Friday, November 19, 2010

Portland's EpiCentre

The news yesterday that Portland Trail Blazers centre Greg Oden will miss the entire NBA season requiring another knee operation was hardly surprising. The Elephant in the Room (as he will now unfortunately forever be known) needs microfracture surgery on his knee, a procedure that requires nearly one year of rehabilitation time. This comes after last year's fractured patella, a broken foot the year before and microfracture surgery he underwent immediately before his first NBA season.

It's tragic news for the young man and for a Portland franchise who have been so patient with their No. 1 draft pick: the results of their 2007 draft now appear even worse when put up against the team who picked second, near neighbours Seattle (who have now moved to Oklahoma City).

The Sonics picked Kevin Durant, who has become one of the top five players in the NBA and looks increasingly likely to take the mantle of Best In Show after his dominating performance for Team USA at the World Championships this offseason. Out of a possible 257 games, Durant has played 247 and has career averages of 25.4 points and about six rebounds per game. Oden, after being restricted to just 82 of those same 257 encounters, scores 9.4ppg and pulls down just over 7 boards per game. His career has been not just hampered by injury but fully deformed by it.

To look back at the history of the Portland Trail Blazers is to see a litany of errors at the Centre position. In fact, the team has "won" the first pick in the draft four times in it's forty year existence and each time selected a centre: in 1972 and 1974 they picked LaRue Martin and Bill Walton; 1978 brought Mychal Thompson. Walton went on to be one of the greats - one of the great "When he plays, he's great" - and Martin holds the distinguished title of Greatest NBA Draft Bust of All Time, and believe me there are some exceedingly strong contenders for that title. Kwame Brown, anyone?

The term "bust" is probably thrown around a little too often anyway. It's ungenerous to say that a player whose career is/was hampered by injury suddenly becomes a bust. Poor attitude and lack of talent can be foreseen where injuries are generally unavoidable and unexpected. However, when a player has been troubled by their body before joining the NBA, future injuries can be seen as more likely and the "bust" label comes into play. A perfect example is DeJuan Blair of the San Antonio Spurs - a guy who has no ACL in either of his knees. He was probably one of the top ten best players coming into the NBA last year but teams feared for his ability to make a contribution long-term and he was selected thirty-fourth in the meat-market. Teams fear the Bust Label and the new poster-boy for the Bust, fairly or unfairly, is Greg Oden: not just for his body's sake, but for Durant's stellar production.

The Unspoken coda to the Portland Trail Blazers Centre Hall of Shame is Sam Bowie, a 7-footer they selected with the second overall pick in 1984 from Kenucky University; a guy who had a three year history of foot troubles by the age of 21. You should know his story - the player selected directly after him was a 6'6 guard from North Carolina who ended up spending a lot of time in Oregon anyway because of it's proximity to Nike head office.

After a youthful Blazers nucleus limped (as always) to a 32 win season, Oden was Rip City's fourth no. 1 overall pick of Rip City and probably the hardest dagger to absorb. One of the most highly-touted High School recruits of recent memory, his one-and-done year at Ohio State climaxed with a loss in the NCAA National Championship game as he played well, but not overwhelmingly on a balanced OSU team. When it came draft time, experts and GMs alike argued between Oden or Durant - who had the greatest potential, who played a more dominating game, who filled a need, who played a "rarer" position (ie. Oden - upper echelon Centres are very difficult to find at the best of times).

The Blazers picked Oden and his body has let him down. Comparisons are now being made to Bowie - first came the whiffed pick, then came breakdown after breakdown But it isn't a good comparison. For starters, when drafted their ceilings were completely different: in 1984 the Blazers knew what they could legitimately expect; in 2007 the sky was the limit. In terms of potential, Oden had (has?) a truckload more than Bowie: the kind of franchise-changing potential at centre that a winning club almost always needs. The similarities also fall down when considering their injuries. Where Bowie missed an entire year at Lexington due to the foot injuries that would later plague his career, Oden hadn't really endured injury before being drafted except a broken wrist at OSU, the kind of freak-job that really doesn't wash as a reason to call his body frail. Since then though, the injuries that have dogged him haven't been freak occurences, more wear and tear ailments almost certain to curtail his career prematurely.

No, for me the better comparison is with Walton. Both game- and franchise-changers. Both saddling up with with bodies biomechanically unsuited to 82 games plus playoffs each season. David Halberstam's excellent The Breaks of the Game detailed the 1979 season with the Blazers and described meetings between Walton, the Blazers medical staff and outside specialists. Halberstam writes that the final diagnosis was that Walton's feet were so inflexible and therefore degenerative that the bones were forced to flex rather than the joints leading to stress fractures. The Greatest College Player of All Time then had the problem joints fused to change the strain patterns with little benefit. Further impact on the compacted and less-mobile feet then transmitted the strain towards the closest two joints there - the ankles and knees. Which then, ipso facto, broke down. Bill Walton's body was ill-equipped to play pro basketball and it's arguable that by the time he was drafted, Big Red's body was unable even to play the 30+ games required by the college circuit. The parallels between Oden and Walton's bodies - if not their eventual body of work - are just too stark to ignore.

First, Greg Oden has had to deal with comparisons to Kevin Durant and that player's incredible individual ability. Next, he's had to deal wtih injuries the likes of which no great player has ever overcome - even Walton didn't overcome his trials and eventually succumbed to them. It's probably now safe to assume that Greg Oden will never be the player any of us expected when he was drafted, probably because no-one knew simply how similar his body is to that of another Blazers centre.

The rule in the NBA has always gone "If you're going to make a mistake, make it a big mistake" - meaning if you have a choice between a big player and a smaller alternative during draft time, always choose the big player as they tend to be greater "difference makers". The Portland Trail Blazers have certainly seen Greg Oden make a difference.

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