BEFORE GREG ODEN, PORTLAND SELECTED SAM BOWIE WITH A #2 OVERALL PICK
AND BEFORE SAM BOWIE, PORTLAND SELECTED BILL WALTON WITH A #1 OVERALL PICK
Synopsis: Over the last 40 years, the Portland Trail Blazers have used a #1 or #2 overall pick to select three different big men. Specifically, they have taken Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, and Greg Oden during that time frame. Unfortunately, each player lost significant time due to various injuries. Walton brought a title to the city so he avoided the disdain experienced by the others. Drafted ahead of Michael Jordan, Bowie predictably earned the title of #1 Worst NBA Draft Pick. At the same time, he produced enough in his NBA career to avoid being called a bust. Oden, my #10 Worst NBA Draft Pick, similarly deserves to be omitted from a countdown of all-time busts. In his honor, this post establishes the Greg Oden Exemption for players whose careers cannot be fairly judged because of injuries.
GREG ODEN EXEMPTION
Criterion #3: Any player with a career shortened by injury (or illness) cannot be declared a Top 10 Bust. In essence, every all-time bust failed despite having every opportunity to avoid the label.
EXHIBIT #1 – BILL WALTON
With three NCAA Championships and three Naismith Awards, Bill Walton has a claim to the title of All-Time Greatest College Basketball Player. Based on his accomplishments, the Portland Trail Blazers took him with the #1 overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. Unfortunately, the former UCLA standout never lived up to expectations due to an assortment of wrist, foot and leg injuries.
After two injured-plagued years, Walton blossomed in his third NBA season. Of note, he averaged 18.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 3.2 blocks per game during the 1976-77 season. Based on this production, he earned spots on the 1st All-Defensive Team and 2nd All-NBA Team. Somehow, he stepped up his production en route to winning the 1977 NBA Championship. As icing on the cake, he earned Finals MVP honors.
Through the first 60 games of the following season, “Grateful Red” continued where he left off. Specifically, he put up similar numbers (18.9 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 2.5 blocks per game) while leading the “Blazers” to a 50-10 record. At that point, Portland had a nine-game lead on every other team in either conference. However, disaster struck in that 60th game.
In that disastrous game, Walton injured his ankle badly enough to keep him out for the remainder of the regular season. Without its superstar, Portland struggled and finished the year on an 8-14 run heading into the playoffs. Given his production and importance to the team, Walton still won the 1978 NBA MVP Award. To date, he’s still the only winner to have missed over 25% of the regular season.
Despite Portland’s late-season collapse, the Blazers still maintained its #1 seed and a 1st round bye in the Western Conference. As an aside, only six teams from each conference made the playoffs back then so the top two seeds got byes. Taking advantage of the extra rest, Walton returned in time for Portland’s first playoff game against the Seattle SuperSonics.
The recently named league MVP managed to score 17 points while limping throughout the entire game. In the end, Seattle proved to be too strong and won by nine points. Portland came back and won the second game by three points. However, the team lost because its star player broke his left foot during the game. From there, the SuperSonics won three of the next four games to win the series in six.
BILLY GOAT CURSE?
In my previous post, I took creative licence conjecturing about the possibility of a 2nd Billy Goat Curse as the reason for Walton’s misfortune. While mostly fictitious, the post accurately detailed the end of Walton’s career in Portland. In particular, the star center signed with the San Diego Clippers after sitting out the 1978-79 season while still recovering from the injury. Despite the change of scenery, he only saw action in 14 games due to on-going problems with the same foot.
Showing little improvement, the one-time MVP also sat out the 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons. Fortunately, he gradually recovered and played in 33, 55 and 67 games over the next three seasons, respectively. During his six seasons with the Clippers, Walton effectively played two full seasons (169 games) and sat out four (323 games). As the following table shows, he didn’t put up the same numbers after getting injured.
BILL WALTON – NBA STATS BY TEAM
|Games||Per Game Averages|
Based on the precipitous deterioration in Walton’s numbers, the table seems like a summary of three different players. Interestingly, three recent #1 overall picks can be used to help illustrate the different periods in his career.
Anthony Davis (Walton as a Blazer):
- Before getting injured, Walton played like Davis does now. Of note, New Orleans’ superstar-in-the-making can be described as a tremendous rebounder and shot blocker with the ability to average 20 points a game. Give Davis an NBA title (easier said than done) and an MVP award (which should happen soon), and you have two indistinguishable players. Well, except for the red hair versus the unibrow.
Andrew Bogut (Walton as a Clipper):
- In the middle of his career, Walton best resembled fellow #1 overall pick Andrew Bogut. Like Walton during his time with the Clippers, Bogut can be considered a legitimate double-double threat. However, also like Walton, the 2005 pick out of Utah can’t be relied on because he misses as many games as he plays.
Kwame Brown (Walton as a Celtic):
- Generally, Kwame Brown has been called an all-time bust. Despite this belief, the 2001 #1 overall pick averaged almost seven points and six rebounds per game during his 12-year career. Interestingly, Walton had similar numbers with the Celtics. Showing that statistics don’t always tell the full story, Walton earned 6th Man of the Year honors as a back-up to Robert Parish during the Celtics’ run to to the 1986 Championship.
EXHIBIT #2: SAM BOWIE
Similar to Bill Walton, Sam Bowie proved to be another Portland high draft pick derailed by injuries. Unlike his predecessor however, Bowie had his most productive years after leaving the Trail Blazers. As the following table shows, Bowie avoided major injuries and averaged 70 games a year with his second team (the New Jersey Nets).
SAM BOWIE – NBA STATS BY TEAM
|Games||Per Game Averages|
|Team||Played||Missed||Win Shares||FG %||Rebounds||Assists||Blocks||
Not surprisingly, Bowie’s stats improved in large part because he stayed healthy. During his first year with the Nets, he averaged 14.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. Perhaps a reasonable comparison to Bowie might be Emeka Okafor. Also a #2 overall pick, Okafor played for the equivalent of approximately eight years. In comparison, Bowie played for the equivalent of 6 ½ years. If Okafor’s career had been cut short by 1 ½ years, would he be called a bust? I don’t think so.
EXHIBIT #3: GREG ODEN
As the most recent big man drafted early by Portland, Greg Oden also lost significant time to injuries. I mentioned in an earlier post that Bowie actually could have been an inspiration for Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Unbreakable (2000). If so, Oden would be an even better example of life imitating art because the 2007 #1 overall pick proved to be much more injury-prone than both Bowie and Walton
GREG ODEN – NBA STATS
|Win||Per Game Averages|
|2010-11||POR||Injured – Did not play|
|2011-12||POR||Injured – Did not play|
|2012-13||–||Injured – Did not play|
As the previous table shows, Greg Oden only played the equivalent of one full NBA season from 2007-2013. In essence, he missed five years to injuries. Of note, four of those came while on Portland’s roster. The Blazers finally cut the cord by waiving Oden in March 2012 after five knee surgeries (two on his right and three on his left).
Given Oden’s extensive history of injuries, I created the following timeline to summarize the 2007 #1 overall pick’s NBA career (or lack thereof).
GREG ODEN TIMELINE
- June 28, 2007: Selected #1 overall by the Portland Trail Blazers.
- Unfortunately, this moment signified the highlight of Oden’s career.
- Kevin Durant goes #2 overall to the Seattle SuperSonics (last season before team moved to Oklahoma City).
- The big story of the draft involved whether the Blazers would take Oden or Durant. Oops.
- September 14, 2007: Undergoes microfracture surgery on right knee.
- Although somewhat controversial today, microfracture surgery seemed “cutting-edge” back then.
- FYI, the surgery involves creating tiny fractures in order to create new cartilage as the patient’s blood clots.
- Doctors successfully performed this type of surgery on Jason Kidd and Zach Randolph.
- However, it didn’t work for Penny Hardaway or Jamaal Mashburn (or Oden for that matter).
- Oden out for the season.
- Given the hype surrounding the decision to take Oden or Durant, I remember thinking Bowie II at this moment.
- I’m sure others had the thought too.
- Although somewhat controversial today, microfracture surgery seemed “cutting-edge” back then.
- October 28, 2008: In the first regular-season game of his career, Oden injures his foot when Andrew Bynum steps on it.
- Forced to sit out for two weeks.
- Whispers about comparison to Bowie start to be heard.
- February 12, 2009: Chips left patella after bumping knees with Corey Maggette.
- Forced to sit out for three weeks.
- December 5, 2009: Fractures left patella without any contact by another player.
- Out for the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery.
- Comparisons to Bowie become more vocal.
GREG ODEN – ANOTHER INJURY
- November 17, 2010: Announcement regarding need for microfracture surgery on left knee.
- Approximately three years after same surgery on other knee.
- Out for season.
- Conventional wisdom: Oden = Bowie.
- December 9, 2011: Announcement of undisclosed “setback” regarding return.
- Later reveled that delay due to weak knee ligament.
- Leads to renegotiated contract.
- Conventional wisdom: Oden won’t play for Portland again.
- February 3, 2012: Arthroscopic surgery on right knee
- Out for season – no surprise.
- February 20, 2012: Another microfracture surgery on left knee.
- 2nd such surgery on left knee, 3rd overall.
- March 15, 2012: Portland waives Oden.
- May 2012: Orthokine treatment on both knees.
- Similar to platlet-rich plasma therapy, this treatment involves a procedure whereby a patient’s blood is drawn, spun and re-injected into a problem area.
- Treatment made popular by Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez.
- August 6, 2013: Signs with Miami Heat.
- Provides much-needed size to neutralize Roy Hibbert in case Heat and Pacers meet up in playoffs again.
- March 26, 2014: Leaves game after only six minutes in start against the Pacers.
- Initial report of back spasms but subsequent report claims severe back injury.
- Sits three weeks / plays one game / sits five weeks.
- May 2014: Re-activated prior to 3rd game of Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers.
- Scores zero points while playing seven minutes in three playoff games.
- August 11, 2014: Charged with felony battery for allegedly punching ex-girlfriend in the face.
- Oden hasn’t had his day in court yet, so I’ll evaluate him without considering this charge.
- If true, he may not be a bust as a basketball player but he’s a bust as a person. Regardless of his ailing body, Oden’s career likely will be over.
[As an update to this post, Greg Oden pleaded guilty to one charge of felony battery in February 2015. As part of the plea agreement, the judge order Oden to attend domestic violence counseling for 26 weeks and gave him approximately 2 ½ years of probation. I don’t know how this punishment compares to other first-time offenders, but it seems light to me.]
For me, an NBA bust displays tremendous talent before the draft but just can’t compete at the next level. During the 2009-10 season, Oden’s showed that he had the requisite skill to play in the NBA. Specifically, he averaged 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game prior to his season-ending injury in early December. He even had a game with 24 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks on November 23rd, and another with 13 points, 20 rebounds and four blocks on December 1st.
Even though I don’t think Oden qualifies as a bust, I do consider him one of the worst draft picks in NBA history. In addition to Durant, several other players had sufficiently good careers to expose Portland’s bad decision. The following table summarizes those players.
2007 NBA DRAFT – GREG ODEN AND OTHER NOTABLE PLAYERS
[Updated after 2015-16 Season]
Based on this table, I have three observations:
- While KD’s numbers really stand out, the 2007 Draft included several productive big men (i.e. Horford, Noah, and Gasol).
- Memphis seems to be going all-in on this draft class by recently acquiring Green to play alongside Conley and Gasol. When those three combine with Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies certainly can lay claim to having the “Underrated 4.”
- Two players from this draft have exemptions named after them.
- Greg Oden for getting injured so much.
- Acie Law for being drafted too low.
Coming back full circle, the following table puts Portland’s Injured Three (i.e. Walton, Bowie, and Oden) into perspective with each other.
NBA STATS FOR PORTLAND’S INJURED THREE: BILL WALTON, SAM BOWIE AND GREG ODEN
|Games||Per Game Averages|
|Player||Team||Played||Missed||Win Shares||FG %||Rebounds||Assists||Blocks||Points|
Based on the table, Walton clearly had the most production while playing in Portland. He won a regular-season MVP award and a Finals MVP award en route to helping the Blazers win the 1977 NBA Championship. Even though Big Red missed significant time (including one full season) due to injuries and demanded to be traded, Portland fans still consider him one of the greatest players in franchise history. It’s amazing what winning a team’s only title can do for a player. Unfortunately, Bowie and Oden got injured before getting a chance to prove themselves. As such, they mostly are vilified by Portland fans (and the national media for that matter).
During Walton’s MVP season, he totaled 8.4 win shares. Of note, that total still ranks as the lowest for a winner of the award in its 60-year history. Regardless, I don’t think anyone has ever argued that he didn’t deserve the honor given his team’s collapse after his injury.
ASIDE: 2014-15 MOST DESERVING MVP
Interestingly, Kevin Durant has had a similar impact on his team at this point of the 2014-15 season. The Thunder has a 10-3 record (77% winning percentage) when Durant plays, but an 8-16 record (33% winning percentage) when he doesn’t. Arguably, the Cavaliers have relied even more heavily on LeBron James. Of note, Cleveland has an 18-12 record (60% winning percentage) when he’s in the lineup and a 1-8 record (11% winning percentage) when he’s not.
As of now, James Harden and Steph Curry probably lead the MVP discussion. Still, it’s hard to argue that Durant and James don’t deserve it more. [As an update, Curry ended up winning the 2015 MVP Award and helped lead the Warriors to the 2015 NBA Championship.]
WALTON – ONE OF 50 GREATEST NBA PLAYERS?
With respect to the career statistics summarized in the table, did you notice the similarity between Walton and Bowie’s numbers? Granted, Bowie produced approximately 25-30% less than Walton and didn’t get the same hardware during his career. However our perceptions of them seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Walton received an honor as one of the 50 Greatest NBA Players. In contrast, many sports reporters consider Bowie to be the greatest bust in NBA history.
Did Walton dominate the NBA? For 3-4 years, sure. Should he be recognized for bringing an NBA Championship to Portland? Of course. Should he have been selected as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players? Heck no.
In essence, the media have judged Walton’s career based on his peak value as if the injuries never occurred. If Walton can be considered one of the all-time greatest players as if he never got injured, why shouldn’t Bowie and Oden deserve a similar pass. In their cases, however, they avoid being called busts.
BOWIE / ODEN INJURY EXEMPTIONS
Bowie already earned an exemption from being called a Top 10 Bust because he had a reasonably productive career. As such, he doesn’t need an injury exemption. Although, it would further support the argument. On the other hand, Oden didn’t meet the minimum production threshold of 16 win shares for a #1 overall pick. Instead, he needs (and deserves) one.
Whereas Portland made a bad decision by drafting Oden, the player’s injuries shouldn’t be a basis for calling him a bust. Instead, I have established the Greg Oden Exemption for him and any other NBA player unable to prove his worth because of injuries.