Wednesday night, it was reported that for the second time in his young career, Grego Oden will lose an entire season to microfracture surgery. Shortly after being selected first overall in the 2007 draft, Oden lost the entirety of his rookie season to microfracture surgery- a procedure intended to stimulate cartilage growth- on his right knee. This time around he will have the surgery on his left knee. Blazers trainer Jay Jensen said at a press conference that Oden has a hole in the articular cartilage on the end of a bone in his knee and that the cause of the damage remains unclear. "We sat there and it was like we'd been kicked in the stomach," Jensen said, choking up. "It felt like hearing someone close to us had died."
In addition to the microfracture procedures that have now cost him two seasons, Oden has also missed significant time due to a pair of patella injuries, the most recent of which, a fracture in his left patella, took place in December 2009 and cost him the last 61 games of the 2009-10 season. By the end of the 2010-11 season, which would have been (or technically is, I guess) Oden’s fourth in the NBA, he will have taken part in just 82 of the Blazers’ 328 regular season games.
In those 82 games (61 in 2008-09 and 21 in 2009-10), Oden’s been solid, averaging 9.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.4 bpg, and shooting 57.7% from the field, but has never had the opportunity to truly establish his identity as an NBA player. Prior to breaking his patella in a home game against the Houston Rockets last December, Oden was enjoying the best stretch of his NBA career. He’d started all 21 of the Blazers’ games, averaging 11.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 2.3 bpg, had put up six double-doubles, blocked 3+ shots 10 times and was a single game removed from a career-best 20 rebound performance.
This injury, the latest in a string of devastating blows to what should have been a promising NBA career, brings to light a series of questions. Is this the end for Greg Oden in Portland? Is this the end for him in the NBA? How do the expectations for his career need to be adjusted?
At just 22 years of age, where does he go from here?
For his own well-being, we all need to forget where Greg Oden was drafted. It’s not really to anyone’s benefit to continue rehashing the 2007 draft. I feel pretty confident in saying that the Portland Trailblazers probably wish they’d selected Kevin Durant with the top pick. Okay? Okay. Now, forget about Durant.
Unless the greatness of Kevin Durant is the greatest mirage in NBA history, there’s little that Oden could have done to emerge as the best player in the 2007 draft class. Had Oden stayed healthy and averaged 18-12 for an entire decade, the Blazers still would have had a tough time- although it would have been a lot less tough and a lot less depressing- justifying their Oden-over-Durant pick.
Given this, it’s patently absurd to continue to discuss his place atop the 2007 draft. That’s over. Things didn’t work out. Regardless of what happened in the 2007 draft, in 2010, we know Oden is no longer a blue-chipper.
He’s going to place enough pressure on himself to become a productive NBA player without having to live up to #1 overall status as well. Rather than continuing to beat the long-since deceased Sam Bowie-Michael Jordan horse, we’re far better served looking at Oden’s career in terms of what it can still become.
Looking back at the NBA drafts of the past decade and a half, we can find a pair of former top-five picks, coincidentally both members of the 2010-11 76ers, who, while considered “busts,” have managed to carve out long, moderately productive and personally lucrative careers- Joe Smith (#1 overall in 1995) and Tony Battie (#5 overall in 1997). Smith is now in his 15th NBA season, with career averages of 11 ppg and 6.4 rpg. Battie is now in his 13th NBA season. He’s averaged roughly 6 ppg and 5 rpg. While they proved to be disappointments to the teams that selected them, had either of these guys been selected 10 picks later than where they were, they’d be considered solid picks. That’s where we are with them, and sadly, that’s where we are with Greg Oden.
I realize it’s neither sexy nor particularly ambitious to aspire to journeyman status, but at this stage, 10 under-the-radar NBA seasons and $55+ million in career earnings (that’s what Tony Battie has unofficially raked in!) can’t sound too bad to Oden.
(Interestingly, we may be in the infancy of this process with another recent top-three pick, Darko Milicic)
Oden cannot be relied upon to play a major role on a team- any substantial contribution he makes must be viewed as a pleasant surprise. Another Blazer big man to whom Oden is frequently compared is Bill Walton. While Walton serves as an apt comparison, given he was also selected #1 overall by the Blazers and plagued by injuries to his lower body, Walton enjoyed a level of success with the Blazers that Oden likely never will- accumulating All-Star selections, All-NBA Team selections, a league MVP and an NBA title. He may, however, serve as the perfect example for how Oden ought to approach the next stage of his career.
In 10 NBA seasons, Walton only suited up in more than 65 twice- and neither of those seasons was in Portland! Crazy, huh? Walton played four seasons with the Blazers, three of them “healthy” (between 51 and 65 games played), before being robbed of his prime by chronic injuries to his feet.
Like Oden, Walton did not take the floor in the last season of his contract with the Blazers, though it should be noted that Walton did this by choice, sitting out the 1978-79 season while demanding a trade, citing unethical and incompetent treatment of injuries by the Blazers' front office and medical staff (another difference between the two).
He ultimately signed with the San Diego Clippers in the summer of 1979. While he managed to play in just 57 games over the next two seasons, Walton took the floor 202 times in three seasons between 1983 and 1986 (two with the Clippers, one with the Celtics), averaging 9.7 ppg, 8 rpg, 1.7 bpg and appearing in 80 games for the 1985-86 Celtics, with whom he won the Sixth Man of the Year award and a second championship ring.
For a more recent (and eerily similar) example of what we might expect from Oden in the future, we can look atop the 2000 draft, at #1 overall pick Kenyon Martin, who’s got an injury record of his own that rivals that of Oden.
In 2000, Martin, who’s currently out with an injury, had his college career ended by a broken leg, after which he enjoyed a relatively healthy half-decade before himself undergoing a pair of microfracture procedures in an 18-months span, with a 26-game tendinitis hiatus sandwiched in between. In a decade in the NBA, Martin’s played more than 73 games in a season once- 77 in 2002-03, two years before the first of his microfracture surgeries- and has established himself as a strong defender and a 12-7 guy.
Given his youth and advances in medical technology, Oden still has the opportunity to develop into a productive NBA player.
Greg Oden needs a fresh start, in a new city, with a new fan base and new expectations. Prior to the start of the 2010-11 season, the Blazers announced that they would not offer Oden an extension to his rookie contract. Although this puts him in incredibly undistinguished company as the only the second #1 over pick (Kwame Brown is the other) not to have his rookie contract extended, it’s probably for the best.
Greg Oden doesn’t need to be treated like the “sick kid,” and as nurturing a fan base as he’s got in Portland, there’s simply too much baggage to reset expectations and start the relationship anew. Sure, Oden’s got baggage- wherever he ends up, he’s going to be “injury prone”, “fragile,” “snakebitten,” whatever- but there’s only one fan base that’s suffered through the constant heartbreak of getting it’s hopes up for his arrival, only to have them crushed beneath catastrophic injury. It’s not that the fans of Portland don’t want to bear with him, it’s that they probably can’t.
If he’s ever going to get his NBA career on track, Greg Oden needs a fresh start in a new city, with fans whose expectations of him are in line with what he can deliver. Whether the fans of Portland like it or not, subconsciously they still harbor the hope that Oden will develop into the franchise big man they thought they’d gotten after winning the 2007 lottery.
If he’s going to right the ship of his NBA career, Greg Oden must leave Portland at the end of his current contract and sign with a franchise that’s totally at peace with what they’re getting- a talented but injury-prone center, and not a #1 overall pick.
For what it’s worth, at least he’s got the entire basketball world rooting for him.