Greg Oden is 22 (allegedly), and thus might be the youngest player in league history to be, by general consensus, a draft bust. His numbers tell you he’s an impact player, maybe even an All-Star. His career PER (19.5) is matched by only 23 active players, his Win Share rate (.180/48) by only 11. But you can only help when you’re on the court. He’ll have missed 328 out of a possible 410 regular season games by year’s end, meaning he’s still 13000 minutes away from qualifying for either statistic. I don’t want to ruminate on whether or not he deserves the bust tag–as Snoop Pearson would have you know, deserve got nothin’ to do with it. Instead, I’d like to ask: what were we really expecting? Has Oden been a disappointment? Or are we just tearing down what we never should have built up in the first place?
There are 3 players currently in the NBA who match Oden’s listed height (7’0″) and weight (285 lbs.): Shaquille O’Neal, Andrew Bynum, and Yao Ming. Illustrious company, but a list that also reads like the attendance sheet for a Plastar Fasictis Anonymous meeting. In total, that group (excluding Oden) have appeared in 1929 out of a possible 2510 regular season games. That’s about 77%–on average, a 63-game season. That figure, however, is slightly inflated by the Man of Steel’s durability–he’s stayed the healthiest, in a career twice as long as Yao’s or Bynum’s. And if you include Oden in the analysis, active NBA players of his dimensions have appeared in 73% of possible games – a shade under 60 games a year. All of them have had at least one season where they sat out most of the year; 2 of the 4 have missed at least one entire season.
In the pursuit of athletic excellence, we convince ourselves that athletes’ bodies are fit to do things that fly in the face of medical science. Dozens of MLB pitchers are now using elbows reconstructed through Tommy John surgery (inserting a tendon from elsewhere in the body into the elbow) after the repeated, unnatural act of throwing a baseball the way they’ve been properly instructed since Little League shredded their ulnar collateral ligament. And the NFL is finally starting to pay attention to the mounting evidence about the extreme likelihood and long-term effect of concussions from playing football at all levels, with drastic rule changes perhaps its only recourse to address the problem. We’re disappointed to hear about a hard-throwing pitcher blowing out his arm, or an ex-linebacker showing early signs of neurological deterioration. But the only people still surprised by these stories are the ones who haven’t been paying attention. Shouldn’t the sidelining of a 7-ft, 300-lb center be added to that category of things we probably should’ve known better about?
A lot of people are now asking whether Oden is injury prone or if he’s merely been the victim of isolated, freak accidents. Really? Of course he’s injury prone. He’s 7 feet tall. He’d be prone to injury if he never picked up a basketball. Think of the biggest person you know (who, in all likelihood, is not a 7-footer). How many assorted leg issues have they had?
We remember when this works out well–Shaq, Olajuwon, Abdul-Jabbar. They stayed pretty healthy, and each won multiple titles in the process. But drafting size early, you’re just as likely to end up with a Sam Bowie or Brad Daugherty–a talented guy who simply can’t stay on the court. It could be worse. Looking for a franchise center, teams will sometimes see the right frame and think the basketball part can be filled in later–Aleksandar Radojevic, DeSagana Diop, and Robert Swift all went early in recent drafts. The point is, hitting on an O’Neal or Olajuwon is like winning the lottery.
The Blazers aren’t dumb. They knew the risk they were taking, but a dominant big man is a quicker ticket to a championship than a dominant small forward. So it didn’t work out for them. They aimed high, flew too close to the sun, and got burned. Oden’s only sin was flashing the type of talent that puts visions of Larry O’Brien trophies in executives’ heads. He’s got a lot more Brad Daugherty in him than Michael Olowokandi. Daugherty played 548 games, and played them well. Let’s hope Oden can get to that number. That would be a great success, and there is some precedent–Zydrunas Ilgauskas missed 185 games in his first 4 seasons. Oden has 466 games to match Daugherty. That’s a far more reasonable goal for him now than to be the next Olajuwon. What’s lost when we wonder about what could have been is that it was the most reasonable goal to begin with.
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