By In Stuff

With the First Pick …

In one of the biggest NBA draft blunders, Portland chose Greg
Oden (left) with the No. 1 pick in 2007, ahead of Kevin Durant.
(Getty Images)

When the Oklahoma City game ended Wednesday night, and the Thunder had rumbled to the NBA Finals, the first thought in my mind was the Great Northwest. Of course, I thought about Seattle fans and how they had that team just ripped away from them. I mean, Oklahoma City is a great place, a Midwestern city I always enjoyed. But being a Clevelander, that Seattle thing hits me especially hard. From what I can tell about the Seattle-to-Oklahoma City deal, Clay Bennett makes Art Modell look like … well, I can’t even type any words that might praise Art Modell, but Bennett’s move might have been even more dubious.

And, after thinking about Seattle, I thought about Portland:

“With the first pick in the 2007 NBA draft, the Portland Trail Blazers select Greg Oden from Ohio State University …”

I tweeted those words and got flooded with responses, some of them virtual laughter (“LOL,” “haha,” “hahahaha,” etc), some of them winces (“ouch,” “cold,” “cruel man, just cruel”) and some of them a bit bizarre (“Oden was the right pick at the time!”). But I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly thinking about any of those reactions. I was simply thinking about the quirks of luck and timing and choices. Kevin Durant has led the NBA in scoring the last three seasons. He was a thoroughly unstoppable scorer in this San Antonio series, especially in the fourth quarter and especially when the Thunder most needed those points. He’s taken over from Kobe Bryant, I believe, the role as the most essential player in the Western Conference.

Portland took Oden first. Oklahoma City nee Seattle took Durant second.

There have been countless draft mega-blunders through the years, of course, but I think this one stands out for a simple reason that I will get into in a minute. First, a few of those blunders. Best I can tell, using the power of hindsight, these are the biggest draft mistakes of the last 30 years:

1984: Portland picking Sam Bowie with the No. 2 pick over Michael Jordan (3), Charles Barkley (5) or John Stockton (16).

1985: Indiana choosing Wayman Tisdale with the No. 2 pick over Karl Malone (13).

1987: Phoenix choosing Armen Gilliam with the No. 2 pick over Reggie Miller (11) or Scottie Pippen (5)

1990: New Jersey choosing Derrick Coleman with the No. 1 pick over Gary Payton (2)

1994: Milwaukee choosing Glenn Robinson with the No. 1 pick over Jason Kidd (2)

1995: Golden State choosing Joe Smith with the No. 1 pick over Kevin Garnett (5)

1996: Philadelphia choosing Allen Iverson with the No. 1 pick over Kobe Bryant (13)*

1998: Clippers choosing Michael Olowokandi over anybody, but especially Dirk Nowitzki (9) or Paul Pierce (10).

2001: Washington choosing Kwame Brown over Pau Gasol (3) or Tony Parker (28)

2003: Detroit choosing Darko Milicic over Dwyane Wade (5), Carmelo Anthony (3) or Chris Bosh (4)

2005: Milwaukee choosing Andrew Bogut with the No. 1 pick over Chris Paul (4) and Deron Williams (3)

2006: Toronto choosing Andrea Bargnani with the No. 1 pick over Rajon Rondo (21) or LaMarcus Aldridge (2)

2007: Portland choosing Oden with the No. 1 pick over Durant

*Several brilliant readers bring up the obvious point that Iverson was a fabulous player … and they are right. He probably doesn’t belong here. My main point was that Kobe turned out to be a once in a generation player, while Iverson … no, you know what? Brilliant Readers are right and I’m just wrong here. Sometimes it’s that simple. Circumstances switched, Iverson might be the one with the championship. I retract.

The simple reason the Portland pick is a little different: Everybody knew going in that the Oden-Durant choice would likely make or break the Trail Blazers (and the SuperSonics, who followed). Those moments of relative clarity don’t come along very often in drafts. Usually, everybody is kind of sprawling around. I can think of one choice that was obviously crucial in the moment: Indianapolis, in the NFL, had that choice between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. I guess San Francisco had that choice between Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers.

There are others, but it’s rare. I mean, most of the draft blunders I talk about above were not real blunders because they were not real choices — Indiana in 1985 was not going to take Karl Malone over Wayman Tisdale. It would not have mattered if some brilliant scout in the Washington organization was sure that Parker was the best player in the draft, the Wizards still would not have taken him with the first pick. Too much heat. Too much fog.

But in 2007, Portland was given a stark choice: 1) Oden, a 7-foot defensive force of nature from Ohio State who looked like he could be the next great big man in the NBA (Steve Kerr called him a once-in-a-decade player), or 2) Durant, a 6-9 scoring wunderkind from Texas who Kansas coach Bill Self told me was the greatest college basketball player he ever saw. There were questions about both, of course. Oden was raw offensively, and he had been injured. Durant was thin and there were severe questions about how he would match up defensively. It was possible going in that they would both become great players, that Portland’s choice would work out either way.

But that’s not how it usually works. When you look at the top two picks in the NBA draft, you usually find a clear winner and a clear loser:

1) is Kareem, 2) is Neil Walk.


1) is Larue Martin, 2) is Bob McAdoo.


1) is Magic Johnson, 2) is Dave Greenwood


1) is David Robinson, 2) is Armen Gilliam.


1) is Derrick Coleman, 2) is Gary Payton


1) is Glenn Robinson, 2) is Jason Kidd


1) is Tim Duncan, 2) is Keith Van Horn


1) is LeBron James, 2) is Free Darko


1) is Dwight Howard, 2) is Emeka Okafor.

Durant and the Thunder would have never had been this
good had Portland not selected Oden with No. 1 pick
in 2007. (US Presswire)

Again, don’t miss the point — the Cavaliers were not choosing between LeBron and Darko, nor was Orlando choosing between Howard and Okafor. Most of those No. 1 picks were near unanimous choices. No, my point is that in drafts there are usually right and wrong answers. Now and again, you will get to choose between Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, and they will both turn out great (and on the same team). But that seems to be the exception. The No. 1 vs. No. 2 pick doesn’t usually go to the judges’ cards. It is usually a clear knockout one way or another. We got Bill Walton. You got Marvin “Bad News” Barnes. We got Hakeem, you got Bowie.

So, Portland had a sharply focused choice to make. It understood the stakes. It knew the rewards and it knew the consequences. The Trail Blazers took their best shot: They decided to go with the big man who could be a defensive presence over the prolific scorer. Looking back, this does not seem terribly unlike the decision-making process that led to Bowie over Jordan. The result has been similarly disastrous. The Trail Blazers were a good team the three years before this one — it has to be wrenching to think about how much better they could have been with Durant.

Of course, Durant is not a one-man team or anything close. It seems to me that from 2007 to 2009, Seattle/Oklahoma City had what might become known as the greatest draft run in NBA history. The SuperSonics got Durant with the No. 2 pick in 2007, and he is the best player in that draft by quite a bit. The SuperSonics got the terrific Russell Westbrook in 2008 with the No. 4 pick, this after Miami (Michael Beasley) and Memphis* (O.J. Mayo) made shaky picks. Later in that draft, Seattle took Serge Ibaka with the 24th pick.

*Well, it was officially Minnesota who drafted Mayo, but they immediately traded him for No. 5 pick Kevin Love, who at the moment leads in Win Shares from that draft:

1. Kevin Love, 31.6
2. Derrick Rose, 30.0
3. Russell Westbrook, 25.4

That was a good draft, to say the least.

And in 2009, the Thunder drafted James Harden, who at the moment has more Win Shares (21.0) than No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin (19.0) or anyone else in the draft. I’m not saying basketball Win Shares are the end-all or even worth much at all — I don’t know enough about it — or that Harden has been the best player in the draft so far. But it is clear that Harden is a fabulous player.

Getting Durant, Westbrook and Harden three years in a row — with Ibaka thrown in — it might become legendary. It reminds me of the incredible Steelers drafts from 1969-1974 when, in short order, they drafted: Mean Joe Greene (1969); Terry Bradshaw (1970); Mel Blount (1970); Jack Ham (1971); Franco Harris (1972); Lynn Swann (1974); Jack Lambert (1974); John Stallworth (1974) and Mike Webster (1974).

LeBron’s plan of putting the Super friends together could still work long term. It could. The Heat could win a championship or multiple championships. Heck, at the moment they could still win it this season — it has been years since I was as excited for an NBA game as I am for Thursday’s Celtics-Heat game.

This strategy of putting superstars together like some sort of online dating service has become pretty popular around the NBA. But look at Oklahoma City. Ibaka, Harden, Westbrook and Durant are 22, 22, 23 and 23. They are backed by some solid role players, like Nick Collison, along with some smart and helpful veterans, like Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher. They are, it appears at the moment, the best team in the NBA, and they could be for a very long time, built out of old-fashioned brilliant drafting.

Of course, for it to happen, Portland had to take Oden. I don’t mean that in a mean way or in a funny way. I mean it literally.

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40 Responses to With the First Pick …

  1. Brian Hubble says:

    Why mention that James Harden has more WInShares than Blake Griffin like it’s surprising? Blake Griffin missed all of 2009 with a knee injury. Of course he would have less of a counting stat than another good player with an extra year on him.

    • True, but due to OKC bringing Harden off bench, they actually have played similar minutes (5800 to 5500) and Harden actually has a slight better WS/48 (0.171 to Blake’s 0.166). They have been very similar in production so far.

    • Rob says:

      It’s not like Griffin has a complete game. His shooting is pretty marginal & his defense is OK. He’s the type of player that will age quickly when he can’t jump as high. That’s his entire game right now.

  2. Oklahoma is NOT in the Midwest. It is in the Great Plains.

  3. dannyjk says:

    How dare you say that Oklahoma is in the Midwest! This whole blog post should be redacted.

  4. Jack says:

    The Steelers won a coin flip for Bradshaw with the Bears (both were 1-13 the previous season). The Bears ended up trading the pick to the Packers for a bunch of guys whose best years were behind them. Certainly worked out for Pittsburgh and perhaps especially for Bradshaw.

  5. adam says:

    I’m from Seattle. I remember that draft lottery, and I wanted the Sonics to get the second pick so they’d get Durant. At the time there was tremendous pressure to take Oden with the first pick. “You can’t let a once-in-a-generation big man get away” was the logic.

  6. Matt says:

    As much as I hate to point it out (being from Milwaukee), the Bucks selected Bogut with the first pick in the 2005 draft, not Utah. Ugh, thanks for making me type that…

  7. Peg says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Grizzly Adam says:

    Utah didn’t draft Bogut. Bogut played college ball at the U of U, the Bucks drafted him. Utah took Deron Williams with the #3 pick.

  9. Drakos says:

    You can also throw in Jeff Green to that string of drafts. That pick was acquired in the Ray Allen trade and then he was eventually traded for Perkins.

  10. Malcolm says:

    Can’t call Iverson/Bryant a “blunder” and then deny it being a real blunder. It’s not a blunder. Iverson’s a hall of fame player. Yeah, Bryant’s an all-time legend, but Iverson did a hell of a lot of good for the 76er franchise. It just looks outrageous with all the others on that list.

  11. Freealonzo says:

    Sure Durant looks really skinny in that picture, but Oden looks like he is 45 years old. No wonder he broke down.

    • Rob says:

      The bad part about Oden AND Bowie is that both had injury histories in college. So, their health should have been a big concern when drafting that high. Portland managed to ignore the health issue disasterously both times.

  12. I’m glad Joe removed the drafting of Iverson over Kobe as a blunder, when compared to the others. A real Sixers blunder was trading the rights to the No. 1 pick in 1986 (Brad Daugherty) for next to nothing.

  13. Mark Daniel says:

    This may seem silly, but Oden is about the same age as Durant. I know with how young the HS and one-and-done players are when drafted, it seems they’ve been around forever by the time they are 23 or 24. Oden’s been injured a lot, so if he can recover fully, he could still end up with a long career. I mean, it’s not like he just came to the NBA and sucked. He’s been hurt. That could be just as bad, but right now it’s not totally hopeless for him if he’s able to get healthy. It’s a big if, of course.

  14. Brian says:

    A lot of these “blunders” were reasonable picks at the time. Wayman Tisdale was a much better player than Karl Malone coming out of college. It’s easy to make better picks after players’ careers are over.

    These were obvious blunders:

    Bowie over Jordan. Hakeem (then Akeem) over Jordan is defensible. Hakeem was a great player who had taken Houston to three Final Fours. Bowie had serious injuries at Kentucky and was considered a major injury risk, whereas people raved about Jordan coming out of college.

    Darko over Wade and Anthony. Again, Wade and Anthony were proven talents, whereas Darko was excessively hyped based on “potential.”

    Bogut over Chris Paul. Another example of the common tendency overvalue height over established ability.

    Oden over Durant. Somewhat questionable, but there were lots of questions about Oden’s durability at the time.

  15. Unknown says:

    Just want to defend the Big Dog a bit: while nobody would argue he had as good of a career as Kidd, Robinson averaged 20.7 pts and 6.1 rbs over 11 seasons. I won’t argue that he met the enormously high expectations he set while in college, but those aren’t the numbers of a ‘bust’.

    • Rob says:

      It wouldn’t have been as bad, but Robinson never passed the ball and never played defense. He was a dog all right. A bad fit for any team.

    • DJM says:

      Robinson’s problem was that he signed that absolutely guano-insane contract coming out of the draft.

  16. Sean says:

    The implication here is that the draft comes down to knowing which player is inherently better. In reality, though, I think it’s what happens after the draft that has more of an impact on which guy turns into a better NBA player. Was karl malone a better player on draft day than Wayman Tisdale, or did he benefit from the coaching and development in Utah that made him turn into the better player?

    And why is Pippen a HOFer while Gilliam was a journeyman? Their numbers aren’t that far apart. How much did playing with Jordan account for that difference?+

    • Rob says:

      When you look at Malone, he had Stockton and vice versa. They just ran pick and roll endlessly and it was unstoppable. Everyone knew they were going to run it, but nobody could do anything about it. Put those guys on other teams, and they still would have been good. But together, they were great. Unbelievable chemistry.

  17. Mark Coale says:

    Also, dont forget kobe engineered where he went in the draft.

    I doubt he wod have played for the hometown sixers.

  18. NRWillick says:

    “Never Nervous” Pervis for the Kings in 1987. Colossal horrible 1st pick in the draft. As a Kings fan, I hated that pick the day it happened, and ever since…

  19. Gregg says:

    Great post, Joe. But to be fair, you missed one point. Portland had a healthy Brandon Roy (24), the 2nd best 2 guard in the league at the time and LaMarcus Aldridge (23) so what they needed most, was a defender. So you’re right, they HAD to take Oden.

    • Rob says:

      The pick was defensible… except when you factor in the injury history of Oden. He was actually a good NBA player… he just couldn’t stay health and that was very forseeable.

  20. Andrew Bogut was developing into a dominant big man on both ends of the court before his awful injury in 2010. The pick would have looked a lot better if he had stayed healthy.

  21. Bob Waddell says:

    As a Detroiter the Darko pick is the eternal raw wound. It seemed idiotic at the time; Wade was terrific, Carmelo just won the NCAA by himself and Bosh was another rare talent. Joe Dumars always says that based on what he knew then, he never regretted the draft pick. But it was idiotic then, and just looks dumber by the year.

    • Rob says:

      Picking young Euros is about like picking guys out of high school. It’s hard to know if it will be another Kobe Bryant or Dirk Nowitski or Kwame Brown or Darko. It’s a flip of the coin.

  22. It will be interesting to see how teams try to remake themselves with the upcoming draft.

  23. johnfbowman says:

    Hey Joe! Thanks for not timing your Paterno book with Father’s Day. As the father of four boys, I don’t think I could have stomached it! Here’s a funny, and honest, approach to what I know is a difficult subject for you. We’re all looking for you to approach this in an honest way, no false sentimentality. I know you’ve heard the testimony, and are as sickened as I am, as a father, that JoPa could have stopped it.,27169/

  24. Rich says:

    I am always amazed that no one ever mentions Chris Webber as the worst draft pick of all time. A total of 7 first round picks where exchanged for his services. He was a bust for both the Warriors and the Bullets. He never gets any heat for this. People blame the team and not the player. I think you have to look at how well the player played for the team that drafted them.

  25. Bill Rogers says:

    I think there’s a difference when the “poor” pick gets hurt (Bowie, Oden) and when he’s just a lousy pick (Olowokandi).

  26. John Bowman says:


    I hate to keep writing you, but I think you’re a great sportswriter, and I’m concerned this Paterno story will ruin you. Your positive approach to sports heroes is the wrong take on Paterno. Delay publication. There’s too much stuff coming our right now. This is no time to publish a book, the facts keep changing. The story needs a year, or even two years, to get the facts straight. Your book won’t incorporate the facts that will come out over the next year, which will be crucial to Joe’s story. Why rush? Your reputation is at stake. Get is right. Give it time. Don’t be an object of ridicule.

  27. John Bowman says:

    Joe, it comes down to this. I want you to imagine yourself justifying your book to Victim 1, who was anally raped by Jerry Sandusky from 2007 to 2009. I want to to imagine yourself explaining how the facts in the Freeh report, that Joe “closely followed” the 1998 charges, and after this, did nothing after a trusted associate saw Jerry rape a ten year old in 2001–I want you to explain why this can be explained away, to a child who was anally raped in 2007, whose life was destroyed, because Joe did nothing. Why he should still respect Joe Paterno. Why his hatred is misplaced. Why, though he was anally raped because Joe did nothing, he should still appreciate all that Joe did for football. If you can do this, by all means, publish your book.

  28. This may seem silly, but Oden is about the same age as Durant. I know with how young the HS and one-and-done players are when drafted, it seems they’ve been around forever by the time they are 23 or 24. Oden’s been injured a lot, so if he can recover fully, he could still end up with a long career.


  29. Wilson Peter says:

    Hi Joe,
    I loved reading this piece! Well written! 🙂

    Wilson Peter
    matchmaker Chicago
    matchmaker Chicago Illinois

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