In an interview with Sports Northwest Magazine, Bethlehem Shoals of Free Darko shared that a potential essay on Greg Oden of the Portland Trail Blazers was cut from the recently-released Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac following Oden's microfracture knee surgery. When and if the Free Darko collective releases a follow-up, the mythology for Oden is obvious to me, at least during his rookie season. Oden is the modern-day Atlas--an especially apt comparison before he shaved the beard that accentuated his preternaturally-aged face. Instead of the world, Oden carries on his broad shoulders the weight of the expectations placed upon him as the No. 1 overall pick and the supposed savior of the franchise.
That Oden was feeling the strain first became evident during the preseason in Oregonian beat writer Jason Quick's enlightening blog entry recounting and making sense of a tense exchange after he described Oden's preseason performance as "underwhelming." Oden's mood has remained noticeably melancholy following his return from a mid-foot sprain that sidelined him for the season's first two weeks. Oden's desire to live up to the hype and not let his teammates and Blazers fans down has apparently taken a psychological toll.
I think that explains why Blazers fans were taken aback when one of their own, True Hoop's Henry Abbott, noted in the wake of Oden's first sustained successful stretch that his poor plus-minus numbers were evidence he was still holding the team back in the short term. Abbott's comment wasn't inaccurate, but it felt unfair in the light of all the criticism Oden has taken for his rust so far this season, to say nothing of the insipid "bust" talk that has followed him.
I went to Friday's Blazers game at the Rose Garden against New Orleans with the goal of seeing why even Oden's strong individual efforts had not translated into good plus-minus numbers. However, during the course of that game and beyond, the plus-minus has become less of an issue. Since last Monday's one-point win over Sacramento, when Oden was a -22 (meaning Portland was outscored by 22 points with him in the game) and backup center Joel Przybilla was a +23, Oden's numbers have been solid: a +15 in a blowout win over Miami, a +6 in a 15-point win against New Orleans and yesterday a sterling +26 in a win at Detroit.
Oden has probably benefited, to some extent, from moving into the starting lineup, especially at the same time as fellow rookie Rudy Fernandez has seen his shooting cool somewhat after an insanely hot start. The other effect we may be seeing in Oden's improved plus-minus is that Portland is learning to play with the big man in the middle. As he missed all of last season and the early portion of this campaign, the Blazers developed an identity all their own. Przybilla established himself as a key figure during that period, and part of the plus-minus issue was simply reinforcing Przybilla's value as a top-notch shot-blocker and rebounder who will take what the defense gives him at the other end and is shooting 83.3 percent (!) from the field this season.
Oden's skills and his immense potential demand that he become a big part of the team's system, but that's not easy to do on the fly, even with the benefit of Oden being on the floor throughout training camp and the preseason. Actually, the Blazers may have changed too much away from what had been successful for them. Notably, Nate McMillan instructed his charges last week not to "forcefeed" Oden in the post and to make sure they continue to run the pick-and-rolls and other plays that were dominant aspects in the offense pre-Oden.
Individually, LaMarcus Aldridge may have the biggest adjustment ahead of him. The go-to guy down low for the Blazers in Oden's absence, he's now sharing time in the post. Playing on the perimeter isn't really a problem for Aldridge, who has improved his midrange jumper and now has range to the three-point line. The challenge is for Aldridge to maintain the aggressiveness he played with early in the season. Again, there are promising signs within the last week, capped by Aldridge's 27-point effort Sunday against the Pistons.
During Friday's game, Oden's stat line didn't leap off the page--one point, eight rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes of action. Still, seeing the game in person, I was encouraged, especially by the passing that led to the career-high-tying three assists. Oden did an excellent job of looking for his teammates when the Hornets came with double teams and effectively ran what could develop into a dangerous two-man game with Brandon Roy feeding the post from the wing and then receiving the pass back for an open 18-footer.
The aforementioned more balanced offense will require Oden to be a threat on the weak side as well as posting up on the strong side. Teams don't have to account for Oden away from the basket, but in the paint he's very dangerous because of his ability to finish with the dunk against smaller defenders and also thanks to his offensive rebounding. Oden was credited with three offensive boards in 24 minutes Friday, and that doesn't count the couple of extra possessions he created with tapbacks and by keeping the Hornets from being unable to corral offensive boards. Overall, Oden is rebounding an impressive 14.4 percent of Blazers misses while on the floor, which would tie him for fourth in the league had he played enough minutes to qualify.
At the defensive end of the floor, Oden is going to be a major presence simply because of his size. When he was matched up with smaller players, Oden was able to give ground to contain penetration while still being able to contest shots. Frequently cross-matched with New Orleans power forward David West, Oden helped hold the 2008 All-Star to ten points on 5-of-15 shooting. As on the offensive glass, Oden has been a major factor as a defensive rebounder, pulling down 30 percent of available rebounds, which again would place him amongst the league leaders.
Certainly, Oden still has room for improvement, as is to be expected from a 20-year-old little more than a year removed from major knee surgery and still working back from another injury. The biggest thing he may need right now is experience--"reps," to take Bill Simmons' term--at the NBA level. The speed of the game still occasionally is a problem for Oden, as reflected by his intermittent problems with getting stripped in the paint.
Right now, Oden is spending too much time thinking and not reacting, and that is death for even an NBA player so phenomenally talented. One good example is running the high pick-and-roll. At times, most notably during his 22-point outburst at Golden State, Oden has been impossible to defend at the rim. When he hesitates, that advantage is lost, so Oden must continue "rolling hard," as he put it after a recent game.
It is also obvious that Oden is not athletically at 100 percent following his knee surgery, which is consistent with the general history of microfracture patients. (Compare, for example, Amaré Stoudemire's explosiveness during his first and second seasons back from microfracture.) Oden himself has made progress in this regard over the last couple of months. He doesn't seem to be laboring up and down the floor anymore and appears lighter on his feet, probably helped by dropping a little weight from where he started training camp.
Where I still notice the limits on Oden's athleticism in particular is in terms of multiple-effort plays. That's a term used by Celtics assistant/defensive guru Tom Thibodeau. It refers to a player who can, to use a common scenario, show help against a pick-and-roll and still get back in the paint to contest a shot (or even follow that up with a rebound). Oden isn't there yet, which puts a short-term ceiling on his defensive impact. It's possible to be a good defender without being a multiple-effort guy, but the great ones fall into this category, and I suspect Oden eventually will too.
Don't look now, but even as the Blazers integrate Oden and get him going, they are tied for first in the Pacific Division at 12-6 and boast the league's fifth-best point differential (+5.4) despite an early schedule that has been road-heavy. Bradford Doolittle's Prospectus Hoops List put Portland fourth before the wins over New Orleans and Detroit. The prospect of Oden's continued development throughout the course of this season and beyond should be a very frightening one for Western Conference foes.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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