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