King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The Blazers passed on Jordan for a center in '84. Big mistake. But even if Kevin Durant is another Jordan, they should take the center, Greg Oden.


Salon Staff
June 28, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

The Portland Trail Blazers have reportedly decided to take Ohio State center Greg Oden with the first pick in Thursday night's NBA draft, leaving Texas forward Kevin Durant to the Seattle SMovingOnics.

Then again, things that are decided by draft-day morning have a way of getting undecided by the time David Stern steps onto the podium. Especially when we're talking about the Portland Trail Blazers, who on draft night last year were so busy making trades that at one point or another they had the rights to every single player in the NBA, the Phoenix Suns gorilla and all Desperate Housewives unclaimed by the San Antonio Spurs.

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There's been a mini-drumbeat in the past few days that the Blazers should take Durant over Oden because Durant is a singular talent, the kind of 19-year-old who can be a big contributor next year and might grow up to be the best player in the game in a few years.

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports quotes a Central Division executive who watched Durant play in the Big 12 tournament and asked himself, "Is he better than LeBron James?" That kind of singular talent.

Dear Portland Trail Blazers: Take Greg Oden.

This is coming from the guy who's always telling teams not to go ga-ga over some stiff just because he bumps his head in doorways, not to mistake a solid talent for a franchise player just because Tony Parker looks him straight in the navel.

That's why you should listen to me. Take Greg Oden.

I have no idea how it's going to play out, whether Durant will become the greatest player to come out of the 2007 draft, whether Oden will become that player or whether, as usual, someone farther down the list will. Mike Conley Jr., anyone? Brandan Wright? Seven-foot Chinese wild card Yi Jianlian?

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But let's say it's Durant. I'm happy to go with him. Best player in the draft.

Take Greg Oden.

Oden isn't just another 7-footer, just another solid player. He's a franchise builder. The worst knock I've heard on him, other than some worries about a disk problem in his back and how his surgically repaired right wrist will hold up through the years, is that he's "just" another Patrick Ewing.

Yeah, only that.

First of all, just because Patrick Ewing never won a championship doesn't mean he couldn't have had a championship team built around him. Second of all, Oden at 19 is more polished offensively at this point than Ewing was when he came into the league at 23. He has better hands and he played a smarter offensive game as a freshman at Ohio State than Ewing did in his prime with the New York Knicks.

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The conventional wisdom says you take a big guy when you can because great big men come along so infrequently. That's the kind of thinking that leads to teams spending lottery picks on guys like Patrick O'Bryant or taking Andrew Bogut at No. 1. Conventional wisdom is wrong sometimes. Ulcers aren't caused by stress. Did you know that?

But that doesn't mean it's always wrong. As Bill Walton is fond of pointing out, eight of the nine championships in the post-Michael Jordan era have been won by teams that had either Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal. You can win an NBA title without an NBA big man. It's possible. But good luck.

So I know what you're thinking, especially since we're talking about the Portland Trail Blazers and I just mentioned Michael Jordan. You're thinking: Sam Bowie.

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The Blazers passed on Jordan with the second pick in the 1984 draft and took Kentucky center Bowie, who didn't pan out because of injuries while Jordan turned out to be Michael Freakin' Jordan.

Let's put aside that history has given Bowie and Blazers management a bum rap for that logical-at-the-time pick. Nobody ever talks about how the Chicago Bulls settled for Jordan after they were unable to trade for Jack Sikma or Tree Rollins, because they wanted a center.

The question is, Which is a better bet, Greg Oden becoming a player a franchise can build a championship team around or Kevin Durant becoming Michael Freakin' Jordan?

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Teams overrate 7-footers because of wishful thinking. You can't teach size, the saying goes, so if we can get a guy who has the size, maybe he'll develop the skills. Sounds great. Gets you Michael Olowokandi.

Think about the great centers down through the years. They all got better in the league, but none of them were projects. They came to the NBA as at least good and usually very good players. Oden's not a project. He's an NBA-ready center who won't turn 20 till midseason, and he figures to get a lot better given evident skills but room for improvement on the offensive end.

You take him even if Durant's better because, unless Durant really does become Michael F. Jordan, and maybe even if he does, it's a lot easier to find another great wing player than it is to find another great center. The Trail Blazers can't let themselves be intimidated by a fear of making the same mistake twice.

Here's a little sample of what I mean. Look at all the top big men and wing players in the NBA this year, which we'll define as the centers, power forwards, small forwards and shooting guards who had a player efficiency rating of at least 20, which roughly means borderline All-Stars and up.

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All of the big guys, the centers and power forwards, were drafted in the first round, and all of them were taken among the top 10 picks except Zach Randolph of Portland, who went 19th, and David Lee of New York, who went 30th. The guys eight of the last nine championships have been built around, O'Neal and Duncan, both went at No. 1.

Different story with the wing players. The 13 small forwards and shooting guards who had a PER of 20 or above this year were almost as likely to have been taken after the 10th pick as in the top 10. LeBron James went No. 1, Carmelo Anthony, Vince Carter, Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen went in the top five, Tracy McGrady went at No. 9 and Paul Pierce went 10th.

But Michael Redd of Milwaukee and Rashard Lewis of Seattle went in the second round, with the 43rd and 32nd picks. The Dallas Mavericks got Josh Howard with the last pick of the first round, No. 29 at the time. Manu Ginobili went to San Antonio at No. 28. Kevin Martin of Sacramento was the 26th pick.

Kobe Bryant was 13th. That was at a time when high school players hadn't yet become fashionable, but still. Those guys are out there.

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If you don't get a great wing player, you can probably get an almost great wing player. If you don't get a great 7-footer, it's a long way down.

So here's what you do: Take Greg Oden.

Previous column: Disabled NFL vets

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