Kevin Durant is a better player than Greg Oden.
I know. Shocking information, right? Hard-hitting news, that's what I'm bringing you at the moment. And trust me, the whole "they play completely different games" argument isn't lost on me. But the gap is simply too wide between their respective contributions, even when Oden is healthy (you know, the five minutes that happens per year) to believe anything else.
Thing is, it wasn't obvious when those two were drafted consecutively back in 2007. It pretty much boiled down to which one you'd watched more often, and which school of thought you subscribed to, at the time. In Filip Bondy's book on the 1984 draft, "Tip-Off: How The NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever," Bondy discusses how Michael Jordan would forever alter a fundamental NBA drafting belief: "You always take the big man." Jordan's world-changing abilities would set a new corollary to the draft manifestos of GMs and fans. "Always take the big man, unless some other guy is insanely good at putting the little round thing through the circle thing." But after spending a decade trying to find the next Airness, the traditional thought regained its momentum. And with Oden's combination of not only height but brawn, he was an ideal candidate for the traditionalists, along with those that believe in drafting for need, except in the rarest of circumstances.
And just like with Jordan, there was simply no way to know Durant would be this good.
Good? Absolutely. If you saw him, you knew it. Personal experiences are never something to be used as evidence in a vacuum, but that doesn't mean they hold no weight. Watching Durant drop a nuclear payload on my alma mater back in 2007, obliterating them with 34 points on a range of shots so wide that for a while I thought Texas had two guys named Durant -- I was sold. Done. Gotta draft that kid. That's the guy you want. He's "special." But this? If you'd have put a gun to my head that night and asked me, "Will this kid be arguably the best player in the NBA in three years?" I would have asked you to put the gun down, because, well, I don't want to get shot. But prompted for an answer there's no way I would have assented to such a lofty caliber for his eventual playing status. Those wimpy wrists? That momma-boy's face? The sheepish personality? This was no lion, driven to cheat at card games with the parents of friends (a classic Jordan tale). And he was no viper, likely to make demands of teams that hadn't even drafted him yet (the Kobe special).
Whether to draft Durant or Oden was a legitimate question at the time. The Blazers chose, and the Blazers chose incorrectly. But there was no way of knowing which was really the right choice; like so many big draft decisions before, it was a total crapshoot. Well, not entirely.
Jeff Ma, in an interview with Blazers Edge this week to promote his new book, "The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big In Business," talked about his work with the Blazers as a statistical consultant and how prior to the draft, his evidence led him pretty heavily towards Durant.
"Our numbers absolutely said they should pick Durant. It wasn't even close."OK, that's a fun quote, right? But let's give it some context.
"But that kind of decision is never that cut and dry. I would never want the Blazers to make the decision so cut and dry. The thinking they had was that this elite center is very rare and the ability to get that guy was staring them in the face and that's what they went after. The sad thing is that when you ignore the numbers, the numbers often tell you something regardless of what you're ignoring. The numbers in this case were ignored because Oden was hurt but what have we seen in Oden's career? A propensity to get hurt.The lesson is that Ma's analysis led him to believe Durant would be "elite" (the factor he most focuses on, as he discusses in the article; in other words, read it). But at the end of the day, there were just as many reasons to believe Oden would be great as well. And make no mistake, there's still definite hope for Oden to become the player many people thought he'd be by now. Many people will tell you that the injuries he's sustained in his painfully brief career have been freak ones, not part of a predictable pattern. If those injuries were to stop occurring, it's possible he could develop into a terrific NBA center. "Can't teach size," as they always say.
I felt like they should have drafted Durant and said they should have drafted Durant but I think it's really easy to look at this with hindsight."
But word has already come out that Oden may not be ready for the start of the season. He's "progressing" as he has been since nearly every single season. Meanwhile, Durant has just finished setting records in FIBA world play, after leading the NBA in scoring, and showing improvement that has nothing to do with MRIs. This isn't an indictment of Oden. It's a testament to what Durant has shown himself to be. Even Oden's productive moments are tempered with limitations that have had nothing to do with his health. He certainly hasn't had the requisite time to progress in the pro game. But again, the problem isn't Oden. It's how incredible Durant has been.
Oden would need to be one of the most dominant defensive players in the paint, and have a nice hook shot to match Durant. And to be sure, Oden's shown flashes of both of those elements. But Durant's just been that bright of a star. As frustrating as it may be for Oden and Blazer fans, the two will always be compared. Barring a significant shift in the winds of both their career sails, it's Durant who will own the seas.