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. . . But Teams Survive With Big Men Such as Oden

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, June 28, 2007

NEW YORK

The bet here is that Kevin Durant will be a wonderful professional basketball player, probably a perennial all-star, perhaps even the cornerstone of a team that lives in the playoffs.

But if I had the first pick in tonight's draft, I'm taking Greg Oden.

Wing players with beautiful jump shots inspire the imagination, are easier to market and usually sell more tickets. But teams with a great Big Man win championships. Teams featuring Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan have won eight of the last nine NBA championships. They play the position of Big Man.

Oden, at 7 feet and 250 pounds, also plays the position of Big Man. I'm taking Greg Oden 100 times out of 100. You don't want to mess with history on this. And please, don't tell me about Sam Bowie vs. Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft. Bowie was a very skilled and very tall man, but not a Big Man.

Hakeem Olajuwon was a Big Man; he won two NBA championships. Patrick Ewing was a Big Man; he led his team to the NBA Finals twice. David Robinson was a Big Man; he led the Spurs to a championship when Duncan was a pup.

Kareem was a Big Man, Bill Walton was a Big Man. Willis Reed was a Big Man, Wes Unseld was a Big Man, Moses Malone was a Big Man. Wilt was a Real Big Man. Bill Russell was the Ultimate Big Man. George Mikan was the Original Big Man. They all won. In fact, those men played on a total of 42 NBA championship teams. Hello! All of them played in multiple NBA Finals. In this context, Big is better.

If you add Robert Parish and Dave Cowens to the conversation, and they qualify as Big Men to some degree, then it's 47 NBA championships. In fact, go ahead and name the teams that won without a Big Man. Oden, from everything we know going into this draft, appears to be made of some of the same stuff the aforementioned Big Men are made of.

He's big, smart, strong, athletic and not just willing but excited to humiliate you with withering defense. So what's Oden's downside?

Brad Daugherty? Alonzo Mourning? Dikembe Mutombo? What, you wouldn't take any of those guys for the next dozen years? Kent Benson? Christian Laettner? He's certainly not Kwame Brown, who is a big man but for certain not a Big Man.

Please don't forget that Oden, in the NCAA championship game, threw around Florida's Al Horford and Joakim Noah, a pair of lottery-pick big men, like they were tomato cans to the tune of 25 points and 12 rebounds. Oden led his Ohio State team to the NCAA championship game despite an injury to the wrist of his dominant hand. We haven't even come close to seeing the best of Greg Oden.

As important as the physical attributes, Oden is accountable, a feature many of the NBA's wannabe stars are lacking, which is why they'll never be all they should be. When Oden nervously fumbled his way through a workout in Portland last week with his presumed new team, he turned more than once to his future coaches and club executives and apologized for playing so poorly.

He's exactly what Portland needs, exactly what the league needs as a counter to Kobe Bryant's continued self-absorption. Every time Oden opens his mouth, he says the right thing, about pressure, about his elders, about being seen as some kind of savior in the Pacific Northwest. At a time when there's way too much Terrell Owens in the world of sports, Oden is a stiff breeze of fresh air.

He wrote of college in his blog recently:

"I am going to miss it so much, when September rolls around next year I'll be in pre-season, and my peers will be meeting back up for another go around at this college thing. To be honest it is so much more than that. It's the place when you get fed up with your parents, you get to get away. It's not just the place where you receive higher learning, it's where you become an adult. You get to see, do and learn things that you don't know about in high school. You meet new people everyday, people who may turn out to be life long friends.

"Even though I didn't live the normal college life most kids do, Ohio State is really more of a football school, which allowed me to be as normal as possible (that is until after the national championship game). I will always be grateful to Columbus, OH and every Buckeye for that. I dont know when, but I will get my degree and be apart of this Buckeye Nation. . . . I'm wanting to stay for every last minute and enjoy this because you can't get it back. I'm about to be put in a man's world, letting go of that kid in me is hard."

You think Oden gets it?

You talk to him in these weeks leading up to the draft, as I have been able to do a few times, and it's possible he's on course to have a bit of David Robinson's integrity, Grant Hill's intelligence and Shaq's charm and self-deprecation.

I'm not going to devote one negative word to Durant. There doesn't seem to be a thing this kid can't do . . . except be a 280-pound anchor down in the hole playing Goliath. If these kids are as good as they played in the NCAA tournament as freshmen, as good as the scouts think they are and as good as they present themselves, we could have something close to the effect of Bird and Magic coming into the NBA 28 years ago. No draft-night decision was involved in the selection of Bird and Magic; Red Auerbach had snookered Bird a year earlier in a draft steal that forced a change in draft eligibility rules.

This is head-to-head stuff: Durant the all-court phenom who is coming along at a time when Big Men are being de-emphasized, and Oden, that rare mastodon of a man who makes anybody who pays attention check the record and realize that size in the NBA always, always, always matters.

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