This is a second part of an ongoing series detailing why the Portland Trail Blazers are likely to do well in the future and why some of the prominent worries and concerns about the team are mis-focused.
Today we're going to talk about the second reason the Blazers will do well, adding to the Brandon Roy essay from yesterday. And yes, I know that as soon as I mentioned the words "Greg Oden" half of our readers rolled their eyes and groaned. That asterisk up there is for you.
The common meaning of said asterisk when appended to Oden's name is "health permitting". Blazer fans are rightly concerned about Oden's durability, having seen him miss substantial portions of his first three seasons in the league. On any given day I'm worried about Oden's health as well. It'll be a long, long time before Portland fans watch him play without white knuckles clutching the remote. I'll confess right now: I fully expect Oden's career to end via injury. He's had too many things happen already. The body is cracked. Someday it's going to catch up to him. When that day comes I will sadly put Portland's championship hopes to bed. But that day isn't here yet and isn't likely to arrive for many years.
Consider even the worst-case injury scenarios: your Sam Bowies and your Bill Waltons to name a couple intimately associated with the Blazers. Bowie played in 511 games over 10 seasons. Walton played in 468 games over 10 years as well. Neither was everything hoped when drafted. The expectations on Bowie were too high to begin with and Walton's feet just ripped the foundation out of his boundless talent. But both played. While I am deeply concerned about Oden's health game-to-game, on average he's probably going to give the Blazers 4-5 good seasons, "good" defined (as with Walton and Bowie) by just playing...a minimal expectation.
The good news for Portland fans is even just playing, Oden is a transformational force. I've often repeated it: the "bust" people just don't understand that whatever the expectations might be of a #1 overall pick, the Blazers don't need Oden to be the next Patrick Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon in order to succeed. That would have been amazing, but overkill given the rest of the talent on this team. Oden's offensive rebounding, defensive paint play, and size are elements Portland lacks otherwise. The Blazers won't judge Oden by Hall-of-Fame criteria. They will judge him by how well he fills the potholes in their highway to success. The Oden we've seen so far plays in rudimentary fashion at best and he's still plugging those gaps. You won't see a worse Oden out there in the future. If he can play at all the Blazers will win. If he can play well the Blazers have a great chance at dominating.
So much attention gets paid to Oden's physical struggles that his true potential Achilles' Heel gets overlooked. The mental and emotional aspects of the game and the league will be Oden's biggest bugaboos. After three years of substantial non-playing his connection to health, basketball, championship-level play, and teammates is fishing-line thin. The organization will have quite a task reeling in such a huge specimen on that fragile line. Greg is more used to rehabbing than playing. He's more used to trying to decide what movie to watch than watching film. Competition is absent, muscle memory faded, rhythm non-existent. How will he adjust to his renewed calling and the renewed expectations...expectations with which he was never comfortable in the first place? Can he commit himself to becoming an important piece of the puzzle on which all of the other pieces depend? He doesn't have to carry the team but you can't complete the picture without him. If Oden has gotten used to that other life, if three years mostly down have dampened his drive as well as his spirits, he becomes an enormous millstone around the Blazers' necks. That, not physical health, is the looming danger, the big asterisk.
As long as Greg Oden steps up to the challenge the Blazers will be more than happy to have him and more successful for his presence. What might have been doesn't matter. What will be still looks pretty decent at this point.