Monday, September 03, 2007

Is He Really THAT Good?

After the NBA’s Summer League, thousands of interviews, and one awe-inspiring night of USA Basketball, Nate McMillan has to wonder if what he’s getting is as good as what he turned away

Coach Nate McMillan played for all 12 seasons of his NBA career for the Seattle Supersonics. During the last nine of those years, one of his more prominent teammates was the ever-thunderous Shawn Kemp. We can, from this, deduct two hypotheses:

1. Nate McMillan knows what superb talent looks like
2. Nate McMillan knows, from experience, what a fine line it is between the superstars that get to championships and the ones that WIN them

Assuming these two things (which we must, due to my lack of actual reporting credentials), I would imagine that the USA Blue vs. White Scrimmage on July 22 had to be at least a bit unnerving. Just a month after possibly the most glorious day in his franchise’s history, instead of watching his newest young prodigy amongst unparalleled competition for the USA team, he instead had a courtside view of the one that got away-- actually, the one he gave away.

Even if for only one game, Durant was a wonder. 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting, and 15 of those incredible points in a second half rally that saw he and Kobe Bryant rise above the competition. He connected on monstrous dunks, feathery three-pointers, and a spinning hook that left Shane Battier standing in his tracks. Five players took more shots than Durant, none shot a better percentage, and only TWO outscored him. Together he and Bryant overcame a late 10-point deficit to lead the Blue team to victory over McMillan’s White team.

It’s tough to even begin to wonder what could have gone through his head—especially with the number of things that could’ve been going through his head.

Will Oden have that same ability to win games for us in the clutch?

Will he EVER develop into as complete a player as Kevin Durant is RIGHT NOW?

Is Oden’s dominance more similar to champs like Duncan… or role-players like Tyson Chandler?

…and the most terrifying question:

Did we just pull a… Portland?


There has been a surprising lack of discussion as to the surety of Greg Oden’s success as an NBA player. The problem with many general managers, and the reason so many teams get into trouble in the draft each year, is that they tend to highlight and downplay draft history at their discretion.

Yes, history says that Shaq, Duncan, Olajuwon, and Jabbar each won multiple rings.

But it also says that Patrick Ewing didn’t get a ring, and that Michael Jordan got six.

So while it is plausible that, in fact “big men win championships,” we have still seen historically that ALL superstar big men don’t win them.

And one fact that’s even more certain than that? ALL projected superstar big men don’t become actual superstars.

Let’s see… how long should we make this list?
Joe Smith. Bryant Reeves. Raef Lafrentz. Stromile Swift. Desagana Diop. Michael Olowokandi. Tyson Chandler. Kwame Brown. Mike Sweetney. Darko Milicic. DARKO MILICIC.

All of these guys were specimen athletes (or Bryant Reeves), that either did or would have dominated the college basketball scene.

Now I don’t estimate for a second that Greg Oden is going to join The Kandi Man in the annals of basketball history as one of the WORST 1st picks of all time. But I do have a great amount of doubt as to whether a player with Oden’s presumed abilities should be selected over a player of Durant’s KNOWN abilities. Both of them are physically unprepared for the NBA, but only one of them is ready to contribute right now. Only one is a better shooter than 75% of current NBA players. Only one displays the versatility to be amongst the top-10 superstars in the game.

So to combat the Oden hype, ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the



What makes the hype surrounding Greg Oden any different from the hype about players such as Tyson Chandler & Kwame Brown? Had sports news been equally rambunctious back then, wouldn’t they have been touted to the same degree? For having the SAME, if not more skills?

In the information age of media, we all admittedly are part of a constant movement to declare things “THE Best” and “THE Worst” in an attempt to create a sort of historical context to whatever we see in sports. Ever noticed the number of random statistics you get in a single half-hour episode of SportsCenter? Most days pitching after rain delay? Most injuries to the same toe? These days, the media is trying to cover anything… and then cover it again at 10pm, to be re-telecast at 6am.

I’ve said all this to say… for the less-than-casual fan, don’t be in love with Greg Oden just because you hear his name so much. He is definitely not the media’s first love…and he assuredly won’t be its’ last.

Oden won games throughout his life because his size demanded a double team, which opened up things for his teammates. Plus, Ohio State had a number of quality players on the perimeter who could hit the open shot or slash to complement Oden’s post game. On defense, his disparity of length made it almost impossible for other players to go to the basket. He could swat shots long after they’d left a player’s hand, because he had a lot of recovery room between their height and his. So winning in high school and college was understandably easy for a player as big and talented as Greg Oden.

But on the next level, as an NBA player, he’ll need to be much more than just big to command a double team. He’ll have to be lethal. All but a few teams out west have a big man with size, talent, or both, so he’s got to be able to do a lot more than he was capable of in college. On offense, he’ll have to be aggressive, and on defense, he will have to keep his feet moving, because as much as his athleticism has been touted for a center prospect, there are enough strong power forwards out west to pose a challenge for him each night.

What champion NBA big man does his game best resemble? He doesn’t have Shaq’s size, Hakeem’s agility, or Duncan’s fundamentals. He doesn’t even have Ewing’s fadeaway!

He IS a shot blocker; that can’t be denied. But I’m interested to see how all that translates to a faster paced game with bigger bodies. We’ve seen a lot of talents that didn’t translate, so it’s not a given. I’d have to say his best case scenario would be ‘Ben Wallace with size…a bit more skill…and substantially less heart (let’s get into that next).’

Ben Wallace, of course, did become an NBA Champion, but only when paired up with Rasheed Wallace, a player who could do just about everything Ben couldn’t offensively. If Portland gets the right pieces around him, Oden will win… but can’t the same be said of Kevin Durant?

Before I sound like a basher, let me say I DO like the kid, and I hope he does well. BUT…
Have you heard this guy talk?!!! I am a fan of humility, but Oden’s brand sounds a little too much like timidity, sometimes even disinterest. Were he my height, he’s admitted that he would be in dental school instead! I think that one great similarity of the other champion centers (excluding Shaq’s desire to be involved with just about anything) is their desire for dominance, not just basketball. And when the game is on the line, that’s the kind of guy you need to have the ball, not a guy who “hopes” to win lots of rings.

Remember the ’07 Big Dance… when it was crunch time, it was RON LEWIS and MIKE CONLEY time—NOT Greg Oden time—for Ohio State (much, much more on that later).

Tim Duncan has posted 20-10 in all but one injury-riddled season of his NBA career.
Shaquille O’Neal posted career numbers in rebounding and shot-blocking during his rookie season.

How did other notable big men fare in Year 1?
• Hakeem Olajuwon—23 & 13.
• Patrick Ewing—20 & 9
• Alonzo Mourning—21 & 10
• Shawn Bradley…10 & 6

Yes, I put Shawn there for a reason. You can go all the way through basketball history and find very few exceptions to one key rule—BIG MEN DON’T BLOSSOM. Whatever they are when they arrive, is whatever they’ll be. The Kevin Garnetts, Yaos, and Dwight Howards are the obvious exception here, because even talented foreign & high school draft picks have to make adjustments to the NBA game. But players with any college experience have historically maintained a level of performance similar to that of their rookie season.

Now what do we expect from Oden this year? He won’t have a shot, or much of an offensive game. He’ll block a lot of shots, possibly grab 10 boards if he stays out of foul trouble. I would think that 13-11-4 would be about the best we could expect out of him. Now as he gets bigger, his rebounds could definitely round into the 14 or 15 range, but will his scoring improve substantially? I don’t expect that his blocked shots will extend into 5 or 6 per game (that would just be horrendous coaching on the other side), so can we say that he will max out at 19-15-4?

Now those numbers actually do look great, but remember, there are a lot of great numbers guys that DIDN’T get rings…

Karl Malone 29-11-2... no ring
Kevin Garnett 25-14-5-2… no ring
Charles Barkley 28-10-4ast… no ring
Shawn Bradley… okay, never again…

One thing he does have in his favor… he steps in as a Top-5 center in the league IMMEDIATELY. I can’t emphasize this enough. There’s very little doubt that he’ll be GOOD—Olowokandi even put up 13-9 one fateful season— but the question is, WILL HE BE KEVIN DURANT GREAT?

Last but not least, after reading pre- and post-draft scholars/experts/analysts discuss the potential and presence of Greg Oden, I've failed to hear ONE in this "s/e/a" panel point out this one glaring omission from the debate:

If Greg Oden & Mike Conley have played together since grade school… why does everyone assume it was ODEN that was responsible for those 800 victories?

People tend to forget that Conley led Ohio State to a 6-1 record in Oden’s absence at the beginning of the season. Sure, the starting schedule wasn’t very tough, but it really makes you wonder who was really the leader during all those winning seasons in Indiana.

As we’ve seen with Jason Kidd this summer… having a quality point guard makes everybody look like an all-star. That’s also why the Pistons signed 31-year-old Chauncey Billups to a long-term deal a year after letting Ben Wallace walk. That’s also why the Dallas Mavericks are complete idiots for letting Steve Nash walk away and signing Eric Dampier to a $70 million contract. Portland will be the most up-in-the-air point guard picture that Oden’s been a part of in over a decade. How will he respond?

This is just a possibility… but it IS a possibility: the NBA season may tell us that Mike Conley was vastly underrated… and Greg Oden was at least to some degree, overrated.


When it comes down to it, I’ve really got my foot in my own mouth at this point. I mean, there’s a chance that Oden could LeBron on us, come out as a 20-10-5 force from the start, and make this post as irrelevant and embarrassing as anything I’ve ever written. OR…he could come out and struggle, slowly establishing himself as a solid center prospect, but failing to seize the dominance that we've already seen Durant is capable of. If that does happen, I won’t be saying “I told you so.” That’s not my goal here. I’ll be too busy trying to work my fax machine to send this article to Paul Allen’s desk… this would HAVE to get me some kind of NBA job.

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