We have officially entered draft week and it's time to put the cards on the table. I've listened to all the arguments, read the interviews, watched the videos, and heard enough analysis to choke a hippopotamus. It's time to sort out some of these questions and make a call.
Issue #1: The Sam Bowie Question
One of the most frequently-asked questions outside of Portland (and one of the lingering ghosts among the Blazer fan base) is whether this draft pick has any chance of being another Sam Bowie situation, especially since the center vs. dominant scorer choice seems to be before us again. This is a specter we can put to bed.
I just finished reading a book called Tip Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by New York Daily News columnist Filip Bondy. (We'll have a full book review on Monday.) The story looked not only at the players but at the draft process itself. It's unbelievable how different things were then compared to today. There were no individual workouts. There was hardly any game film. Scouting staffs were small. If you were lucky you saw your draft pick on national TV and then maybe for a day or two at a combine or pre-draft camp. You relied on coaches' recommendations, inside information, and your own gut instinct. When you were right you looked like a genius. When you were wrong--and that happened pretty often--those were the breaks. If you go back and look through those drafts in the 70's and 80's you're going to see a lot of names that look completely misplaced...far more than you'd see from recent drafts. Guys like Jordan and Bowie wouldn't be bursting on the scene in their last couple years of college nowadays. They would have left a video and statistical trail through scouting departments since the 7th grade, much like Greg Oden has. I would never tempt fate by saying a Bowie-type pick couldn't happen again. But I would argue it's going to be rare compared to back in the day.
People often forget that 1984 wasn't the Bowie draft or the Jordan draft, it was the Olajuwon draft, plus Barkley, Stockton, and a few others. With the information gathering and analysis techniques available today it's overwhelmingly likely that, given the same draft pool, the order would go Olajuwon first, Jordan second, and then Barkley, Bowie, and a couple others might have been duking it out for 3-6. The correct analogy for our choice, then, is not Jordan-Bowie but Olajuwon-Jordan. Either way that goes it has a happy ending.
I believe that's where we are right now. It may not be exactly Hakeem and Michael but I don't think it's any worse than Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor. Sure you'd rather have one of those over the other, but you're not going to be truly disappointed either way. Odds are long that this will be any kind of disaster for Portland.
Issue #2: The Savior?
One of the other main questions is whether either of these players can wear the savior mantle for this franchise. My response to that question is simple: who needs one?
The recipe for strong contenders generally runs like this: 3 bona fide star-level players (one of them probably nearing superstar level), 2-3 really strong multi-faceted role players, 3-4 good teammates who can give you solid minutes through rest or injuries, and the rest upcoming rookies or an old codger or two. Obviously the first category is what we're filling here. We already have two budding star-level players in Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge. Whoever we draft will need to be that superstar-level guy. But there's a difference between that and a savior. LeBron James is the savior in Cleveland and they need one. Dwyane Wade bears an enormous amount of responsibility in Miami. When this team matures our guy won't have to carry even two-thirds of that load. We don't necessarily need the Lone Ranger. We just need somebody to be a focal point and lead the team at one end of the floor or the other. Either player easily fits that bill.
In short, a lot of people seem to be asking, "Are you sure you can win with this pick?" To me it doesn't seem like we can lose.
The Big Issue: So Who Is It?
We've been over the strengths and weaknesses of the individual players ad nauseum here and elsewhere so we won't recap that. As far as the Blazers' needs go it's pretty simple: they could use both. Durant's offensive presence would transform the team. Oden's size and defensive ability likewise. In many ways, if all we've heard is true (and that's a big assumption) it really could be a coin flip. But several factors do slant things.
1. Oden can probably affect the game in more ways. Durant is an extremely versatile offensive player but it basically boils down to if he's not scoring 20+ points per game he's not #1 pick-worthy. He might develop other parts of his game--defense, rebounding, team play--over time but you're taking a risk there. Oden, on the other hand, will probably always have a place because of his defense and rebounding ability. He might also be able to affect the game offensively but even if he doesn't every night he's probably still worth your pick.
Some would argue that Durant's positional flexibility is an example of him being able to affect the game in more ways but I'd actually argue against that. Versatility is one of the buzzwords in the modern NBA but it's usually a buzzword for teams falling short of the top of the mountain, not teams at the apex. "He can play three positions" is a recommendation for a guy you draft 13th, not the guy you draft #1 overall in a franchise-making year. The guy is going to have one position that's more natural to him and by gum with that kind of talent you're going to play him there. Can LeBron, Dwyane, and Duncan play more than one position? Probably they could. But in practical terms it doesn't matter. The important thing is that they absolutely dominate at one position. That's the kind of guy you want to draft here. It makes no difference how many positions either of these guys could play. The only thing that's important is which one they're going to play and how well they're going to do in it.
This brings up another point: are we sure Durant is a small forward? Because if he's a power forward there are conflicts coming down the road with Lamarcus. We know for sure we don't have a center the caliber of Oden and he's welcome to that position all day and all night.
2. The comparisons to existing players, if accurate, are not equal. The main comparisons I've heard for Durant are Dirk Nowitzki and Tracy McGrady. Obviously that's high praise as both are brilliant, MVP-level players. But truthfully I could easily see putting either Nowitzki or McGrady on the Blazers right now and still falling short of a championship, and maybe even short of serious contention. The comparisons I hear for Oden are guys like Tim Duncan and David Robinson. I believe if you put either of those guys on the Blazers at Oden's age we are contending as soon as they mature.
The absolutely best, out-of-this-world case for Durant would be approaching Kevin Garnett's production. Garnett is so amazing in so many aspects that it's hard to predict anyone else getting there. Then again, you have to ask how many championships KG has won...or even how many playoff series.
3. Along those same lines, forwards can be replaced...maybe not at an all-world level, but you can find some reasonable facsimiles out there. Centers cannot be replaced unless you're willing to spend a fortune. And even then you're usually talking Erick Dampier or Adonal Foyle.
4. There's been a lot of talk about the Kevin Pritchard and Paul Allen angles but relatively little about the third man in the triumvirate: Nate McMillan. You've got to believe his voice will be heard in there. And unless he's a very unusual coach he's going to favor the big man. Coaches tend to want players (and styles of play) they can bank on. They may give lip service to "letting the guys loose" but relatively few of them actually do. Secretly ask the coaches out there whether they'd rather have the dominant big man or the scoring machine I bet 90% of them go with the big fella. A predictable, bankable winning style equals job security and respect. Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson equal prescription-strength antacid by the quart.
It may seem that I'm favoring Oden over Durant heavily but remember we're just breaking the tie here. If Kevin Pritchard is to be believed it's going to come down to a hairsbreadth difference between the two. These factors provide that distance. Obviously if there are talent, personality, medical, or commitment issues behind the smokescreen those are going to make far more of a difference than anything I've mentioned here. But all other things being equal--and right now equal is exactly how they seem--my bet is it's going to be Oden.