TrueHoop: Greg Oden
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After a grieving period over injuries to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, the storm has settled in Portland.
Less than four years ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were thought to have as bright a future as any team in the league. Chad Ford and John Hollinger ranked them first overall in the 2009 NBA Future Power Rankings, commenting:
On paper, no other team possesses as bright a future as the Portland Trail Blazers. It all starts with the players. Nobody, not even Oklahoma City, can match the stable of young talent the Blazers have built. Brandon Roy is already a superstar, and joining him are potential stars like LaMarcus Aldridge (24), Greg Oden (21, even if he looks more like 51), Nicolas Batum (20) and Martell Webster (22).
The Trail Blazers were about to settle into a period of peace, prosperity and stability, but we all know what happened next.
Aldridge and Batum emerged from the rubble as the sole survivors among core players, coaching staff and management. The result has been an interesting exercise in rebuilding at a moment nobody ever dreamed the Blazers would have to rebuild. Catastrophes are devastating, but the only thing to do is start again, even if the final product isn’t ultimately as nice as what was destroyed.
"We can't live in the shadow of what might have been,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey says, “We'll never know."
Soon after signing on as general manager in the summer of 2012, Olshey drafted Damian Lillard and matched an offer sheet on Batum. Along with Aldridge, the Blazers now have a coveted point-wing-big core. That’s most of what they had last season, but without a bench, they played .500 ball for the meat of the season. They have a sturdy foundation if Lillard becomes the top-10 point guard he appears to be, and if Batum (only 24) achieves his potential as the full package of playmaker-shooter-defender.
We’re starting to get a glimpse of what the building is going to look like. Lost amid Olshey's candid, Oh-Dear-God media-day address on the persistence of the Aldridge nonstory was a pithy description of the organizational blueprint:
We’ve supported [Aldridge] with veterans. We've continued to do what we need to do in terms of bringing young talent in here. We've kept our long-term flexibility. We have the ability to aggregate our assets and put those into play if it gets to that point -- where we can put another star around him and [Lillard] and some of the other guys.
This is the design going forward in Portland: Develop the Aldridge-Lillard-Batum trio while accumulating assets and maintaining flexibility that can ultimately yield one more key piece.
“Upon conclusion of the 2014 season, we will know whether or not we have reached the fork in the road,” Olshey says. “Either we are on the right course with our current roster by having drafted well, signed good contracts, acquired Bird [rights] players, and this group will stay together and we’ll make a strong move forward. Or we’re going to aggressively look to aggregate some of our assets to consolidate them into one player to join those players we believe represent the core of the franchise.”
Either (a) the Trail Blazers crack the code, or (b) the roster beyond the core remains a little iffy, which means resources will be pooled and big game will be hunted. With that strategy in mind, how important is it that Portland wins in 2013-14? Last season, expectations were modest and priorities were more specific -- the primary one to develop Lillard's skills and confidence. The fact that the Blazers were able to accomplish that task is a far greater takeaway than the 33-49 record. The team played .500 ball until Feb. 10 and there was a general optimism in the Rose Garden.
This season, defining expectations for the Blazers is more complicated than merely improving on 33 wins. Odds are they will, but determining what level of success constitutes a good season is difficult. The roster is better than it was last season now that the team has acquired Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson to add depth where there was none, though seventh in the West is ambitious, even with the upgrades. Still, Olshey’s position is that W's are an imperative.
“All of our offseason moves were made with the intention of competing immediately while not jeopardizing our long-term flexibility,” Olshey says. “We are still focused and committed to developing our young talent, but it will not be at the expense of winning.”
There are important intangible factors at work, as well. Aldridge has stated he’s content in Portland, but it’s fair to believe the team’s success will be an important factor in his overall happiness moving forward -- and winning breeds satisfaction. And besides Salt Lake City, there isn’t a market more vested in the fortunes of its NBA team than Portland, so trajectory matters. The nice thing about 33-49 is the modest baseline it offers, and though a 41-41 record wouldn’t win the Blazers anything -- maybe not even a postseason berth -- plus-eight wins isn’t chopped liver. It’s the savory roasted game hen at Pok Pok.
The recipe on the floor should result in a better product. The Blazers ranked 26th in defensive efficiency last season, which means there’s virtually nowhere to go but up. There was only so much that a defense with a 6-foot-9 center could do, but this season Portland will feature Lopez in place of J.J. Hickson. With Lopez, Aldridge and Batum, there’s now some serious length on the floor, and a lot more for coach Terry Stotts and his staff to work with.
“We’re going to change our principles,” Stotts says. “We’ll have a style of play defensively that our team lends itself to -- changing our pick-and-roll schemes, not getting out and extending our bigs very much. The principle being we need to do a better job of protecting the rim and forcing midrange jump shots. We were in the bottom of the league in attempts at the rim and in attempts being converted at the rim.”
On the other end, the Blazers’ starters posted a healthy 104.1 points per 100 possessions, considerably better than the league average. Stotts runs a diverse, user-friendly offense that combines much of the philosophy he helped develop in Dallas with Lillard’s inclination to play in the half court, Billups style. Portland features more jump shooters than iso scorers, so Stotts encourages early jumpers, but Lillard and Aldridge are powerful tools in the half court, and you can do a lot worse than running two-man action for those guys several dozen times a game. The trick for the Blazers is splitting the difference, creating flow while exerting Lillard’s control over the game.
“Damian’s a scoring point guard who’s used to having the ball in his hands,” Stotts says. “The challenge for our team is being able to get the ball ahead quicker. I don’t want to play a 100-possession game but I do want to get the a ball ahead. That makes the flow in the half court easier.”
Lillard is still young, and we don’t yet know who he’s going to be. His potential is every bit as elastic as Aldridge’s is settled. We know precisely who Aldridge is, but projecting Lillard’s growth is tough, which, in turn, makes setting the bar for the Blazers challenging.
Whether clearing it means logging more than 33 wins, or finishing .500, or qualifying for the playoffs, this incarnation of the Blazers is now officially on the clock.
There are growing indications that the New Orleans Pelicans are going to be a factor in the Oden chase as well.
Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that the Pelicans have been booked for a Wednesday sitdown with Oden and will also get serious consideration from the former No. 1 overall pick as he decides where to relaunch his career after being sidelined since early in the 2009-10 season.
The Pelicans, sources said, are building their pitch around the fact that going to New Orleans would enable Oden to make his comeback far away from the media glare and with no immediate pressure to cope with as he tries again to bounce back from the knee issues that have limited the 25-year-old to just 82 career regular-season games since being drafted in 2007.
The presence of former Blazers assistant coach Monty Williams as the head man in New Orleans -- someone who already knows Oden well -- is seen as another element working in the Pelicans' favor along with the fact that their young core of players are all in Oden's age range.
As ESPN.com reported Monday, Oden is scheduled to have face-to-face meetings this week with the Sacramento Kings and Mavs in addition to the Pelicans. Sources say that the Kings, though, are long-shot contenders when it comes to actually signing Oden and are thus planning a hard push for free-agent center Timofey Mozgov if rebuffed by Oden.
The Mavericks, sources say, were scheduled to meet Monday with Oden and are still holding out hope of signing both him and Samuel Dalembert to fill their center void after missing out on top target Dwight Howard.
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs have been regarded as leading contenders for Oden's services from the outset of free agency. That's especially true in Miami's case after Heat president Pat Riley hosted Oden for a two-day visit earlier this year before Oden's comeback, through workouts back home in Indianapolis or at Ohio State, progressed to the serious stage it's in now.
ESPN.com reported last week that the Cleveland Cavaliers' signing of Andrew Bynum removed the Cavs from the list of contenders for Oden's services.
Oden was the top overall pick in the '07 NBA draft out of Ohio State, selected one spot ahead of Kevin Durant. Yet thanks to his numerous knee injuries, Oden hasn't played in an NBA game since Dec. 5, 2009, and was forced to undergo his microfracture knee surgery in February 2012.
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Did an upstart Trail Blazers team fall short in the 2009 Playoffs because of lack of experience -- or was it something else?
Before Brandon Roy's knees degenerated and Greg Oden underwent his third microfracture surgery, the Portland Trail Blazers were the darlings of the NBA. With Roy, Oden, and LaMarcus Aldridge as its young core, Portland was a team built for a long and prosperous future. Portland ranked No. 1 in ESPN Insider's Future Power Rankings around the start of the 2009-2010 season.
How quickly could the Trail Blazers start winning big series deep into the postseason? Some argued in 2009 that they were too young and too inexperienced to win in the playoffs. And with Roy, Oden, and Aldridge in their early to mid-20s at that point in time, that claim seemed to conform to conventional wisdom. As the saying goes, you must fail before you can succeed.
But is that really true? Do teams with inexperience have to take their lumps before winning in the postseason?
According to James Tarlow of the University of Oregon, author of a study titled "Experience and Winning in the National Basketball Association," which he presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the answer is no.
Using a data set which consisted of 804 NBA seasons played by 30 teams between the 1979-1980 and 2008-2009 seasons, Tarlow concluded that two elements affect a team's ability to win playoff games: head coach postseason experience and team chemistry.
Coach postseason experience is defined as the number of postseason games coached as a head coach ... Chemistry then is defined as the number of years the five players playing the most minutes during the regular season have been on their current team with one another.
Tarlow also discovered that postseason player experience increase a team's ability to reach the playoffs but doesn't increase its ability to win playoff games.
First, the most common criticism is of the experience of younger teams and this study does not support this conclusion, regardless of whether their NBA experience or playoff experience is the top of discussion. Second, the number of years of experience a coach has in the NBA is an irrelevant figure. It is a coach's playoff experience, not the length of their NBA coaching career, which is relevant to winning in the postseason. Finally, it suggests that what should be assigned more attention is the value associated with keeping teammates together.
In the case of the Trail Blazers, with Aldridge, Roy, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, and Rudy Fernandez logging the most minutes during the regular season and playing in their first year together, while being led by a coach in Nate McMillan with some postseason experience, they lost in the first round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs against the Houston Rockets, a team coached by Rick Adelman -- someone who had an expansive playoff resume with the Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings -- with Yao Ming, Luis Scola, Ron Artest, Shane Battier, and Aaron Brooks leading the way in minutes played and also playing in their first year together. In a series that was relatively close, could Adelman have been the difference based on the conclusions reached in Tarlow's paper?
Over the next two seasons, Portland lost to the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks respectively in the first round of the playoffs. Based on Tarlow’s criteria, team chemistry probably worked in the Suns’ favor in 2010 while team chemistry and head coach postseason experience likely aided the Mavericks in 2011 as they began their quest for an NBA title they eventually won.
Certainly there were other reasons why the Trail Blazers lost three consecutive first-round series, like injuries and matchups. But, as Tarlow has suggested, inexperience likely wasn't one of them.
Dallas proved during their championship run last season that head coach postseason experience and team chemistry does matter.
Just ask the Miami Heat.
Putting it into practice
How do the contenders this season stack up using Tarlow’s criteria?
In this case, the Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Oklahoma City Thunder will be examined. Based on minutes played this season, five players are outlined for each team in that order. Listed in parentheses is the number of seasons those players have played with one another. The number of games stated in parentheses for each head coach is the amount they’ve coached in the postseason for their careers.
Chicago Bulls: Deng-Noah-Boozer-Rose-Brewer (2nd season), Thibodeau (16 games)
This is the Bulls’ second go-round with this group. Richard Hamilton, brought in during the offseason to replace Keith Bogans in the starting lineup at shooting guard, has been hobbled with injuries this season. For the sake of continuity, Chicago may be better off relying on Ronnie Brewer more.
Miami Heat: James-Bosh-Chalmers-Haslem-Wade (2nd season), Spoelstra (33 games)
Like the Bulls, this five-man unit is enjoying their second season together. The difference is that Udonis Haslem has been healthy during the regular season this year. Will improved synergy and Erik Spoelstra’s growing playoff coaching resume be enough for Miami to win a title?
Oklahoma City Thunder: Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka-Perkins (2nd season), Brooks (23 games)
After acquiring Kendrick Perkins at the trade deadline last season, the Thunder’s first full season with this quintuplet together has been a resounding success so far. With coaches like Gregg Popovich, George Karl, and Rick Carlisle in the Western Conference casting a shadow on Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City can only hope chemistry will trump all.
Assuming both teams stay healthy heading into the playoffs (which is asking a lot given the truncated season), it appears that the Heat have a slight leg up against Chicago with Spoelstra at the helm since there’s no discernible difference in the chemistry makeup of both teams.
As for the Thunder, what may derail their hopes is the fact that teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks are led by coaches oozing with postseason experience.
Taking Tarlow’s findings into account, consider the next few months an exercise in examination.
- Kyle Weidie of Truth About It offers up a multimedia presentation of how Deron Williams tied the Wizards in knots with ball screens.
- The Heat posted unsightly numbers against the Celtics' zone on Tuesday night but, as Zach Lowe of The Point Forward writes, the Heat had a coherent strategy to combat it: "A great example came with about 3:30 left in the game, when the Heat flashed a key potential zone antidote they used a lot: starting a possession with one of their wing stars (Dwyane Wade on this one) as the only person on one entire side of the floor (the left side in this case). That forced the Boston defense to tilt heavily to the right, where James handled the ball on the outside, near all his teammates except Wade. As LeBron dribbled, Chris Bosh flashed from the top of the three-point arc to below the foul line, drawing the man closest to Wade (Dooling) down into the paint, and forcing him to temporarily turn his back to Wade. At that exact moment, LeBron tossed a pass to Wade, who caught it on the move toward the middle of the floor, his momentum taking him the opposite direction as Boston’s defenders, including Dooling, now tilting madly from James’ side of the floor to Wade’s. Wade did not hestitate: With Dooling wrong-footed, Wade drove into the paint, where Dooling fouled him. Without a shot, the play almost vanishes from game logs everywhere, but it represents one key way the Heat can combat a zone; both James and Wade got layups against it out of action just like this."
- Historiographers have identified the origins of sports panic -- the phenomenon dates back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century. Is it time to panic in Boston?
- Tony Allen kindly asks that you set up your voicemail already.
- You should buy the full 2011-12 PDF from Basketball Prospectus, but if you want the crib notes from Kevin Pelton -- a single paragraph and projected record for each of the 30 teams -- click here.
- An interview with Clippers vice president of basketball operations Neil Olshey at Yahoo! Radio.
- Be Milwaukee!
- The Trail Blazers are 2-0 and when you take inventory of LaMarcus Aldridge's versatility as a big man and the smart pieces around them, they look primed for a pretty decent season. Tom Ziller of SB Nation: "[T]he way in which the Blazers have played, mixing the tough defense you know Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews will bring with the smooth scoring ability of LaMarcus Aldridge and deft shooting of Matthews and Nicolas Batum, mixed with able playmaking from Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby -- despite the caveats and despite the great misfortune of losing Brandon Roy forever and Greg Oden for a while longer, Portland looks like a real contender in the West."
- The Bucks led the Timberwolves 94-84 with under 4:00 remaining. Then Minnesota ripped off an 8-0 run to close the deficit to two points. The lineup on the floor for the Timberwolves? Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love and Anthony Tolliver. Zach Harper describes the final play call of a frustrating night for Minnesota: "Finding themselves down three with seven seconds left, they devised a play without much action away from the ball to free up Kevin Love for the game-tying attempt. Love set a down screen for Luke which enabled Luke to catch the ball roughly 35 feet from the basket. Love then set a screen for Wes near the top of the arc and then ran to the other win. Luke took two dribbles passed it to Love and he took a contested 3-pointer with four seconds left. It was one of the most basic plays you would ever find coming out of a timeout and it resulted in Love taking a contested 26-footer to try to tie the game."
- Bret LaGree of Hoopinion on Joe Johnson: "Can still get anywhere he wants on the floor, presuming where he wants to get isn't within 15 feet of the basket."
- Want to talk Pacers-Raps after tonight's game? Visit with Jared Wade and Tim Donahue on Pacers Talk Live at Eight Points, Nine Seconds.
- Ricky Davis will start his NBA comeback as a Red Claw.
- NBA commentators put Google+ hangout to use.
Greg Oden is everything he has been accused of being. He has missed so many games as to be certifiable as a horrible disappointment. (Is the Kevin Durant vs. Oden debate on hold, or dead?)
At the same time, as promised, in those times he has been on the court, he has produced, as promised, like the best young big man in the game. Even through the awkwardness of getting used to the league -- he has played just a season's worth of games -- he was a top-10 NBA player, according to PER, in his 21 games of last season. He is also one of the best young rebounders in NBA history.
But none of that matters when he's nursing an injury on the bench, as he's doing, once again, for the foreseeable future.
"It's all right," he says of his left knee, which has recovered from a broken kneecap, but is now burdened with "jumper's knee," a kind of tendinitis. "It has its good days and it has its better days. After a workout it gets a little stiff but that happens with everybody. Just a little bit more with me because of the equipment I have in there. Just normal stuff. After I work out, it's pretty sore, but I keep it moving.
"Whenever I feel that it's ready, and that I can go out there and do all the things that I'm capable of doing, that's when I'm going to come back. I'm not going to put a date on it, because that puts a lot of pressure, and usually just hypes up the media, because if I don't come back on that date they make it a big problem, and ask why didn't you come back on this day. I try to stay away from that."
Pressure is not Oden's thing. Not now. He admits, for instance, that he does not have the thickest skin when it comes to criticism.
"In the media, from the little bit that I have read ... there's not a lot of pity. There are some people, usually older people who have been around, or people who really know basketball. Other people in the media are usually like 'well, stop getting injured.' You know, like I can control it. Like I'd go out there and want to get injured. I don't know how to really look at that. I just go on and do what I do and try not to listen to it. Because if you listen to it, it's really discouraging. People out there in the media, people who talk trash -- that stuff hurts."
Photo courtesy of Tom LipmanOden and Joel Przybilla -- both starting Blazer centers at one time, both rehabbing left knee injuries.
Oden, who is traveling with the team -- which has been interpreted as a sign he's getting close to returning -- says he is uplifted by his teammates.
"The vibe is good," he says. "Guys are here, working hard. A lot of new guys getting acquainted to the system. Got new coaches too, and we're putting in a new offense and new defense. It's going really good. Guys are working really hard trying to get this stuff down. I'm happy about that."
Although Brandon Roy recently said that he thought Oden was "closer than I think people think he is" to returning, Oden is pleased his teammates are not among those pressuring him to play. "All my teammates are good," he says. "They're all players too. Their main thing is: Don't let nobody rush you back. Get yourself healthy so you can go out there. Don't let people in the media or the coaches or the training staff try to rush you back before you're ready or even able to go out there and play to your best ability, 'cause you don't want to do nothing to hurt yourself even more and then what. So now, before you get another contract, you could get knocked around and maybe have a career ending injury and now I'm stuck with nothing."
Oden is in a contract year, but has no expectation the Blazers will extend his deal before Monday's deadline. Assuming he's right, that means he'll be a restricted free agent next summer, which will be the first real test of his market value. Now, more than ever, he needs to produce. There's a contract on the line.
"I haven't thought about it at all," he says, without a ton of conviction.
Photo courtesy of Tom LipmanMost likely, Oden will be a restricted free agent next summer.
Back in May, Oden was rehabbing what is typically seen as a fairly straightforward injury -- a broken kneecap. But five months into the project, he was still not cleared for on-court activities, and counted walking up and down the stairs as among his more advanced workouts. Just sitting for too long was so painful that he often watched his team's games from the trainer's room.
In an interview at the time, I asked if the Blazers could count on him to return this fall.
"Nobody knows what's going to happen," he said, "but I feel for sure that I'm going to be ready for training camp next season. ... I'm going to have me a really good summer, go see me a whole bunch of different doctors and try to figure out what's going on with my body that makes me keep getting injured."
Of course, there were complications. Now it's tendinitis, in the same knee that had the broken kneecap. He's in street clothes again, same as after the other medical issues that have dogged him since draft day: tonsillectomy, microfracture surgery, ankle injury, foot issue and fractured kneecap.
He was alluding to the idea that there may have been something systemically wrong with him. That the litany of injuries that has benched him for more than two thirds of his career may have shared a common thread beyond bad luck. Getting to the bottom of that seemed like just about the most important thing he could possibly do -- for his career, but more importantly for his life.
Only ... he didn't really do it.
And now we’re quite possibly heading for a new low.
The deadline for extensions for 2007 first-rounders is a day later than usual -- pushed to Nov. 1 because Oct. 31 falls on a Sunday this year as opposed to a business day -- but it’ll take a late rush to see even five extensions before this year’s buzzer.
You’ve probably heard or read by now that only two first-round draftees from 2007 have secured extensions to date: No. 2 overall pick Kevin Durant ($85 million max deal over five seasons from Oklahoma City) and No. 9 Joakim Noah ($60 million plus incentives over five years from Chicago).
Thanks to an increasing reluctance leaguewide among GMs to hand out extensions before they know the specifics of the next collective bargaining agreement – and the lukewarm overall regard for many of the players taken in the Durant Draft -- everyone else from the Class of ’07 appears headed for restricted free agency in the summer of 2011 unless they can manufacture an extension in the next 10 days.
Who still has some hope of joining Durant and Noah?
There appears to be only one strong contender at present: No. 3 overall pick Al Horford.
Despite persistent chatter in recent days that Horford and the Hawks have made little recent progress in negotiations, sources close to the situation maintain that a deal before the deadline remains probable, given Horford’s status as a borderline All-Star big man … and the fact that Horford is being represented in negotiations by the same agent (Arn Tellem) who squeezed the biggest contract of the summer ($123.7 million over six seasons) out of the Hawks for Joe Johnson. (Word is reigning Sixth Man Award winner Jamal Crawford, meanwhile, has to wait until Horford’s window passes before Atlanta seriously entertains the idea of signing Crawford to the extension he seeks.)
UPDATE (Oct. 26): If negotiations do end up progressing from “probable” to done deal -- with much of the hesitation stemming from the fact that Hawks GM Rick Sund did not hand out extensions in somewhat similar circumstances to Ray Allen or Rashard Lewis in Seattle and waited until Johnson’s free-agent summer to strike a new deal with the Hawks’ All-Star guard -- one source with knowledge of the talks says we should expected a five-year deal “just slightly north of Noah’s” in the $65 million range.
As for names beyond Horford, there are only maybes galore.
A source with knowledge of Greg Oden’s thinking told ESPN.com that 2007’s No. 1 overall pick is resigned to the idea that an extension from the Blazers is not forthcoming. I’m told Oden isn’t even pressing for it, after appearing in just 82 games over his first three seasons, because he knows he’s better off trying to put together one strong season and proceed to restricted free agency -- provided restricted free agency still exists in the next CBA -- than negotiate now against his lengthy injury history.
No. 5 overall pick Jeff Green? Oklahoma City, as ever, has been exceedingly quiet about its intentions, but one source close to the process said this week that Thunder general manager Sam Presti and agent David Falk “aren’t close” to a deal despite maintaining a regular dialogue on the matter. The belief persists that OKC wants to save its money for next summer, when point guard Russell Westbrook is eligible for the sort of extension Durant just received.
No. 4 Mike Conley (Memphis), No. 7 Corey Brewer (Minnesota), No. 15 Rodney Stuckey (Detroit) and even No. 26 Aaron Brooks (Houston) appear highly unlikely to be extended thanks to their teams’ reluctance to spend money before a new labor agreement is in place … and with Stuckey’s situation complicated by the Pistons’ sale-in-progress.
One source with knowledge of Washington’s thinking said recently that extensions for No. 6 Yi Jianlian and No. 14 Al Thornton would definitely be discussed, but that’s as far as it’s gone to this point. (Although I tend to believe that the Wiz, having watched Yi follow up his strong play in the World Championships in China with a good start in DC, could still try to sell him on an Andray Blatche-type deal.)
I’ve also been advised to at least file away the possibility that No. 23 Wilson Chandler might make a late charge for an extension, if only because the first year of a new deal from the Knicks would figure to be less than his projected free-agent cap hold next summer of roughly $6.5 million.
But the only confirmed new name we can add to the discussion is No. 22 Jared Dudley, whose emergence as a reliable sparkplug and fan favorite in Phoenix has established Dudley as a member of the Suns’ core, which has kept alive extension talks this month.
“We are talking and have been talking for a few weeks,” Dudley’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, told ESPN.com on Thursday. “They’ve made it very clear that they want Jared to be there and Jared has made it clear to them that Phoenix is where he wants to be. Whether that means we can make a deal that makes sense for both sides, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Waiting and seeing. In the Modern Rookie Scale era, we’ve never seen more of that.
Forget about the hoopla in Miami, and let's talk about the basketball.
The basketball in Miami
The concentration of talent in Miami has created a dramatic storyline the NBA hasn't seen in years. In late October, the narrative will finally give way to live basketball, as the offseason machinations fade into the background. Fans and observers can debate whether a team of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami is healthy for the NBA, and the Heat's first final-possession scenario will likely launch silly arguments about who rightfully deserves to be called "the man" in Miami. Lost in the cacophony of hysteria is the single most fascinating question headed into the 2010-11 season: What will the Miami Heat's 94 or so possessions look like on a nightly basis? How will James play off Wade and vice versa? How do you defend a Wade-James pick-and-roll? Will we see a lineup of Eddie House, Wade, Miller, James and Bosh (talk about the end of positional orthodoxy!)? Will Bosh benefit from the disproportionate attention opposing defenses will have to devote to the perimeter? And how will Bosh handle the more workaday duties of being the big man down low? However you feel about what's transpired since the beginning of July, the experiment being assembled in Miami is a basketball lover's dream. If you find Miami's personnel unlikable, then root like hell for the opposing defense. Either way, you won't be disappointed.
The blueprint in Oklahoma City
The Thunder emerged last season as the most promising young outfit in the NBA. They finished with 50 wins and gave the Lakers their toughest Western Conference playoff series. Then, this offseason, they extended a max contract to Kevin Durant and fortified their bright young core by adding Morris Peterson, Daequan Cook and first-round draft pick Cole Aldrich. In some sense, general manager Sam Presti's decision to essentially stand pat might have been one of the the boldest move of the offseason. Many executives with a talented core and some money to spend would've committed to a high-dollar addition, but Presti stayed the course. He's banking that the maturation of Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, James Harden and Serge Ibaka will continue and vault the Thunder over of the scrum in the Western Conference. Is he being realistic? Can the Thunder ride a frontcourt of Green, Nenad Krstic, Ibaka, Nick Collison and Aldrich into the ranks of the NBA elite? Can a team that sustained no major injuries last season decline to add a single major pieces and still pick up 5-10 wins? The answer to these questions will give us an idea of how much "upward trajectory" is worth in the NBA.
Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire: Beautiful while it lasted
The power of Nash
Amare Stoudemire provides us with one of the best controlled experiments in recent years.
Watching him run the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash in Phoenix for eight years, we grew to regard Stoudemire as one of the most prolific power forwards of his generation. In New York, Stoudemire will benefit from the presence of coach Mike D'Antoni, who conceived many of the schemes that enabled him to flourish, but will be without Nash for the first time since 2004. How will swapping out Raymond Felton for Nash affect Stoudemire's game? Back in Phoenix, a 36-year-old Nash will have to replicate what he did during his 2005-06 MVP season when Stoudemire missed virtually 79 games -- cobble together an offense with imperfect parts. How Stoudemire performs without Nash as his dance partner and how Phoenix fares with an offense that will be more reminiscent of their 2005-06 season -- when Nash maximized the versatility of Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell -- will tell us a lot about Nash's enormous impact on the game he plays as beautifully as anyone.
The defense in Chicago
The Boston Celtics' return to the NBA's upper echelon was predicated first and foremost on their defense. They unleashed a pressurized force field designed and implemented by Tom Thibodeau, and ultimately adopted by other teams around the league, including the Los Angeles Lakers. This June, the Bulls tapped Thibodeau to fill their head coaching vacancy. He joins a Bulls team that put together a strong defensive season last season, finishing 10th in efficiency. Skeptics might look at Derrick Rose -- whose defensive instincts are a far cry from Rajon Rondo -- and Carlos Boozer and conclude that Thibodeau doesn't have the personnel to succeed the way he did in Boston. Yet in 2007, Thibodeau took a quintet that featured Ray Allen (who had a horrendous defensive reputation coming from Seattle), an undisciplined big man in Kendrick Perkins, a second-year point guard in Rajon Rondo who'd started only 25 games and made them one of the best defensive units in basketball. With Joakim Noah anchoring the interior, the lanky tandem of Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer on the wings, Boozer's sharp basketball IQ and Rose's gifts, Thibodeau should have the tools to sculpt a top-5 defense. If the Bulls buy in, we'll have a better understanding whether Thibodeau's kind of tactical expertise is transferable -- and an inkling of just how dangerous the Bulls could be.
The reign in Los Angeles
A calm has set in over Los Angeles, where the Lakers went about their offseason business with all the fanfare of a routine annual checkup. While the rest of the basketball universe was focused in on LeBron James and south Florida, the Lakers quietly added veterans Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff and re-upped head coach Phil Jackson. Even when the Lakers were stringing together three consecutive titles at the beginning of the millennium, there was always a swirl of intrigue surrounding the club. That's no longer true, as the Lakers have assumed a posture of professional incumbency the league hasn't seen in quite some time. Will the Lakers ride the precision of their system, the collective experience and poise of their core and the natural attributes of their defense to a fourth straight Finals appearance? Barring serious injury, is there anything that can disrupt the Lakers' rhythm? Is a successful formula ever in danger of becoming predictable?
The patience in Portland
Before the Oklahoma City Thunder became next year's model, the Portland Trail Blazers were on the brink of creating something special. The sketch of a winner was stenciled on the Rose Garden floor -- an all-powerful wing primed to take big shots, a talented power forward oozing with finesse, a defensive and rebounding force in the middle and smart supporting players who embraced their roles. Injuries and disruption turned the 2009-10 campaign into a holding pattern, but the pieces are still in place for the Trail Blazers to achieve. Health remains a concern, as Greg Oden will try to return from a fractured left patella. But if the big man can log 2,000 minutes, Portland should be able to complement their Top-1o offense with the kind of dogged rebounding and efficient defense that made them a popular No. 2 pick headed into last season. The question those with an affection for Portland don't want to ask is, how bright is the team's future if he can't?
The possibility of youth
The appeal of the league's top-rated rookies runs much deeper than individual performance. Their presence can ripple beyond whatever spot on the floor they happen to occupy. Blake Griffin not only has the power to explode to the rim every time he touches the ball, but he also has the potential to transform Baron Davis into the joyful point guard the world fell in love with in the spring of 2007. John Wall's well-honed instincts won't just fill up the box score, but also could revive a fan base in Washington that was teased with meaningful basketball a few years ago, only to watch their franchise return to the wilderness. DeMarcus Cousins could become the Kings' more formidable presence in the frontcourt since Chris Webber left, but more important, he and Tyreke Evans have a chance to redefine what big-small combos can do in the rapidly changing pro game. "Upside" is a word thrown around a lot in June, but watching that potential unfold produces unique findings. And that's why we watch.
- More good stuff on the positional revolution, this time from Jesse Blanchard of 48 Minutes of Hell. Blanchard writes that defensive roles are much harder to define than offensive ones, which makes reclassifying (or declassifying, so to speak) defensive positions a nearly impossible task. The more NBA basketball I watch and the more NBA people I speak with, the more convinced I've become that off-the-ball decision making composes at least 50 percent of a defender's grade. It's important to have wing players who can smother isolation scorers, big men who can bang down low and guys all over the floor who can defend the pick-and-roll, but the margins of the game are won and lost because of the quality and speed of rotations, recoveries and anticipation. That's going to be true irrespective of how we define or redefine what a point guard, power forward or center looks like.
- We've heard a lot about the Orlando Magic's "4 out/1 in" scheme over the past few seasons. Here's what it looks like.
- While we're on the topic of what constitutes a power forward, should Rudy Gay be spending time at the 4? Joshua Coleman of 3 Shades of Blue: "Team USA is apparently content to live with their lack of size in the traditional post position of PF by maximizing their talent and athleticism at those spots by playing Rudy Gay at the 4 with Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant manning the SG and SF positions, respectively."
- An evocative piece by Bethlehem Shoals about his trip to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame has two of my favorite things in one place -- basketball writing and travel writing. On seeing Wilt Chamberlain's jersey from the 100-point game in Hershey: "I couldn't help but stand, slack-jawed, for several minutes. I took in every detail of the fabric, trying to read the game's action, or Chamberlain's mood, through the patterns of sweat and scuffs. Most telling was the long blood stain across the back, where someone had evidently clawed the big man as he took the individual game past all acceptable limits."
- Dave of Blazers Edge: "So much attention gets paid to [Greg] Oden's physical struggles that his true potential Achilles' Heel gets overlooked. The mental and emotional aspects of the game and the league will be Oden's biggest bugaboos. After three years of substantial non-playing his connection to health, basketball, championship-level play, and teammates is fishing-line thin. The organization will have quite a task reeling in such a huge specimen on that fragile line. Greg is more used to rehabbing than playing. He's more used to trying to decide what movie to watch than watching film. Competition is absent, muscle memory faded, rhythm non-existent. How will he adjust to his renewed calling and the renewed expectations...expectations with which he was never comfortable in the first place?"
- Kevin Durant's first dispatch from Madrid: "I’m really looking forward to this whole experience. It should be a lot of fun. I’ve never been to Europe, never been to Spain, never been to Turkey or Greece. I’m looking forward to that and just being able to interact and be around some of the best players in the league. Guys like Rudy Gay, Iguodala, Rajon, Lamar…just to be with those guys and learn, it’s going to be pretty cool and it’s going to help me."
- Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company on Carmelo Anthony's lame-duck status in Denver: "Carmelo already lacks defensive intensity and is not known for restraint on offense when it comes to letting shots fly. How much worse will those characteristics be accentuated if Melo is longing to be somewhere else."
- Could a breakout season by Brook Lopez propel the Nets to the postseason?
- If you take a look at the Wins Produced metric, it turns out Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley (both still with Phoenix) were the Suns' biggest overperformers during the postseason and Amare Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa (both no longer with the Suns) were the team's biggest underperformers.
- Matt Hubert of D-League Digest lays out five Nancy Lieberman storylines as she takes the reins as head coach of the Texas Legends. Hubert wonders if Lieberman will be the target of any chauvinistic abuse from fans.
- Scott Schroeder breaks down the 10 must-see D-League games in 2010-11.
- A slew of teams introduced small modifications to their jerseys on Monday. The Jazz returned to an old motif and won the day.
- Chris Paul: Big fan of Coca-Cola's Freestyle Fountain.
- The commercial realities of globalism disappoint Donyell Marshall.
- Ben Q. Rock of Orlando Pinstriped Post tweets: "Oh man, guys, do a search for '2010 nba rookie portraits' on Getty. Some incredible stuff up there."
- The cheapest seat in the house for the Heat's home opener will run you $185 plus service charges.
- There are few guys in the league more fun to talk shop with than Ryan Gomes. Throw Gomes on the list of "players most likely to coach." When it's all over, Gomes has his eyes set on the Providence College gig.
- Rob Mahoney of Hardwood Paroxysm parses what we mean when we talk about the redemption of Ron Artest: "He’s gone from liability to frivolity to necessity, and there isn’t even a whisper of the Malice in the Palace. We’re to the point where it’s about basketball again with Artest, and that’s more than time healing all wounds. It’s Ron’s defense on Kevin Durant reminding us what got him here in the first place. It’s his awkward drives reminding us of what we could have missed had Artest not rediscovered himself. It’s a game-winning tip-in that Ron nailed because he ran all the way across the court to be in the right place at the right time, and put himself in a position to help out Kobe Bryant. He didn’t redeem a franchise, or a fellow star, or a fan base. He never had to. All he had to do was redeem himself, and that’s Artest’s crowning achievement of these playoffs, championship or not."
- M. Haubs of The Painted Area reminds us that several of the Celtics' Finals victories over the Lakers were, at the time, upsets. In the 1968 conference finals, Philadelphia fans were chanting, "Boston's dead," before an aging Celtics team stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to reach the NBA Finals.
- Bob Costas narrates the introduction to the 1991 NBA Finals.
- ESPN Los Angeles' Dave Miller describes the Celtics' "loaded" defense: "It simply means bringing a weakside defender to the strong side of the floor, giving you an extra defender to stop the ball, and it arose based on the following presumption: NBA players like to hold on to the ball and create shots on their own more than they like to trust the flow of an offense."
- Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus counts three major differences between the 2008 and 2010 Finals -- two of the three favoring the Lakers.
- The worst of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry includes a rough 1984 Finals for Magic Johnson and Johnny Most telling his audience that Kurt Rambis crawled out of a sewer.
- David Stern tells Colin Cowherd that the 9 p.m. and 8 p.m. eastern tip-off times for Finals games aren't a problem: "I guess you don’t live in California for much of the year then where an 8 o’clock start is a 5 o’clock start there. I’ll say this to you and then we can argue about it some. Number one as the game goes on in the evening, the ratings go up. Number two, our playoff games have been, in some nights, almost all nights really, have been leading the categories 18-34, 18-49. Not just against other cable networks, but against all networks. Despite the disruption that you say we’re causing, we are developing fans. And when they’re 18-34, they’re NBA fans whom our sponsors depend upon our games to reach."
- Greg Oden lost his best friend, Travis Smith, three years ago. Oden tells Henry Abbott that the tragedy of Travis' death brought him closer to Travis' father: "Oden now calls Travis' dad, Jimmy Smith, one of the most important mentors in his life. Much of their bond comes from the long conversations that came after Travis' death."
- Kevin Durant is with family and James Harden in Shanghai. The Cheesecake Factory hasn't opened a location yet in Asia, so the Durants opt for an upscale Italian joint: "As far as the food goes, I love Chinese food and I want to try some new things over here. As long as it doesn’t make me sick! James has never been here so it’s been cool to take it all in with him. My dad’s here, too, and when we arrived to Beijing the other day we all went out to eat at this really nice restaurant called Domus."
- How should the Trail Blazers define success this offseason?
- Wizards' head coach Flip Saunders can still stroke it. And Kyle Weidie thinks John Wall should be added to the short list of people who can eat for free at U Street landmark Ben's Chili Bowl.
- Between workouts, DeAndre Jordan is previewing Eminem's soon-to-be-released album and enjoying a pedicure.
One of the casualties of Greg Oden's many injuries, which he discusses on video has been his sense of humor. He has always been a funny guy -- but with the expectations of a team resting on his oft-broken body, it has not been time for jokes.
He entered the NBA with the face of an old man, but the grin and tastes of a teenager. He was full of tales about how he and longtime teammate and friend (and current Grizzlies point guard) Mike Conley Jr. had spent endless hours perfecting all the dances from the movie "Stomp the Yard."
Absent the adrenaline rush from winning games and adulation on the court night and night out, he is now only occasionally silly -- other times, he's withdrawn. He's only 22, he but admits that the last three years, including a string of injuries and an embarrassing misstep involving a nude photo, have made him feel significantly older, and smarter, than he was a few years ago.
The story of Greg Oden has always been big. The seven-footer arrived in the NBA to an enormous downtown Portland rally, as the jumbo player slated to have a colossal impact.
Since undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee before his rookie season, he has been seen, essentially, as a monumental disappointment.
The reality of Oden, in 2010, is a tale of much smaller pursuits. The important factors in his NBA life have become pedestrian. He spends his mornings lifting weights at the Blazers' practice facility, and his afternoons watching shows like "Gossip Girl." His daily goals are little things like keeping his emotional swings in check with professional counseling, controlling his weight with good diet -- he's talking up Whole Foods -- and finding the right doctors to keep him healthy.
Similarly, his game is not as bad as advertised. "I felt like I was starting to get the hang of it," he says of the 21 games he managed to play in 2009-2010. Thanks in large part to his elite rebounding skills, Oden finished the season with eighth best PER in the whole NBA, sandwiched between Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki.
"And then," Oden continues, "my kneecap broke in half." There wasn't even contact on the Dec. 5, 2009 play against Houston. The power of his own muscles had snapped his left kneecap. It's the kind of thing that doesn't happen to most players, but does happen to Oden (who has long been ribbed for looking like an old man). Thanks to the microfracture, an ankle injury, a foot issue, and now the kneecap, he has spent the majority of his career in street clothes. He even missed all but two games of his first summer league with a tonsillectomy.
In three seasons, he has played in a mere 82 regular season games -- one season's worth -- plus six playoff games against Houston in 2009.
"They ask me a lot: You think your body's just not made for this, or you're unlucky?" he says. "It has to be I'm unlucky."
Oden remembers standing on the court at the 2007 Finals, shortly before he became the draft's top overall pick, and imagining himself dominating in a title game like Tim Duncan -- another former top pick -- did that night. He insists that goal lives.
But first, the task is to make sure this really is a case of being unlucky, and not some undiagnosed medical concern behind his injuries.
A broken kneecap is hardly seen as the worst injury out there, and yet more than five months later Oden is still not cleared to do anything on the court that remotely resembles basketball -- he says he's mostly focused on things like lifting weights, watching his diet and walking up and down stairs. He's timid in making the most basic predictions about his future. Can the Blazers count on him to be ready to play in the fall?
"Nobody knows what's going to happen," he says, "but I feel for sure that I'm going to be ready for training camp next season. ... I'm going to have me a really good summer, go see me a whole bunch of different doctors and try to figure out what's going on with my body that makes me keep getting injured."
But in a radio interview, Greg Oden swears he has another side that comes out sometimes on the court. For instance, when Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah dunked on him in a game earlier this year, he points out that he "ended up with 18 and 20."
Actually, he ended up with 24 and 12, but close enough. In any case, if part of his promised comeback for next season (he brushes off suggestions he may return for this year's playoffs) includes more of those cranky games, I'm sure the Blazers will be very pleased.
By virtue of Portland's 90-89 win over Houston Saturday night, Jason lost the bet.
Unfortunately, the Trail Blazers lost something more significant in Saturday night's game -- Greg Oden to a season-ending injury.
As a writer who covers the Houston Rockets, Jason Friedman is has a great deal of empathy for Trail Blazers fans, and is well-versed in the coping mechanisms required of those who lose their favorite players to injury:
What do you say to a grieving acquaintance?
The inherent lack of intimacy often makes consolation a pipedream. Their pain is not your own. Any words of support or encouragement are destined to come across as hollow and trite, received as if they were nothing more than mere platitudes borne of obligation. Sometimes it’s better to simply let silence rule the day; to nod your head as a token of respect and understanding while allowing the aggrieved whatever time and space they require.
I know all of this. I get it.
To stand off to the side and say nothing in this instance simply isn’t an option. I was at the Rose Garden Saturday night. I bore witness to the black hole which momentarily devoured every hint of color, joy and hope within the arena at the 7:45 mark of the first quarter until all that remained was the sickening sound of 21,000 distressed souls hoping their eyes had somehow deceived them. You know the rest.
In Houston, of course, we are all too familiar with that sound and the empty feeling which ultimately takes its place. We’ve heard the ludicrous chatter of curses and been filled with the fear which accompanies the label “injury prone.” It’s the price we pay for being human, I suppose. Our uncertain futures lead some to fill in the blanks with nightmares and phantoms of the worst kind. Given enough room to operate, those bogeys will happily shatter your confidence and destroy every last vestige of positive thought.
But there is another option. It is the one I come to pass along to my Portland “acquaintances” today. It is, quite simply, hope.
I know, I know. You don’t want to hear it. It’ still too early, the wound too fresh. That’s fine. I’ve been there. So, too, has Yao Ming. I’ve seen him down, despondent and depressed after his body betrayed him once more. But I’ve also witnessed how he responds to that betrayal with a quiet, steely resolve to return better than ever before. He understands that we are all faced with only two options in life: to give up or to press forward with the hope that each day will be better than the last. And he chooses the latter because he knows the first choice isn’t actually an option at all.
I recall seeing Yao right before the season began, as he was going through his workout routine at Toyota Center with personal trainer Anthony Falsone. Yao used crutches to go from station to station, while dragging along a boot that seemingly came from the Darth Vader collection on his surgically repaired left foot. He’d been going through this routine for more than a month by this point, knowing full well that many more months of monotonous rehab remained. And yet, his countenance reflected no sign of exasperation with that fact; he was upbeat, positive and quick to crack jokes. This part of the process was simply what had to be done in order to get back to the game and the team he loves. Therefore, he would do it.
Yao spoke that day of the grief which accompanied his initial realization that he would miss the entire 2009-10 season. He mentioned the mourning process that included a week spent mostly in disturbed silence. But then he told of his resolution and commitment to the rehab process. The moment for looking back was over. It was now time for work, for diligence and for hope. His goal stood far off in the distance but he knew that each day brought him one step closer and, therefore, each day would be better than the last.
I don’t know Greg Oden. But upon recalling that conversation with Yao, I suspect I have at least an inkling of what’s going through his mind right now. I’ve no doubt that he’s currently mourning in his own way. But just as certainly, I absolutely believe he will soon, if he hasn’t already, steel himself for the journey to come while dispatching the past in the process. Like Yao, Oden has, unfortunately, been through this before. And, like Yao, Greg will find solace by steadying his gaze on a future still rife with possibilities and potential. He’s only 21 years old, after all. He’ll be back.
In fact, Oden and Yao now figure to make their return at the exact same time: training camp 2010. It stands as yet another tie which inexorably binds our two great cities, Portland and Houston, together. The link began 26 years ago when the Blazers selected a ridiculously talented human pogo stick of a guard from the University of Houston named Clyde Drexler. One year later Portland and Houston were the principal figures in an even bigger draft coup: a coin flip for the rights to the No. 1 pick and an opportunity to select yet another U. of H. stud, Akeem Olajuwon. Since then, Drexler returned to Houston, the Blazers drafted Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez – both of whom were hotly desired by Houston – the Rockets made former Portland coach Rick Adelman their bench boss and the two teams recently met in the first round of last year’s playoffs. So maybe we’re more than mere acquaintances after all.
Point being, we are now bound together by a common hope: that our two talented and beloved big men can come back to fill the void their absence has left behind; that we can watch them go head-to-head once more, unburdened by the pain of the past and instead enjoying the sight of two of the game’s premiere big men battling each other at the height of their powers.
Their cities deserve such a sight. So, too, do their teams. But more than anyone, this Promethean pair deserves it. Thus, it is for them, and for all of us, that I hold out hope. I know they won’t give up. Neither, then, will I.