By Jim Weber
With Kevin Durant playing at an MVP level and the Oklahoma City Thunder advancing to the Western Conference finals, there’s a lot of revisionist history going on these days with people claiming that Durant always should have been the No. 1 pick of the 2007 NBA Draft ahead of Greg Oden.
Then-Blazers GM and current Indiana Pacers director of player personnel Kevin Pritchard says he still gets asked constantly about why he selected Oden over Durant and there are plenty of critics who now look back and slam the Portland front office for the decision. Sadly, it appears that “Oden over Durant” will join “Bowie over Jordan” as the the most infamous draft decision in NBA history with people calling the Blazers idiots for making the same mistake twice.
Bowie was a bad pick on a player with well-documented leg injuries. Oden wasn’t.
But no matter how many NBA titles or MVP awards Durant wins, there will always be two very simple reasons why Oden was the clear No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft that have nothing to do with the clichéd arguments from then like “you can’t teach size,” the need for a “franchise center” and Oden’s defense and shot-blocking ability:
#1: 2007 National Title Game
Yes, I boil Oden’s entire freshman season down to one unbelievable performance on the first Monday in April of ’07.
Oden (15.7 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 3.3 BPG, 61.6 FG%) and Durant (25.8 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 47.3 FG%) both had great statistical freshman seasons and proved themselves worthy of the top pick in the draft, but we never really got to see the big man in full after he received LeBron James-level hype in high school because of a surgically repaired right wrist that we recently learned from ex-teammate Mark Titus was torn up when Oden punched his younger brother.
Oden missed the first seven games of the 2006-07 season and wasn’t even close to full strength when he came back, wearing a cast on his right wrist, shooting free-throws left-handed and generally being out of shape. Even when Oden dominated opponents – like a 29-point, 10-rebound performance vs. Iowa in January and a 17 and 19 outing vs. Purdue right before the tournament – it was clear he wasn’t 100% (he shot free throws left handed until March) and always had us wondering, “How good is this guy when he’s healthy?!”
And then for one 40-minute stretch, we all saw what Oden was capable of.
If you only remember Florida beating Ohio State in the 2007 title game by a healthy margin, you are forgetting one of the greatest individual college sports performances I have ever seen. I can only compare it to Michael Vick’s legendary coming-out party in the 2000 Sugar Bowl against Florida State.
Oden went for 25 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks that night but the numbers don’t even tell the full story. He single-handedly kept the Buckeyes in the game against a team full of future NBA players by treating the basketball hoop like a jungle gym with his thunderous dunks and tossing bodies around in the paint like they were rag dolls.
This YouTube clip gives you a small taste of what happened that night:
And Oden was doing this against Florida’s frontcourt of Joakim Noah and Al Horford, both of whom have become very good NBA players, plus Chris Richard, a physical beast off the Florida bench. But nothing the Gators did could slow down Oden, who played possessed. Forget the comparisons to Patrick Ewing, Oden’s performance was Shaquille O’Neal-esque and gave us a glimpse of exactly what he could do.
[For people that enjoy playing the "what if?" game, feel free to wonder if Durant would have still been picked ahead of Oden if Ohio State had lost to Xavier in the second round like they should have and Oden never played in the national title game. It's doubtful that would have changed the selection, but certainly an interesting thought to entertain.]
Without a history of chronic leg injuries at that time like Bowie, the No. 1 pick became nearly unanimous among NBA personnel and draft experts and there was simply no way Pritchard was going to pass on Oden after that night in Atlanta.
Remember him? He’s the former Washington Husky that was on his way to the NBA Rookie of the Year Award while Oden starred at Ohio State and made three straight All-Star Games starting the following season.
Even if Oden hadn’t channeled his inner Shaq in the title game, the Blazers weren’t going to pick another perimeter player while Zach Randolph and Joel Przybilla manned the paint. The Blazers were eager to ship out Randolph and his immaturity to shed the “Jail Blazers” nickname and Przybilla was little more than a shot blocker.
I don’t care what general managers say about picking the best player available instead of drafting for need; you don’t take players in consecutive years that are very similar. As we’ve seen with James and Dwyane Wade, the two can cannibalize each other’s production instead of complementing one another while also leaving a gaping hole in the front court.
Joe Dumars saying the Pistons drafted Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 NBA Draft because the team already had Tayshaun Prince was ludicrous. But Roy was not just another Prince. Pritchard was only using common sense by pairing a dominant center to a terrific scorer that appeared on his way to becoming a 10-time NBA All-Star before injuries cut his career short as well.
If both Roy and Oden had stayed healthy, there’s no doubt in my mind Pritchard would still be considered one of the best general managers in the game and the Blazers would have at least competed with the Thunder for the No. 2 seed in the West this year with a masterful young nucleus Pritchard and his predecessor Steve Patterson put together of PG Jerryd Bayless, SG Brandon Roy, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge and C Greg Oden.
Of course, now Oden and Roy are out of the league and Pritchard is still looking for another GM job after getting axed in 2010 while Durant and the Thunder are eight wins away from an NBA title.
But none of that changes the fact Oden going No. 1 overall over Durant was – and always will be – the right call at the time and Pritchard should stop having to answer for it.
Jim Weber is the founder and president of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each Monday and Wednesday.