They’ve been forever linked together. Because of one year, one draft, one general manager’s decision, whatever happens, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden stand to be compared for the rest of their respective careers.
Is it fair? I don’t really know. Is it perfectly natural? Yes, yes it is. Oden was taken ahead of Durant in what some considered a bad pick, even at the time. Oden, the conventional dominant big man or Durant, the once-in-a-lifetime college superstar? Eventually, Oden won out, at least in Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard’s mind.
But in 2007, Durant won out, at least in the minds of most every NBA fan. Oden sat on the sideline, watching every game of his rookie season without playing a minute. He had microfracture surgery on his right knee before even sniffing a minute of real life run in the NBA. Durant meanwhile went on to glide to the Rookie of the Year Award.
Next, 2008. Oden starts his rookie season well, but 13 minutes in injures his foot and misses two weeks. The Sam Bowie rabble-rabbles fire up again. Oden returns in two weeks and plays relatively well. But in late February he bangs knees with Corey Maggette and fractures his left kneecap, and has to miss three weeks. The tags of “fragile” and “injury prone” are tossed on Oden, two words that are the Black Spot for a big man. Bad knees, plus bad feet, most times equal bad career. You know, Sam Bowie.
Durant again, is playing out of his mind. In his second year, he averages 25.3 ppg with insane efficiency numbers and high shooting percentages. He tosses his name into a group with Michael Jordan and LeBron James in terms of fastest to score 3,000 points. Durant is a revelation in the making. What were once murmurs of “Portland screwed up with Oden” are quickly becoming booming declarations in the forms of columns and articles and radio show banter and whatever else. Everyone that once thought Durant was a better pick than Oden is coming out of nowhere to remind you about it.
And then Dec. 5, 2009. Oden’s 2009 is off to a nice start. The seven-footer from Ohio State is averaging a meager 11.7 ppg, but a nice 8.7 rpg and 2.4 blocks per game in just 24 minutes a night. He’s not Bill Russell like some thought, but he’s certainly developing into a worthy center. Keep in mind, it is just Oden’s second season. But like so many feared and pictured, six minutes into a game against the Rockets, Oden goes down a large heap clutching his knee. It quickly goes from “Oh, I hope he’s alright” to “Oh no. Oh no. OH NO.” Oden is on the floor writhing in pain. A stretcher comes out. Oden is carted off. His 2009-10 campaign is likely over just like that with a busted left patella.
And Durant apologists smirk and shake their heads. Which is the point I’m trying to get to, even through that ridiculously long intro. Don’t. Don’t even think it. I know you already have and most will continue, but don’t. Greg Oden’s devastating injury has nothing to do with Kevin Durant. Absolutely nothing. Well, other than Portland is a little less good and the Blazers happen to be in Kevin Durant’s team’s division. But in terms of what you’re thinking, Oden’s injury isn’t related.
Yes, Oden went ahead of Durant in the 2007. Yes, Durant’s career projects to be more successful than Oden’s. Yes, had Portland taken KD instead, they’d probably be a much better team. It’s a nice “What If?” that might makes Bill Simmons’ fifth reprint of The Book of Basketball (now with more footnotes!) and give talking heads something to chatter about for a while. But this isn’t the time for that. This is no time to smile and say, “Oops, should’ve taken Durant.” It’s a time to shake your head and feel absolutely awful for Greg Oden.
Oden and Durant know they’re linked. It’s natural. Just like Bowie and Jordan, Leaf and Manning and Crosby and Ovechkin are all linked, Oden and Durant will stand to be compared and contrasted for the rest of their careers. And unfortunately for Oden, injuries are turning into the trump card that prevents us from getting a good read on it.
Yes, by all early returns, Durant is having a much better career. If Kevin Pritchard could go back knowing what he knows now, he likely would’ve have turned in KD’s card instead of Oden’s. But I don’t see the pride and satisfaction in celebrating such a thing. We know Kevin Durant is absolutely awesome. We don’t need more validation for that by having everyone acknowledge Pritchard should’ve selected him. And especially not at the expense of finding joy in Oden’s hardships.
It’s expected to compare the two players. I get that. It was a controversial pick at the time and it stands to be evaluated for a long time. It’s what we do as sports fans. We play the armchair GM and judge and scrutinize and play the “What If?” game. When somebody makes a decision to take one guy over another, we have to pick it apart. What if the Pistons had taken Carmelo instead of Darko? What if the Hawks took Chris Paul instead of Marvin Williams? Heck, what if the Thunder had taken Rubio instead of Harden? Things might be different, but who really knows? Maybe Durant gets swallowed up in Portland’s scheme and never evolves into the machine he is now. Maybe Oden lands in OKC and never is in a situation that gets him hurt and becomes an All-Star center. You just can’t say for sure. You can’t.
What I’m saying is it’s just not fair to keep it up with Oden and Durant. One player has had some seriously awful luck. The other is looking like a potentially transcendent player and is carving up the record book at the age of 21. The two situations may be related, but there’s nothing for Thunder fans and/or Durant fans to celebrate about Oden’s unfortunate circumstances. Everyone across the league immediately thought about Durant tonight when they saw Oden go down in a giant pile. Most probably shook their heads and said, “Told you so.” But it just shouldn’t be that way. It’s not fair to KD and it’s certainly not fair to Oden.
Take pride in Durant’s accomplishments. Celebrate his achievements and thank the heavens you have a chance to watch him play. But don’t do it by wagging your finger at Oden. Don’t find irrational validation at the expense of Oden’s injury issues. The two may be forever linked, but it should just be because they came into the league one pick apart back in 2007. And for no other reason than that.