On Saturday night, Portland Trail Blazers fans saw their worst fears come to reality: center Greg Oden lying on the ground, clutching at his knee. It was quickly evident that Oden had suffered a serious injury, and by halftime of the Blazers' 90-89 victory over the Houston Rockets, doctors had already diagnosed a fracture of Oden's left patella. He underwent surgery on Sunday and will miss the remainder of the 2009-10 season.
First, let's dispel the convenient storyline. This most recent major injury for Oden is not an indication that he is following the same path as former Portland centers Sam Bowie and Bill Walton. Both Bowie and Walton were felled by chronic, repeated injuries, Bowie to his legs and Walton to his feet. Oden breaking his patella is fundamentally unrelated to the microfracture surgery he underwent on his right knee prior to the 2007-08 season.
If a comparison must be made, the far more apt one is to L.A. Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who is along with Oden one of the league's most promising young 7-footers. Like Oden, Bynum suffered unrelated major injuries to both of his knees in rapid succession. It is possible, as Will Carroll suggested in a column we co-wrote following Bynum's most recent injury in February, that the size that makes both players so dominant when healthy also leaves them vulnerable to injury. However, this must be considered in terms of percentages, not certainties. Even if Bynum and Oden are more likely than the average player to suffer major injuries in the future, it is also entirely possible both will be able to remain healthy.
In this case, as unfortunate as Oden's injury is, things could have been much worse. According to post-surgery reports, Oden suffered no damage to his knee ligaments. As Carroll posted on Twitter yesterday, fractures heal predictably if slowly. The limited NBA precedent for fractured patellas is generally positive. I found just two players who suffered the injury--New Jersey swingman Jarvis Hayes and San Antonio center Antonio McDyess.
Hayes initially injured his patella in February 2005 while playing for the Washington Wizards, then broke it in a fall later that month and missed the remainder of the season. Hayes opted for non-surgical treatment and returned to lineup at the start of the 2005-06 season. He broke his patella again 21 games into the season and ultimately underwent surgery in February 2006. Hayes was back for the start of the 2006-07 campaign and played in 81 games. Since then, Hayes has missed time with the usual NBA injuries (including a strained hamstring that has cost him most of this season), but has not evidently missed any time because of his knee.
For McDyess, a patella fracture was the culmination of a two-year battle with patella injuries that started when he partially tore the patella tendon in his left knee in October 2001. Traded to New York the following summer, McDyess broke his left patella during the preseason and missed the entire 2002-03 season, ultimately returning in December 2003. He needed two surgeries on the patella to repair the fracture, possibly in part because the previous injury to his patellar tendon slowed his healing. Having played in just 10 games over a span of more than two seasons, McDyess has never been the same athletically but has been remarkably healthy. Last year was the first time McDyess played in fewer than 77 games since 2003-04, and that was strictly because he had to sit out a month before returning to the Detroit Pistons after being traded to Denver by the Pistons.
From the Blazers' perspective, while the loss of Oden is painful, there is a silver lining in the short term. Oden's emergence as a go-to player on offense had created some issues as Portland figured out how to incorporate his skills into an attack that was already one of the league's best. Neither LaMarcus Aldridge nor Brandon Roy has played as well early this year as they did in 2008-09, and the Blazers' offense as a whole (currently 10th in the league in Offensive Rating) has dropped off compared to last year's efficient performance.
Aldridge will now return to his role as Portland's go-to player inside, giving him more of the quality looks on which he thrived during the second half of last season. He and Roy also have had more success on the two-man game, whereas Roy has never been entirely comfortable working with Oden on pick-and-rolls.
As was the case when Oden missed all of 2007-08 and two extended periods in 2008-09, the Blazers are fortunate to have the luxury of a starting-caliber center in backup Joel Przybilla. Przybilla is another Portland player who has slumped in the early going, but it is possible he will be more effective in longer stints as part of a starting lineup that already has more than enough scoring.
The biggest concern for the Blazers in the short term is depth. Channing Frye served as Przybilla's backup the last two seasons when Oden was out, but he is now in Phoenix and Portland does not have either a natural center or anyone taller than 6'9" on the bench. Veteran Juwan Howard stepped into the second unit on Saturday night, with Aldridge moving over to center. But Howard has struggled this season, losing his role as backup power forward to rookie Dante Cunningham after a brief stint into the rotation, so forcing him to play more minutes will hurt the Blazers. Rookie second-round pick Jeff Pendergraph could see some time as a backup center when he returns to the lineup, which might happen late this month after Pendergraph underwent hip surgery in September.
Portland could use the return of Pendergraph and the team's third rookie (guard Patty Mills, who could also return late this month after breaking his right foot prior to summer league) from a numbers perspective. The Blazers have three players sidelined for extended periods--Oden, starting small forward Nicolas Batum and backup forward Travis Outlaw. With guard Rudy Fernandez not joining the team on the start of a four-game road trip because of sciatic pain in his back, Portland is down to nine active players. Things were so bad that last week Nate McMillan and assistant coach Monty Williams practiced to provide enough healthy bodies to scrimmage--and McMillan promptly ruptured his right Achilles tendon. McMillan too will miss the road trip in order to have surgery.
Surely, no injury is as important to the Blazers' long-term future as Oden's. The evidence and precedence suggests to me that Oden should be able to return to health next season. Certainly, losing the balance of the season will set back Oden's development, robbing him of valuable court time. But where Oden's last rehab saw him trying to live up to the expectations placed on him as the No. 1 overall pick--a process that clearly took a mental toll last season--now Oden merely needs to return to the level at which he was playing before Saturday night.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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