First there was the micro-surgery that took his whole first season away. Then there was his shaky 13-minute debut at the Staples Center this year, in which Oden looked like a deer before a Buick's headlights before succumbing to another injury. When he first began playing regularly, it seemed like the Blazers' star center in waiting could either dunk the basketball or get called for traveling. With the ball in his hands, Oden has sometimes resembled one of those mini-AT-AT walkers from the Endor scenes of Return of the Jedi after the Ewoks place a bunch of legs underneath it so the walker wobbles and falls down: a huge piece of expert machinery rendered a joke.
As the regular season has inched along, Oden has taken a huge amount of criticism and mockery. On the Blazer blogs I visit, commenters routinely compare him to Sam Bowie and call him a bust. They predict he'll always be injured, or if he isn't, Oden will reveal himself--as #1 overall picks go--far closer to Kwame Brown, Joe Smith and Andrew Bogut than Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwan or Tim Duncan. Even Blazer fans wanting to give Oden the benefit of the doubt believe that Joel Pryzbilla is a better center.
All along, I have been Oden's apologist and cheerleader. From the moment Portland drafted him, I've been both giddy with excitement and worried over his chances of failure. Oden has the body and gifts of a potentially great, Hall of Fame NBA center. But those kinds of players arrive once or twice in a generation. Merely hoping a big 7-foot center will be a legend, even with the pedigree of being a #1 pick, won't make it a reality. Couple Oden's still relatively uncertain future with that of Kevin Durant, the high scoring forward Portland passed up to pick Big Greg, and you have the added pressure of the Blazers again making a big mistake with their selection, as happened in 1984 with taking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. Durant, in his second season, now trails only LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade for this year's scoring lead.
It's come to the point where even a Blazer victory doesn't feel quite as satisfying if Oden doesn't perform. Sometimes it's because of foul trouble. Often, actually. Other times it's because of limited minutes due to coach Nate McMillan's decision making or Oden's additional aches and pains. This season, even after the joy of seeing him finally play after a year's delay, he has often been stifled.
Yet having said all this, I believe and will unapologetically argue that Oden is doing not just okay, but very well.
If you look at Oden's statistics this year, they don't initially seem very spectacular. For most of the season he has hovered around 8 or 9 points per game and 7 to 9 rebounds. As of today (March 29), he's officially at 8.8 points and 7.1 rebounds. But that is based on his playing an average of 22.1 minutes per game, less than half the possible 48 minutes of regulation time.
And when you switch from per-game statistics, which can be misleading because of varying minutes played, to the other principal statistical standard for the NBA, per-48-minutes, Oden emerges as already one of pro basketball's premiere centers in his first season.
Per 48 minutes of play, Greg Oden is averaging 19.1 points per game and 15.4 rebounds. Let's compare that to some of his Blazer teammates and fellow NBA centers.
In Portland, obviously Brandon Roy has a significantly higher points average at 29.2 points per game and 6.5 assists. But after that, Oden compares favorably to anyone on the team.
LaMarcus Aldridge, the team's second-leading scorer, averages 23.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per 48 minutes. His 18.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game are much higher than Oden's, but Aldridge averages 37.1 minutes per game to Oden's 22.1. Erase that minutes-played discrepancy, and Oden scores only 4 points less per 48 minutes but nearly 6 more rebounds. And Aldridge is viewed as a budding star on the cusp of making the All-Star team. How come our supposed "flop" of a center is more efficient?
Oden's fellow Blazer center, Joel Pryzbilla, averages more rebounds per 48 minutes than Oden (17.1 versus 15.4), but only 11.1 points compared to Oden's 19.1.
Now let us see how Oden compares per 48 minutes of play to some of the NBA's great big men. Shaquille O'Neal is having a comeback season with the Suns even if they may miss the playoffs. He's averaging 18.1 points per game and 8.6 rebounds. That translates into 28.7 points per game and 13.7 rebounds.
Greg Oden is rebounding better than Shaquille O'Neal. This year.
Then there's Yao Ming. He's averaging 19.6 points and 9.8 rebounds in 33.4 minutes per game. Switch that to per 48 minutes of play, however, and Yao's numbers translate to 28.1 points and 13.9 rebounds.
Greg Oden is rebounding better than Yao Ming. This year.
How about Tim Duncan? He's really a power forward as much as a center, but a premiere big man of his time either way. Duncan this year is averaging 27.8 points and 14.8 rebounds per 48 minutes this year.
Greg Oden is rebounding better than Tim Duncan. This year.
And then there's Andrew Bynum. Arrogant Laker fans and members of the Los Angeles media have thoroughly enjoyed forwarding the idea that their young center is the true heir to the great all-time centers, not Oden. Nevermind that Bynum, despite also being injury prone and given to long stretches on the bench in street clothes. This year the Laker center is averaging 23.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per 48 minutes of play.
Greg Oden is rebounding better than Andrew Bynum. This year.
In fact, the only premiere big man I found who is out-rebounding Greg Oden this year per 48 minutes of play is Dwight Howard, who averages 28.2 points and 18.7 rebounds. Howard is in his 4th season. As new-generation centers go, he is the gold standard. But I'd argue Oden, if he can keep his injuries under control, is already showing that he can be in the same league with Howard, and that he already is in the same league, when you even out the amount of minutes played, as the other great centers in the game: O'Neal, Yao, Duncan and Bynum.
To be fair, looking at these per-48-minute statistics, Oden scores fewer points than all the big-time players I mentioned. In the future as he solidifies his presence at center for the Blazers, I see Oden's career being distinguished by defense and rebounding more than scoring. Imagining a prime for him in a few years, I see Greg Oden still averaging closer to 15 points per game than 20. But he could very well lead the NBA in rebounding. Then there's what a mammoth presence, both physically and psychologically, that he already is as a defensive presence. Let Oden get comfortable and relatively pain/injury free, and he could be a strong candidate for the league's Defensive Player of the Year award--multiple times.
I'm not saying that Greg Oden is the second coming of Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain. But I also vehemently reject the idea that he is anything close to a bust.
Right now Portland has one of the two or three best guards in the NBA with Brandon Roy, a budding All-Star power forward in LaMarcus Aldridge, a young alley-oop and three-point specialist in Rudy Fernandez who showed in the gold medal Olympic game last summer that he can play against the best, and a talented deep and still-young supporting cast including lottery and first round picks like Travis Outlaw, Jerryd Bayless and Martell Webster. Greg Oden fits very, very well into that championship puzzle, especially with Pryzbilla there to relieve the pressure and provide a strong on-court role model setting screens and diving for loose balls.
One of the things I and many Blazer fans love about Oden is his gregariousness, his willingness to show his real self to reporters and fans with smiles and bouts of sadness alike. It's clear Oden was emboldened by the excitement of the draft, and resilient in returning from microfracture surgery, but has also been depressed and frustrated by criticisms. He understands people out there think he's a bust, and it gets to him - admittedly, perhaps more than it should.
But that's all the more reason I want to shout from the rooftops, "You're doing great, Greg!" Because you are. And you will.