It was a big day for Greg Oden when the Miami Heat announced last week he’d be joining their squad to help them chase a third-straight NBA title. But for Blazers fans it was a cauldron of emotions as their former No. 1 overall draft pick and franchise savior was healthy and back in the league, just not playing for them. Here’s why Blazers fans should be happy for their former center, rather than bitter about the past.
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When I arrived in Portland in the summer of 2005, it was the tail end of the Jail Blazers era. Their best players were Ruben Patterson, Zach Randolph and Darius Miles, all of whom had been involved in various disciplinary incidents on — and perhaps more importantly, off — the court. When they finished the season with a humiliating 21-61 record (dead last in the league), the organization had basically hit rock-bottom. The games were sparsely-attended affairs, morale was at an all-time low, owner Paul Allen had put both the team and the Rose Garden arena up for sale and fans had grown increasingly apathetic amidst all the upheaval.
The franchise was at a major crossroads, but over the next two years everything started falling into place. An ineffectual Mo Cheeks was fired from his head coaching position and replaced with the no-nonsense Nate McMillan (aka “Sarge”); the upcoming drafts would yield future Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy as well as future All-Star Lamarcus Aldridge; Allen purchased the Rose Garden himself and took the team off the market, and the organization traded away the remainder of the knuckleheads on the roster. To cap it all off, the Blazers ended up winning the 2007 Draft Lottery, which featured two sure-fire superstars in Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. With that, the rebuilding process had begun in earnest.
Flash-forward six years, and we all know how things have turned out. Aldridge is the only remaining member of that promising young core, although his future here has grown increasingly uncertain, and the team has since embarked on yet another rebuilding process. Hindsight being what it is, fans in Portland love to bemoan the fact that we picked the wrong player in that infamous draft, but a screen grab from a trailblazers.com poll shows that 93 percent of fans at the time were in favor of taking Oden over Durant with the number one pick, so at the very least let’s not try to rewrite history.
So much of our anger and frustration about this turn of events has been misguided and/or misplaced because it speaks primarily to our collective inability to predict the future. The conventional wisdom around the league has been that, given the same set of circumstances, most teams would have chosen Oden over Durant with the knowledge they had available at the time. Even in the absence of a clear frontrunner, teams tend to draft according to need, and the Blazers understandably believed that they had their wingman of the future sewn up in a healthy, young Brandon Roy.
But the problem had much deeper roots. It was shades of Sam Bowie all over again, who the Blazers appallingly chose over Michael Jordan in the 1984 Draft and who is subsequently considered one of the worst draft busts of all time. The similarities between Bowie (whose career was also derailed by knee problems) and Oden were just too eerie to ignore. Like Bowie, Oden has been forced to sit back and witness the meteoric rise of his draft lottery counterpart. For the fans, it felt like a curse. It felt like the team was destined to wallow in obscurity, and Oden became a towering symbol of that sentiment.