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Big man needs a little support

- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

The Trail Blazers made the safe choice in selecting Greg Oden with the No. 1 pick of the NBA Draft last night.

That allowed the Sonics to take Kevin Durant with the next pick and possibly wind up with a player who will be more dominant than Oden.

With Durant, it is fairly simple. A coach can hand him the ball near the end of a game and order everyone else to get the heck out of his way.

Durant won't be able to handle that responsibility as a rookie, but he certainly has the perimeter skill to become that kind of player.

No matter how proficient Oden becomes — and he has been compared to Patrick Ewing — he always will be a player dependent on others to get him the ball.

He always will be vulnerable to defenses that elect to take the ball out of his hands. That is no fault of Oden's. That merely is the way it is for back-to-the-basket centers, a dying species no doubt because of the way the game has evolved.

Durant reflects that evolution. He is a 6-foot-9 off guard, in effect. He can shoot off the dribble or get to the basket. His arms are said to be abnormally long, which means his shot is almost indefensible.

He either is going to make a shot or miss it on the basis of statistical probability and not because of the tenacious work of a defender.

The NBA's most dominant players of the last 25 years — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — were large men with impeccable perimeter skills.

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are in that vein today, although James still needs to perfect a more consistent perimeter shot.

Most of the multiple championship teams of the last 25 years touted a dominant perimeter player, whether Magic, Bird, Jordan, Isiah Thomas or Bryant.

The notable exception in that string was Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets, who won two titles while Jordan was flailing away at curve balls.

Clyde Drexler joined Olajuwon on the Rockets' second title run, but it still remained a team built around a center whose foot work embarrassed so many.

Oden is a connect-the-dots sort who never strays far from the basket on offense. His post moves are somewhat unrefined.

Oden's principal value at this stage of his development is on defense. That is not unlike Ewing at a similar stage. Ewing eventually developed a consistent outside shot and, in fact, morphed into more of an offensive center than a defensive one with the Knicks of the '90s.

Ewing had a superb career but a ring-less one. To the end, he was a dependent player whose fortunes could be subverted by John Starks shooting 2-for-18 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 1994.

If the Trail Blazers truly wanted what was potentially the biggest bang with their No. 1 pick, their choice should have been Durant.

The risk was that the Trail Blazers brain trust could have ended up looking mighty foolish years from now if Durant ends up being nothing more than Glenn Robinson.

The big/small quandary is forever a challenge to personnel gurus.

Big guys are always the safer picks. Who can fault those who come down on the side of size unless it is Sam Bowie being taken ahead of Jordan? Funny. No one thought it was a wrongheaded move at the time.

Yet highly skilled perimeter players with size offer the biggest pay-out to a franchise, especially in a league that has outlawed the bump-and-grind defenses of the '90s.

Even Shaquille O'Neal, as overpowering as he has been, had three exceptional perimeter players at his side in six trips to the NBA Finals: Anfernee Hardaway, Bryant and Dwyane Wade.

Jordan managed to win titles with severely limited Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley at center.

No top-level center could win a championship with severely limited guards.