The Oden We Know

Greg Oden
Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey

Ask someone who writes about basketball for a living and they’ll probably be able to explain the gradual disconnect they’ve experienced with the fandom of their youth. It’s tough enough to maintain a fair and balanced stance the deeper you wade into the league’s dark waters, and emotions towards a specific team aren’t often luxuries afforded to those that care about objectivity. For some, it’s a conscious choice to leave the passions of youth behind, for others it happens slowly. No doubt there are veteran scribes out there that still wish the best for a hometown team, but it’s not the same that it used to be when one seat among thousands was a ticket to a magical place.

If you’ll excuse a little personal reflection – we’ll get to the basketball bits down below – I remember exactly when my inner fan was killed off. Living out east, watching live Portland Trail Blazers games was rarely possible. But after work every night it was time to fire up the DVR, take notes and write. The more you write, the more you take steps back from being a fan of your hometown team in order to provide a more balanced perspective, but all that would go out the window when Greg Oden pulled his weight up with the rim and slapped the glass. The Blazers had been a tough watch for many years, but Oden could make you feel 13 again as Brian Grant was fighting off Karl Malone elbows in the second round.

The ride didn’t last long. After an up-and-down post-microfracture rookie season, Oden had had a healthy offseason to return to his collegiate form and by the time he finished practicing with USA Basketball and reported early for training camp, he looked leaner and more agile than he had in years. The season started and as long as Oden wasn’t in foul trouble, he was a force. For one joyous month, everything went as planned. Then came December 5th, 2009.

I read the news on Twitter at Kings just off Boylston Street in Boston. Box scores were typically avoided when the game was ready to be watched later on, but it seemed necessary to check in on Oden’s encore to his 13-point 20-rebound performance against the Miami HEAT. Less than five minutes into the game against Houston, Oden went up to contest a shot by Aaron Brooks and crumpled to the floor. Nothing had touched his knee. I sat in silence, waiting while friends drank and had a merry evening. Just get up. Get up. It’s fine. But it wasn’t. Oden was carted off the floor having played his final possession for the Blazers.

Basketball is different now. It’s easy to love the game, but much of the innocent romanticism is long gone. Years ago, it would have been easy to attach the blinders and allow hope to color and carry our Oden prognostications. But that’s all it would have been. Hope. There isn’t nearly enough information available to get a proper read on the situation, for us, for the team and likely even for Oden. And in lacking the ability to predict who Oden will be after multiple knee surgeries and years away from the game, it’s important for us to remember who he was.

Oden On the Glass

We need to be very clear that we’ll be largely discussing Oden’s 21-game 2009-10 season despite generally avoiding such small sample sizes in this space. His prior season isn’t to be ignored, but Oden was a changed player from his rookie to sophomore seasons. That first season, Oden was bulkier and still struggling to regain much of the athleticism he had shown in college. Because reports about Oden’s workouts this summer have said that he looks very lean, we’ll focus on the Oden that had a full offseason to get into shape in ’09 despite having almost no historical evidence of an athlete playing after the amount of surgeries that Oden has had.

While opinions will vary concerning the many aspects of Oden’s game, you’ll be hard pressed to find a critic who doesn’t believe he could have been one of the five best rebounders in the league. Even after dropping weight before his second year, Oden combined both incredible strength and strong instincts for the ball as he was capable of staving off an opposing player with one arm while corralling a rebound with another. He sought out contact as the shot went in the air, pursued rebounds well out of his zone and often came down with second-chances despite being the only offensive player crashing the boards – an important skill given how much emphasis the HEAT put on getting back in transition.

Keep an eye out for a string of rebounds against Chicago in the video below, as his 24-point 12-rebound game against the Bulls was probably his best game as a pro and frustrating Joakim Noah into a technical foul one of Oden’s best individual moments.

Sample-size caution is again important but Oden pulled down 15.6 percent of his own team’s missed shots in those 21 games, a mark that would have topped the league this past season. And Oden’s total-rebounding percentage would have ranked him third. Again, as a 21-year old. These numbers are boosted slightly by that 20-rebound game against Miami, but for comparisons sake, Dwight Howard didn’t grab a higher percentage of available rebound until his sixth season.

There are plenty of very good rebounders in the league, though. And as much as Oden was billed as a top defender and rebounder, there were also plenty of signs of him being a burgeoning offensive talent.

Oden With the Ball

We once discussed how LeBron James didn’t get much credit for having some of the game’s best efficiency numbers in the post because he wasn’t very polished in what he did – though James wasn’t anywhere near where he is today – and Oden has suffered from the same notion. When Oden turned the ball over or took a bad shot he looked very much like a player still in the early stages of seeking grace and fluidity. When Oden played well, he could sometimes appear to be stumbling into success, scoring and dunking simply because he was bigger and taller than the players around him. Some players can make playing very poorly into an art form. Oden often had trouble leaving a stylistic imprint with his own success.

But there was skill involved in what Oden did. He knew how to get himself good post position and how to set up a hook shot over his left shoulder that, despite an odd release point, showcased a soft touch around the rim with both hands. When the defense played him high, he could counter with a baseline spin or a drop-step. When the double came, Oden was a willing and able passer to open shooters. He would post and re-post. He would use his shoulders to step-through a guard digging from the top of the key. And sometimes, he just overpowered his opponent.

There were turnover issues, especially with regards to footwork and offensive fouls when Oden drew a smaller opponent, but he still managed to make over half his shots from the post – something only six players did this past season. While Oden being a significant post-up threat for the HEAT isn’t likely given the offensive system being used, the larger point is that he was more than just a catch-and-finish big man. Over 45 percent of his field-goals that season were unassisted, more than Andrew Bynum, Marc Gasol and Al Horford, and in a best-case scenario Oden could add occasional shot creation to Miami’s bench units.

Perhaps most important to the HEAT’s purposes is that Oden would have been a fantastic catch-and-finish player even without his other developing skills. He had the hands to catch most any pass and the strength to finish in traffic – at times resembling Shaquille O’Neal in his ability to put bodies on his back and assault the rim. In taking 28 shots off cuts (according to Synergy Sports), Oden only missing three put him in Dwight Howard territory. And his effective field-goal percentage of .603 would have trailed only DeAndre Jordan last season (one spot ahead of LeBron).

Percentages can always fall off as more shots are taken, but there wasn’t much evidence of players being able to deter Oden around the rim. And while the Blazers didn’t use Oden as a pick-and-roll threat as much as they might have had he come into the league today, Oden is capable of affecting floor spacing by drawing the defense into the middle of the floor just the same as Miami’s shooters pull those defenders out to the wings and corners.

It wasn’t always pretty, but Oden could be brutally efficient all the same – in a manner that the HEAT haven’t enjoyed over the past three seasons. We don’t know how the athleticism will translate, but the skills he was just barely tapping into, eventually, could and should.

Shrinking the Floor

Oden had no greater weakness than fouls. For every 36 minutes he was on the court, he committed six fouls. In other words, any time he played starter’s minutes, on average, he fouled out. As often as Oden’s knees prevented him from playing, his propensity for fouls hampered his development almost as much. Much of this stemmed from the usual mistakes that most young big men have to deal with, but those mistakes only looked worse because the slightest misstep or bump from Oden could send any guard flying.

Fortunately, the fouls didn’t prevent Oden from having a massive defensive impact when he could stay on the floor. While the HEAT haven’t employed many centers of Oden’s size in the past couple of seasons, opting for athletes that could trap and recover on pick-and-rolls and generally bounce from one side of the floor to the other with speed and purpose, Spoelstra will likely switch things up for Oden.

In Portland, Nate McMillan typically kept Oden playing behind pick-and-rolls, camping him out around the paint similar to what Indiana does with Roy Hibbert but with Oden playing higher up on the floor – catching the ballhandler rather than actively pursuing him. Some of the shots go in against Oden in the video below, but you’ll notice him forcing mid-range jumpers and keeping the ball in front of him.

While Spoelstra will likely have Oden in more flat, lateral coverage because it’s difficult to adjust an entire defensive system around one player who, presumably, doesn’t play major minutes, that should be the upper end of the aggressiveness spectrum as the team capitalizes on Oden’s strengths as an interior defender – he was blocking nearly eight percent of all attempted shots before his injury, largely without getting too out of position.

While you can easily draw the conclusion that Oden was brought in specifically for the Hibbert’s and Noah’s of the world, Oden’s greatest contribution against those players would come away from the ball rather than in defending post-ups. Oden clearly wouldn’t be asked to spend much time fronting the likes of Hibbert as most HEAT big men are at one point or another, eliminating the need for those precise secondary rotations coming from across the paint, but in theory Oden would also be able to consistently push Hibbert away from deep, deadly post looks while leaving the HEAT less vulnerable to weakside offensive rebounds.

Looking Ahead

This is an investment for both parties. The HEAT will have to commit time and resources towards getting and keeping Oden healthy. They’ll have to work with him before and after practices as they figure out how best to use him. They’ll have to deal with impatient questions even as they had planned to be patient all along. And Oden has invested his comeback season in Miami with the hopeful payout being a resurrected career and a chance to win.

That payout isn’t a guarantee, as Oden is all too familiar with. We don’t need to fool around with many platitudes about life’s fairness, but nobody should have their careers ripped away from them before they get a full chance, regardless of their natural-born potential, draft position or propensity for wide and warm smiles. Maybe Oden gets healthy and plays rotation minutes later in the year. Maybe he has a few big moments in the playoffs. Maybe he barely gets on the court at all. We can still wish him the best, as even the most objective of us may have shed a tear for this once in a generation player once upon a time. And if things work out for Oden, we’ll have no issue shedding one or two more.