw the young center play:

I saw a 20-year-old guy who walked and ran like he was 35. Of course, you could have said the same about him in Columbus, but back then, at least he would randomly unleash an occasional superfreak moment: a hellacious dunk, a Russell-like block, whatever. Not anymore. His current ceiling looks more like Erick Dampier on a really good day.[12]

Comparing Oden to Dampier, with all due respect to the latter, is a tremendous insult. Maybe Simmons forgot that Oden was coming off of a surgery that takes more time to fully heal from than Oden had, but whatever the case, Simmons is "unclear whether his body was meant to play basketball for a living. From what I’ve seen so far, the answer is no".[13] While I disagree with some of the viewpoints of Simmons and Golliver, they both do a great job in summation of the typical doubts people have about Greg Oden and whether Kevin Durant would have been the correct choice for the Blazers in the 2007 draft.

Bill Simmons tends to balance his love of Kevin Durant by ridiculing Oden whenever he gets the chance. Due to Simmons’ massive readership, his opinions have the ability to sway the masses. When combined with Durant’s sexier offensive game, it’s no surprise that the widespread public opinion is that Durant is the better player so he should have been the higher pick. I believe that reasoning to be flawed. Just because Durant is the better player doesn’t mean he would have been the better fit. In some comic irony, Bill Simmons’ first article on the Oden/Durant debate gives a clue to why the Blazers selected Oden. Simmons calls oden "a superior rebounder and shotblocker on par with the likes of Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, and the Georgetown-era Patrick Ewing".[14] He goes on to call Oden an "uber-athletic big who can wreck foes in a variety of ways…(he has) world-class athletic ability that ranks with Hakeem’s and David Robinson’s".[15] That is high praise from anyone, especially someone who is so adamant the Blazers were wrong in selecting Oden. The most revealing quote comes at the end of the article when Simmons says, "no GM has the testicular fortitude to pass up a potential superstar center, not even for someone as potentially game-changing as Durant".[16] I think it’s safe to put to bed the idea that Blazer management made a mistake.

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via 3.bp.blogspot.com

 

The Blazers were justified in selecting Oden #1 because they already had a ball-controlling superstar in Brandon Roy and wanted to continue building a championship team around a dominant defensive center, something that had already worked numerous times in the past. In order to judge the Blazers on their decision, one must look at the situation they faced from their point of view. Imagine you are running the Blazer franchise and are trying to build a dynasty. You have two players to choose from. One is an offensive specialist and SF, the other, a defensive beast and C. The first thing that comes to my mind is a list of the great SF’s and C’s. Which players at their respective position have won the most titles? It is a simplistic argument to make, but relevant nonetheless. At SF, you have Larry Bird, Dominique Wilkens, Lebron James, Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving. At C, there are names like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Honestly, the difference isn’t close. The center position has ruled basketball as long as it has been played. A big reason for this is the defensive impact a center can have on a game, whereas a shooting forward is limited by size among other factors. The centers listed have won over 25 championships. The SF’s, only 5. Right off the bat, it’s evident that in order to pick Durant over Oden, he would have to be far and away the better player, if only because having a dominant center correlates so strongly with winning championships. The reason, as stated, is defensive impact.

Dennis Gallagher, a statistician for a widely respected NBA stat-site, 82games.com, wrote an article titled "Blueprint for an NBA Championship Team". In the article, Gallagher concluded that since the 1970 season when first-team all NBA rankings were first released, "29 of 36 NBA champions had at least one player named All-Defensive 1st Team (5 players) during the 4 seasons prior to the championship season".[17] Gallagher also discovered that since the defensive player of the year award has been given out, "12 of the 22 NBA champions had a previous DPOY award winner on the roster".[18] There is a strong positive correlation between having a dominant (top-5) defender on your team and winning a championship. Gallagher closes his article by mentioning that "no team has won an NBA title without a Top 10 caliber defender".[19] Not a single one.

The Blazers were certainly aware of the defensive promise of Greg Oden when they selected him. Everyone was. They also knew that to win championships, you need a dominant defensive force as shown by Dennis Gallagher. Prior to the draft, the Blazers had no such talent. Durant did not have that kind of defensive potential, while Oden did, simple as that. Additionally, Durant was widely known as being a special player because of his ability to create with the ball and lead a team as the superstar. The Blazers already had that player in Brandon Roy. Selecting Durant would have duplicated something they already had. On NBA teams, duplication of leading scorer qualities is often frowned upon. If the Blazers had selected Durant, his primary attribute, scoring, would have been partly offset by Roy’s offensive prowess. Oden would allow Roy to carry the scoring burden while adding the dominant defender the Blazers so badly needed and add efficient offensive contributions of his own. The decision was clear.

The Portland blogosphere loved Oden. Sean Meagher wrote an entry for the Oregonlive.com Blazers Blog where he quotes 95.5 The Game radio host Gavin Dawson as saying, "Greg Oden is the reason great things are possible for the Portland Trailblazers over the next 15 years. Great centers physically and mentally crush teams, and that is exactly what most think he will be".[20] His sentiment was widely accepted among Blazer fans on this blog, as well as Mike Barrett’s blog, and leading Blazer blog, blazersedge.com.  In a 2007 blog entry, Blazer commentator Mike Barrett describes the scene after the draft. Oden was visiting Portland for the first time, and was to show up in Pioneer square to greet his fans. Barrett was with Oden and was to interview him. Here is his take:

When we arrived at the square, I followed Greg out the door and straight through a line of people right on to the stage. I expected to see a lot of Blazer fans, and for it to be an exciting scene. I was not ready for what it was truly like. Thousands of Blazer fans roared when Oden walked on to the stage, and I did my best to introduce him. It felt like a rock concert.[21]

At the time of the draft, the city of Portland wanted Greg Oden. That’s what they got. Having established the fact that the Blazers were just in selecting Oden #1 overall, the question becomes, would that selection change looking back 2 years after the fact knowing all that’s happened? I say no.            

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via blog.oregonlive.com

 

Greg Oden is still a better fit on the Blazer roster than Kevin Durant because he is once again healthy and still has the potential to become the best defensive player in the NBA. Even though Durant could become a top-5 player in the league, his role would still duplicate Roy’s, and the offensive production gained with Durant would not be enough to offset the defensive impact Oden will have on games, particularly, playoff games. In the August 3rd, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated, Chris Mannix discusses the USA basketball tryouts that took place in July. Oden and Durant were both invited, and both played well. Mannix says that "Durant was easily the best player at the mini-camp; coaches are enamored with his ability to play several positions and to score inside and out".[22] He also praises Oden, saying, "defensively, he’s a monster. He has good hands, and he’s strong around the basket".[23] Mannix tells us what most informed basketball fans already know, that Durant is dominant offensively and Oden is a force on defense. They are completely different players, making a direct comparison of the two irrelevant. When the Blazers approached the 2007 draft, they knew Durant was going to be special on the offensive end, as everyone did. They wanted a defensive presence, however. Thus, they took Oden. Recent indications, such as the one made by Mannix, are that the Blazers now have the defensive presence they hoped for. Oden is becoming what the organization expected; a world class defensive center.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m obviously in the pro-Oden camp, but I admit there is a point of diminishing returns. At a certain level, Durant’s offense would be more valuable to the Blazers than Oden’s defense. I just don’t think this level will ever be reached, because Greg will be so dominant defensively that Durant’s offense would have to reach a historic level to surpass Oden’s contribution to the team. Even if Portland took Durant and had historic offensive numbers, the Blazers could still fall short of the goal, a championship. Look no further than the 2005 - ’07 Phoenix Suns as an example. The teams of those years were arguably the best offensive squads in NBA history and the team couldn’t even get to the NBA Finals, let alone win it all. The problem every year was meeting a defensive-minded team in the playoffs. The most notable rivalry the team had was against the San Antonio Spurs, a classic example of a team that wins with defense. When the playoffs came around, the Spurs always won out against the Suns. At a certain point in the post-season, the teams are often evenly matched. Not only does this produce great games, it forces teams to win close games in the clutch. This means getting stops on the defensive end of the floor so you don’t have to score every time down at the end of games to secure the lead. The Suns couldn’t stop the Spurs, but the Spurs could stop the Suns, at least more often than not. Thus, San Antonio won a lot of close games in the playoffs and ended up winning 4 championships in 9 years. I believe there is nothing more important than being able to get defensive stops at the end of games if your goal is winning a championship. If one of the best offensive teams in NBA history can’t get to the finals, it’s hard for me to believe that the Blazers would have a different result with Durant. With Oden, the Blazers can try to duplicate the Spurs of the 2000’s and win championships with defense. At least a precedent has been set for the latter option.

Even after being a rookie coming off of and recovering from a serious knee-injury, Oden still put up numbers that are on par with the great centers of the modern-era. According to basketball-reference.com, Oden’s advanced stats show the real story. His per-game stats are useless due to his limited playing time, a result of coming off of injury, having another good center on the team (Joel Pryzbilla) and racking up careless fouls that prematurely placed him on the bench. The foul situation will work itself out, as almost every center fouls too frequently as a rookie, and almost every center corrects this mistake, usually quickly. That said, Oden’s advanced and per-36 stats are an effective way of comparing him to other centers during their rookie years. The stats I will take into account include TS%, TRB%, FG%, TRB/36, and PTS/36. These are all useful in providing some insight as to how Oden compares to other centers in the statistical areas that are vital to dominating the competition. I will compare Oden to four of the great modern-era centers, including Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson and Tim Duncan. I will also compare him to the two best young center currently in the league, Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum.

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Compared to his peers, Bynum and Howard, Oden rates better in every single statistical category I listed.[24] That fact alone is eye opening. Anyone calling Oden a bust is misinformed. Compared to the four greats I mentioned, Oden more than holds his own. While they all have a better PTS/36 number, only Hakeem and Shaq have better Rebounds/36 numbers, and only slightly. Only Shaq has a better Rebounding percentage (TRB%) and that is only by .6%. Oden’s TS% and FG% is better than any of the mentioned legends, which is ironic because Oden’s offensive game is his weakness.[25] No one questions Oden’s defensive prowess and the offensive stats showed above prove that Oden is no slouch. In fact, he compares favorably to hall of famers. The counter argument is that Oden’s offensive efficiency is due to lack of shot attempts and the fact that he does have a lot of dunks, but nonetheless, I’d rather have it that way than the alternative.  No point in taking shots away from Brandon Roy. Greg Oden was and is still the correct choice for the Blazers. With the #1 pick, they selected a defensive-minded center who rebounds at an elite level on par with the greats of all time and scores more efficiently than Shaq, Hakeem, Robinson or Duncan did in their rookie years. I don’t care how good Durant becomes offensively, Oden can change games on both ends of the court. Come the fourth quarter in game 7 of the NBA Finals, Blazer fans will be ecstatic to have Oden patrolling the paint on defense, rebounding everything within earth’s orbit and rarely taking a shot he doesn’t make. Oden will prove invaluable to multiple Blazer championship runs.

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I believe Greg Oden will be the primary reason that the Blazers become a dynasty. Therefore, my favorite Blazer moment of all time was selecting Greg Oden #1 overall. The unspeakable yet unmistakable excitement in the air surrounding the Oden selection will never leave me. While his career got off to a rough start and brought out the doubters in boatloads, I believe that will just make it all the more sweet when Oden is holding up the trophy, and I’m not talking about the Defensive Player of the Year award. Which he will also win. Go Blazers.

 

___________________________________________________________________________

[1] “Reader ballots tab Bowie as biggest NBA draft bust ever.” USA Today. 26 June 2008. 7

August 2009. < http://www.usatoday.com/sports/basketball/nba/2008-biggest-draft-busts.htm>

[2] Bondy, Filip. How the 1984 NBA draft changed basketball forever. 2007. Da Capo Press.

            United States.

[3] “SportsCentury”. Wikipedia.com. 8 August 2009.

            < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SportsCentury>

[4] Becker, Joe. “The Blazers Are Number 1!”. KGW. 23 May 2009. 6 August 2009.

< http://www.beloblog.com/KGW_Blogs/sports/2007/05/the-blazers-are-number-1.html>

[5] "Greg Oden". Wikipedia. 9 August 2009. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greg_Oden >

 [6] Layden, Tim. "Way Ahead of Schedule". Sports Illustrated. 6 December 2004. 3 August 2009.

[7] See #6

[8] See #5

[9] See #5

[10] Golliver, Ben. "The case for Kevin, Part 1". DraftKevinDurant. 24 June 2007. 8 August

2009. < http://draftkevindurant.blogspot.com/2007/06/case-for-kevin-part-1.html>

[11] Golliver, Ben. "The case for Kevin, Part 3". DraftKevinDurant. 26 June 2007. 8 August

2009. < http://draftkevindurant.blogspot.com/2007/06/case-for-kevin-part-3.html>

[12] Simmons, Bill. "I hate being wrong. Except when it's about Greg Oden". ESPN the Magazine. 9

5 November 2008. August 2009. 

[13] See #12

[14] Simmons, Bill. "Oden vs. Durant: Showdown I". ESPN Page 2. 22 June 2007. 9 August 2009. 

< http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/070622 >

[15] See #14

[16] See #14

[17] Gallagher, Dennis. "Blueprint for an NBA championship team". 82games. 9 August 2009.

< http://www.82games.com/dennis.htm >

[18] See #17

[19] See #17

[20] Meagher, Sean. "You be the GM: Greg Oden". Oregonlive Blazers Blog. 5 May 2008. 7 August 2009.

< http://blog.oregonlive.com/blazers/2008/05/you_be_the_gm_greg_oden.html >

[21] Barrett, Mike. "Thousands Greet Oden". Mike Barrett Official Blog. 29 June 2007. 7 August 2009.

< http://mikebarrettsblog.blogspot.com/2007/06/thousands-greet-oden.html >

[22] Mannix, Chris. "World Class". Sports Illustrated. 3 August 2009. 8 August 2009. Page 34. 

[23] See #22

[24] < Basketball-reference.com >

[25] See #24

 

 

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