Greg Oden: Portland Trail Blazer 2007-2012

The only move made at last Thursday's trade deadline that we haven't put into perspective is the release of Greg Oden, the Portland Trail Blazers' former #1 overall pick. The move itself was unremarkable. The Blazers had to trim the roster. They didn't feel like Greg would ever play at a significant enough level to make a difference for them so they released him. This story would barely be a blip save that it capped the biggest descent, measuring distance between expectations and results, of any player in NBA history.

Nobody who ever lived through it will forget the draft lottery of May, 2007. The Draft Lottery Open Thread held on this site on May 22nd of that year has become canon. The order went according to Hoyle from picks 14-7. The Blazers held the 6th spot in the lineup. Commissioner Stern opened the envelope for pick #6. Milwaukee! The joint went crazy. Portland was guaranteed a top three selection. That trio came down to Atlanta, Seattle, and the Blazers. The first of the final three envelopes, and the corresponding 3rd pick, belonged to the Hawks. When the 2nd was revealed as Seattle all of Portland came unhinged. After years of near-disappointment followed by more years of misery the Blazers finally had luck turn their way. The #1 overall pick, assumed to be once-in-a-generation franchise center Greg Oden, would be theirs.

This stroke of fortune followed a little manufactured genius from the draft prior. Starting with the fourth overall pick (horrible luck, as Portland had been the worst team in the league that year) the Blazers had wheedled their way into two star players: shooting guard Brandon Roy and lanky power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. When Roy won Rookie of the Year in '06-'07 and Aldridge looked like he'd make malcontent forward Zach Randolph obsolete, the Blazers starting thinking playoffs. Winning the draft lottery changed the narrative to "Championship". Nobody had this kind of young core. A couple years to figure out the league and these guys were going to soar. Offense, defense, rebounding, smarts...they had it all. With the first pick in Portland's hand nobody could stop it. Nothing could take it away. All they had to do was say those magic words, "Greg Oden" on June 28th. One phone call, three syllables, and the dream was theirs.

On the Big Day the Blazers indeed managed 10 digits plus the correct pronunciation of Oden's name. Just like that he was on a plane to Portland, flying into the hearts of Blazers fans everywhere. Thousands crammed Pioneer Courthouse Square to welcome him at a post-draft rally. And it wasn't just fans going crazy. The Blazers immediately shot to the top of every NBA expert's chart of teams to watch out for in the future. Everybody knew Oden. Everybody now knew who the Blazers were. Everybody knew Portland just got NAS-TY.

We need not recount here the litany of injuries that ensued after that magical moment. Blazer fans remember all too well. Oden would not play at all in 2007-08, recovering from microfracture surgery. His career would get a reboot in 2008-09, during which he would play 61 games. He managed 21 in 2009-10 before blowing up his other knee. He never saw the floor again, crumpling under successive surgeries each time he got close to returning. The final tally: 82 games, 1816 total minutes, 773 points, 602 rebounds. Those are small figures for such a big pick.

The tough thing is, Oden's talent was real. His game was raw, rudimentary. But his size was massive and even post-surgery he had mobility and athleticism aplenty. I remember standing right in front of him, interviewing him at Summer League, 2007. His height was impressive, sure, but this guy was basically two people wide. His arms were the size of most people's legs. His hands defied description. Huge doesn't even begin to cover them. He didn't always move to the right spot, nor take full advantage of his size and ability, but even at 70% of what he could have been Oden tore it up out there. Some were disappointed he didn't put up Shaq-like numbers. They must not have been watching as he grabbed rebounds one-handed that others couldn't corral with both. Nothing was more jarring than a Greg Oden put-back dunk. The ball would float off the rim and then all of a sudden two huge mitts would grab it and thunder it home. It was like those ridiculous old NBA Jam games with flaming dunks from the ceiling, except it was live. Playing clueless and raw as a flipping fish Oden still commanded double teams without touching the ball. When any Blazer player went up for a shot somebody off the weak side would move to help Oden's man keep him off the boards. Half the time it didn't work anyway. The man was a threat just by existing.

Joakim Noah was one of the more celebrated big men to come out of that 2007 draft and remains a coveted big today. Oden made him look like a child in every sense of the word when the two matched up head-to-head. It was like Noah didn't exist. Eventually he could have done that to the whole league. He might never have been a 20-point scorer but the greatest rebound-interior defense combo center in the league would have been plenty. With more experience and refinement that's not hard to imagine.

Alas, that never became the story. Injury, disappointment, frustration will be the bywords by which Greg Oden is remembered. The transcendent superstar is beyond reach, replaced by a cautionary tale.

Now Oden's name will forever be linked with the phrase "taken instead of Kevin Durant". That's his legacy in this league. Nobody should be angry about that, nor bitter. It's nobody's fault. It just is. Of course everyone is angry and bitter anyway. Worse, there's no outlet for it. The cruelest part of Oden's story may be that it doesn't allow a pointed finger and release of blame, meaning that every time his name is mentioned a sick knot will form in the stomach of everyone who lived--and hoped in vain--through his era. The Oden story is set in stone now and thinking about it requires antacid.

If you look at the list of #1 overall picks in NBA history, it's not even close. The first overall slot has produced busts: Pervis Ellison, Michael Olawakandi, and LaRue Martin among them at the center position. But none of them came close to Greg Oden's level of hype or talent. Never before has such a sure thing gone so horribly awry. The equivalent would be the Knicks cutting Patrick Ewing to clear a roster spot some 4 years after he was drafted, or the Rockets doing the same to Olajuwon or the Spurs to David Robinson. This just doesn't happen. Yet it did. It's the Titanic of NBA draft pick stories.

When the Trail Blazers bade adieu to Greg Oden last Thursday they closed the chapter on their own, personal disaster novel. Nothing will ease the pain of the memory. At least now we know there's no more heartache to come. This move snuffed out the last tiny glimmer of hope and promise from the Era that Never Was. LaMarcus Aldridge still suits up for the team and has become a star, but if he ever leads this franchise to greatness it'll be in a wholly new generation, bearing no resemblance to the ascendancy of those late '00's teams. The Roy-Oden-Aldridge dream is over.

It's hard to know how to say goodbye to Greg. You want to get angry, but that's not fair. You want to appreciate his gifts, but you hardly knew him. You want to talk about all the things he brought to the franchise but 99% of hia currency was hope, now a failed junk bond not worth the paper it's printed on, inseparable from the omnipresent bitterness. This is the problem. Blazers fans don't feel like they're losing a player, they feel like they've lost a draft pick and maybe championships. How do you say goodbye to that? It's apropos of the Oden story: not even the farewell works right.

Perhaps the best and only thing we can do is wish Greg the one thing he never had in Portland, saying, "Good luck, Greg."

And we'll leave it at that.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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