It is amazing how the gentle bounce of a little pingpong ball can change the attitude and fortune of an entire city. Think back to 1984 when the Portland Trail Blazers lost the draft lottery to the Houston Rockets and surrendered the number one pick and the chance to draft Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon. Portland badly needed a center and made a bad situation worse when they drafted the frail Sam Bowie ahead of the likes of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton.
You could argue, and I always do, that it’s easier to criticize that decision with more than twenty-three years of history on our side. Thinking back, as a pre-pubescent thirteen-year-old, I knew the Blazers were making a tragic mistake, everyone knew, dogs knew. Me with my acne, pitchy voice (it’s all good, dawg), and formidable basketball card collection serving as my general manager credentials. Matters none, we were all right and the Blazers have suffered ever since with mediocre results and a massive chip on their shoulder representing the weight of what could have been.
The next fifteen years served recurring kicks to the groin, as the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls went on to win numerous championships, MVPs, and the love of the windy city. Jordan forever changed Chicago, the athletic apparel business, and the landscape of the NBA. Sam Bowie changed nothing, other than to help fill that rarified air of players answering to the most ironic of sports trivia questions, along with the likes of Steve Bartman, Mark Fidrych, and Ryan Leaf.
Fast forward to the upcoming NBA draft. For some reason, the gods are finished beating the crap out of the Trail Blazers (until recently known as the Jail Blazers). My guess is the Blazers have been working overtime to exorcise all the bad karma from the poor management and subsequent dismantling of the 1976–77 Championship team that, by all accounts, could have gone down as one of the best squads of all time. So it is with this renewed sense of good fortune that the Trail Blazers beat the odds and drew the number one pick in this year’s draft.
Some years, the number one pick in the draft does not carry that much weight. Few could tell you who was picked in the first position last year. (Oh yeah, hot shot? Spell it!) But this year is not most years. The Trail Blazers have their choice between Ohio State center Greg Oden and Texas forward Kevin Durant. Each player is gifted beyond their years, both of them electing to leave college following their freshman year.
Oden is a man-child. He measures seven feet tall and 230 pounds, that’s 2.13 meters and 127 kilograms for those hooked on the metric system. The nineteen-year-old has the body of a god, a very tall god at that. His game relies on a rare combination of height, speed, and power. For such a large young man, he possesses surprisingly good footwork and coordination. He also has a beard that is every bit as full as Tom Hank’s character in Castaway! There is a saying that you cannot teach height—which is a fairly compelling argument for taking Oden with the number one pick.
Durant on the other hand, is a 6’ 10" forward with the perfect combination of speed, jumping ability, and skill. He is as comfortable finishing with authority on the break as he is hitting the thirty-foot jump shot from behind the arc. Durant is compared to current NBA stars such as Dirk Nowitzki and Tracy McGrady, but will most likely surpass their skill level and impact on the game after a few short years. Durant has the rare ability to perform at a very high level while making the game look effortless.
Watching Boston Celtic executive Tommy Heinsohn grab his head and mutter the F-word on national television is one of my sports highlight thus far in 2007. The Celtics, using every means possible, tanked the last half of this season in the hopes of landing one of the top two draft picks—that is, Oden or Durant. Boston was so shameless in their tactics that they had a 20 percent chance, compared to Portland’s 5 percent, to land the number one pick. As chance would have it, Boston is now slotted in the number five position. They will still get a good player but not anyone that is destined for greatness.
In fact, I am not sure I have ever seen a draft like the class of 2007, or if we will ever see one like it again. In Oden and Durant, you have to truly unique ball players that have the skills and persona to be the face of any franchise. After that, the talent level drops off dramatically. Not that there are not some nice players; it’s just that the gap in talent is so vast that it’s hard to get as excited about anyone else outside of the top two picks. This drop-off explains all the hand wringing that has come from Boston and Memphis, who were bumped out of the top two slots by Portland and Seattle.
Speaking of Seattle, here is another franchise that has not been blessed by the basketball gods of late. Amid talks of relocation and a team racked by injuries, Seattle has been rejuvenated by the prospect of landing either one of the top players. Seattle also has the advantage of having the easiest job in the draft. Seattle’s draft plan probably reads something like, “We like Oden and Durant, um, draft whoever is left at number two.” No second-guessing and no prospective Bowie curse. Talk in the Pacific Northwest points towards a blooming rivalry between the Sonics and the Blazers, as the top two players bloom into NBA stars.
As far as my guess as to who goes where, Oden goes number one to the Blazers and Durant goes at two to the Sonics. Sure, the Blazers don’t need another big man following the drafting of LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006. But that logic didn’t work in 1984 (why draft Jordan when you have Clyde the Glide Drexler?) and will not fly now. All things being equal, you draft the bigger guy, and Oden is going to be the game’s next great big man.