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Portland Trail Blazers Season Preview Part 3: The Pivotal Pivot

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Ninety percent of the discussion of the Portland Trail Blazers’ chances of success in 2008-09 revolves around their huge man in the middle, Greg Oden.  He’s not likely to be the most productive player for the Blazers, nor the most consistent, nor the team leader, perhaps not even the most critical player on most possessions.  However if you want to identify the difference maker—the reason the Blazers’ outlook has switched from muted grindstone turning to barely concealed glee—you start and end with Oden.  He is the most pivotal player on the roster.  This begs the question:  How ready is he?  Media and fans alike have attempted to read the tea leaves based on fragments of practice information and modest stints in pre-season exhibitions.  Reviews are mixed, mostly based on expectations.  Here’s a critical, detailed look at Oden’s game to help you sort things out.

 

Offense

 

Greg Oden’s offense always was, is currently, and will remain among the less developed parts of his game.  This is not a criticism of him personally.  His experience so far consists of high school and one year of college against competition that was smaller, weaker, and in many cases slower than he.  Heretofore Oden’s offensive job description has been simple:  bump to create space and then dunk or hit the open short shot.  That’s exactly what he’s good at.  The problem is, the NBA features larger, quicker, stronger, and more talented players than he’s seen so far.  He will still be among the biggest and strongest, but his offense will need to develop at least out to 12 feet if he’s going to prosper.  Otherwise opponents will simply guard against the dunk.  Greg’s hook shot is spotty right now.  We haven’t seen much of his face-up move nor have we seen a turn-around jumper even once.  Eventually these will all be part of his arsenal.  The good news is that he can still create space with his body, which will make his shots—from distance and at the rim alike—easier to hit.

 

Keep in mind that Shaquille O’Neal never developed any kind of consistent, skill-based offensive move until he joined the Los Angeles L*kers, well into his career.  Granted he became far more dangerous when he did feature honest offensive moves, but he survived his early career pretty well without them.  Oden will be quicker than Shaq to develop, if nothing else because he won’t be quite as dominant through sheer force.  Nevertheless, in the early going look for a lot of dunks, spins for dunks, and offensive rebounds for dunks.  Oden won’t get a ton of shots, but his percentage should be plenty high.

 

Oden has also shown a propensity for drawing foul shots on his moves.  When he gets a head of steam that’s about the only way to stop him.  This will add to his point total and make him more of a threat even early in his career.

 

Oden is also somewhat ahead of the curve passing.  Most talented big men only know one directive:  catch and score.   Oden already scans the floor for potential cutters or jump shooters when he catches.  Once he develops his recognition skills (which admittedly need work) this is going to make the Portland offense look seamless and devastating.  Until then, expect quite a few turnovers as he learns.

 

Defense

 

Unlike offense, defense is exactly the strong point of Greg Oden’s game.  He has been gifted with speed and quick jumping ability along with his size and strength.  He covers an amazing amount of territory and deeply affects the proceedings when he reaches his destination.  His first goal will be to fill space in the paint, making it dangerous ground for opposing post players and drivers.  His strength will serve to root the post players out.  His speed and grace make him an incredible shot-blocking threat against the drivers.  The caveat is that his knee surgery will prevent him from reaching full speed for at least half a season yet, but look for him to start intimidating opponents on a regular basis once he gets a few dozen games under his belt.

 

Oden’s size and quickness also make him an imposing threat against the pick and roll, long an NBA staple.  In most defenses the big man is required to show, or jump out to cover the dribbler as the smaller defender works past the pick, and then recover to his original man, preventing him from getting an easy basket by releasing into the lane.  Some NBA centers are too slight, not providing a credible deterrent against the dribbler when showing.  Far more are too slow, not recovering quickly enough on the enemy pick-setter.  Oden is neither.  No point guard in the league is going to want to see those arms coming at him.  Few big men in the league are going to be able to escape his grasp.

 

Another promising aspect of Oden’s game is his help defense potential.  Few great shot blockers amass rejections against their own men.  Usually they cross the lane to sweep up the leavings that other defenders create.  This requires speed, jumping ability, and timing…all strengths of Oden.  Equally important is the ability to stand in and cover for your teammates’ mistakes on defense.  This requires knowledge of the defensive scheme and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the defensive good.  Oden is not a selfish player.  In fact in some ways he may be too demure.  He will have no problem being the linchpin of Portland’s overall defense once he becomes familiar with the flow.

 

Again experience will be one of the missing factors from Oden’s game.  His recognition and attention to detail will need to improve.  The NBA will require more consistency of effort also.  You have to have your footwork right every time.  You have to know the correct move before the time for it comes.  Oden will lag behind in these areas at first (as would most rookies) and depend on his athleticism to cover.  His surgery recovery may be a blessing in disguise here, forcing him to play with more technical proficiency which will hold him in good stead later.

 

Rebounding

 

It should be obvious by what we’ve detailed so far that rebounding should be a strength of Oden’s.  His size and speed make him a prime candidate for league leader contention.  Again, though, he could suffer from always having been the biggest, most dominant force on the court.  Rebounding in the NBA is as much about will and technique as about physical gifts.  Already Oden is having to brush up on correct positioning techniques.  From time to time his will has been questioned as well.  It will be interesting to see what happens the first time an experienced center pops him in the chops and makes mincemeat of him on the boards.  Will we see a sleeping giant awake?  If so they sky’s the limit for Oden’s rebounding stats.  Given a more natural progression, however, we’re likely to see more offensive rebounding effort from Oden than defensive (viva la putback!)  Part of that is discipline and desire.  Part of it will be the offense of every team with a rangy center being predicated on getting Oden out of the lane and away from the glass.  Look for the progression to be slow but the results to be impressive.

 

Basketball IQ

 

Despite the repeated references to Oden’s size and impressive assaults on the rim, he is not a one-dimensional—let alone “dumb”—player.  His skills are rudimentary in some areas but the recognition of the need to employ them is already evident.  If Oden were not conversant with multiple aspects of the game we wouldn’t be noticing any flaws in his game…just marveling at the massive throwdowns.  We know he needs work in passing recognition because he tries to pass.  It’s the same with the defense and the rebounding technique.  He’s got the capacity to be a multi-tool player, his belt just isn’t full yet.  It will take some time to develop those tools, which means you’re likely to see some head-banging-bricks-type errors from him.  That is far better than waking up four years from now and realizing your franchise center is never going to do anything but dunk.

 

Attitude

 

This aspect of Oden’s game (or personality) has gotten a fair amount of scrutiny already.  I think it’s safe to say that Greg Oden isn’t a typical NBA player, let alone NBA star, let alone NBA first overall draft pick.  He doesn’t have an aggressive personality.  He isn’t self-aggrandizing.  He’s not a professor-type either.  In fact few of the archetypes of NBA greatness apply to him.  He’s just…Greg Oden.  What you see appears to be what you get.  In one sense he’ll have to develop another gear for the heat of battle.  There’s no way you make it through a deep playoff run without becoming angry, aggressive, and dominant for at least stretches.  There’s no way Oden is even going to make it through Season One with that huge, first-pick target on his back without getting beaten down and then fighting back to take it out on somebody.  But in the broader sense, Portland fans should probably hope Oden just stays Oden.  There’s nothing wrong with being self-effacing, somewhat quiet and jolly, and diverting credit and attention to others.  The star-hungry NBA public relations machine might call that a disappointment.  It also describes a potential team player.  Once upon a time in Portland there was a young center who hated the limelight to the point of mumbling whenever he tried to put two sentences together consecutively.  He was weird to most folks:  rode his bike everywhere, kept his hair unruly, kept his circle of friends small and quirky.  He ended up doing OK, at least if a championship ring or two plus a “50 Greatest Ever” designation mean anything.  Saying Oden is the next Bill Walton would be presumptuous.  Walton was developed during a full college career in one of the best systems basketball has ever seen.  He knew things that Oden probably couldn’t dream of yet.  But the comparisons between personalities are apt.  You don’t have to be typical, let alone typically showy, to be good.  Oden isn’t, and he will be.

 

Summary

 

The overall message here is consistent.  Greg Oden has amazing raw material to work with.  The refining process isn’t done by any stretch of the imagination, and in some ways hasn’t even started yet.  With patience on the part of fans and careful work on Oden’s part, the results are likely to be special.  He’ll already bend the game around him even in his early years and it will only get more prominent and polished as his career progresses.  Given time and good health, Oden will be the franchise center everybody wanted…just maybe not exactly the franchise center everybody expected.

 

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)