The Portland Trail Blazers had a difficult decision to make a few years ago when they had the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft: Should they take Greg Oden or KevinDurant?
After making Oden the top pick that year, the Blazers now have another tough decision. For how long, and for how much, are they willing to invest in Oden?
After two major injuries have limited the former Ohio State star to just 82 games over three seasons, it could be prudent to ask if Oden will ever be the player the Blazers -- and everybody else in the league, for that matter -- thought he would be. And if he is not, how long do the Blazers delude themselves into thinking he will be?
After all, these are not mundane injuries that Oden has suffered. He played zero games his first year in the league because he had microfracture surgery on his right knee. In his second season, Oden sustained a foot injury in his first game that kept him out for two weeks, then chipped his kneecap when he collided with Golden State's Corey Maggette. He appeared in 61 games overall.
And just as Oden was beginning to play this season at the level the Blazers anticipated, he broke that left kneecap without even getting hit on Dec. 5 against Houston. He is expecting to miss the rest of the season (though Oden said last week that he hoped to return for the playoffs).
It appears as if Oden is a bust, the calamity of untimely injuries derailing his career before it even got started, the second coming of Sam Bowie, whose body betrayed him -- and the Blazers -- in the same fashion in the '80s. But the Blazers don't view Oden as the next Bowie, the player taken ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft, a time when Portland already had Clyde Drexler and did not want to duplicate the position.
"We are not there yet," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "There is potential there. He's doing well right now. We got a year to get him stronger. We aren't giving up."
Not a surprising reaction given that McMillan swears that Oden was the correct choice at No. 1, even as he watches Durant blossom into one of the league's premier scorers and lead Oklahoma City into contention for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
"Durant is playing great," McMillan said. "And I knew he would be a good player. But we had Brandon Roy. What we needed was a center. And Oden was the right pick. I've never felt [like we should have taken Durant]. Of course, he may lead the league in scoring, maybe this year, but I have never second-guessed. For me, at that time, it was looking at what we had and what we needed."
That would seem to contradict the Bowie lesson, which spawned the advent of the draft paradigm "take the best player available."
"It depends on who you ask," McMillan said. "I still feel we needed a center. And he is the center of the future. That type of guy doesn't come around a lot. And he was sitting right there for us. You do that."
One source close to the team said general manager Kevin Pritchard was swayed toward Oden not only because of the Blazers' needs but also because nearly every GM inquired about making a deal for the right to choose Oden, including San Antonio, which was said to be open to offering Tim Duncan. If rivals were considering trading cornerstone players for Oden, it's hard to blame Pritchard for making that choice.
Therein lies the difficult task of evaluating draft prospects. In many ways, it is asking somebody to predict an unpredictable future. Only in hindsight could Pritchard be criticized for making that choice. It is how he handles the situation from here on that will undoubtedly define his tenure.
For McMillan, this is not the first time he has dealt with this kind of situation. When he was coaching in Seattle, the SuperSonics drafted Robert Swift out of high school with the 12th overall pick in 2004. McMillan helped develop Swift for two years, and briefly thought about not going to Portland because he wanted to continue coaching Swift, whom he thought had substantial promise.
But in 2006, when McMillan left for the Blazers, Swift suffered a major knee injury in a preseason game. In rehab Swift bulked up on weights, which led to a second major knee injury. Swift is now out of the league after the franchise (which relocated to Oklahoma City) realized he would never develop into what it had hoped. His injuries were too severe.
The Blazers have too much invested in Oden to simply cut ties with him because of injuries. He was their No. 1 pick, after all, and they touted him in all their marketing campaigns. For obvious reasons, they can't give up on him just yet, even if he has created serious doubts about his future.
Pritchard stays optimistic about Oden's situation by telling himself that his second injury did not involve ligaments, tendons or cartilage. Those lessen a player's stability and quickness. A broken bone can heal.
"Not that you want to have anybody suffer any knee injury," Pritchard said Thursday while attending the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. "But this is the best kind of knee injury to suffer."
Even if they remain confident Oden can one day be a productive player, shouldn't they at least shift their expectations for him? Zydrunas Ilgauskas was never the same after he went through years of foot injuries, but he was still a solid contributor for Cleveland for many years.
Pritchard says no. He wants what he wanted when he drafted him.
"Do I think he'll be playing at the same level when he gets back that he was when he was injured? Absolutely," Pritchard said.
Pritchard's bold assessment should make this summer interesting. Oden is eligible to receive his first extension, just as Oklahoma City can give Durant an extension for somewhere around five years and $80 million. Oden's production does not merit a sizable extension, if one at all. But from a business perspective, this will be the best time for him to maximize his earnings potential because a new collective bargaining agreement in 2011 surely won't be as beneficial to him.
The Blazers must decide how much they want to commit to Oden. He is under contract for next year for $6.8 million, and the team can make a qualifying offer that will pay him $8.8 million in 2011-12. That would seem like enough time to properly evaluate Oden's progress and his durability. But if Oden demands an extension this summer, which he is likely to do, the Blazers could face issues with their big men.
When backup center Joel Przybilla went down with a ruptured patella tendon after Oden broke his kneecap, Pritchard acquired MarcusCamby from the Clippers for Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw at the trade deadline, hoping to bolster Portland's chances at a postseason run.
But re-signing Camby, who will be a free agent this summer, would give the Blazers three centers and present McMillan with the challenge of distributing minutes, particularly because Camby still wants to start and play major minutes and Oden will need playing time to develop if he indeed can stay healthy.
"We want depth," Pritchard said. "A few years ago we didn't have any depth. It's not a bad thing to have too many talented players and have to figure out how to distribute minutes. I'll take that second option every time."
Pritchard's decision may have been made easier when Przybilla slipped in the shower recently and reinjured his knee, prompting a second surgery. Pritchard said he did some research and discovered that Denver Broncos running back CorrellBuckhalter suffered a similar set of knee injuries and has enjoyed some reasonable success since, reinforcing his belief that Przybilla will recover effectively.
But Przybilla's situation won't be resolved until next season at the earliest, a few months too late. For now, Pritchard and the Blazers are stuck, and will likely have to re-sign Camby this summer. And then hope with all their might that Oden's injuries are freak occurrences and not a sign of things to come -- as they were with Bowie.