Monday, September 27, 2010

Could Durant/Oden be the next Jordan/Bowie?

Who imagined this in June of 2007?

When 7-footer Greg Oden was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, there were few harsh critics. Sure, there were many basketball minds who thought Portland might have been smarter taking the skinny, bench-presses-like-a-ninth-grader Kevin Durant out of Texas. But there were no, "OH MY GOD. What are you thinking???" responses.

After all, Oden was destined to become a great player at a position where they just don't produce 'em like they used to. A great center. While Durant was super talented, on the other hand, 6-9 wings were about as abundant in '07 as Facebook users.

So the Blazers took Oden, the Supersonics-soon-to-be-Thunder took Durant, and both parties were pleased. In a perfect, happy world or 2004-draft-world-minus-Darko-Milicic that might be the case.

Sadly for the city of Portland, however, we're instead looking at, gasp, a Jordan-Bowie repeat.

Am I portending things to come? Absolutely. Could I be wrong? In some ways, possibly. But the facts and a set of basketball-watching eyes tell the story.

Let's start with the MJ in this equation...

Anyone who watched Durant dominate the World Championships this summer, leading a team of the NBA's B-listers to a convincing title, can't deny that he's en route to becoming the best player in the Association. Heck, he might even already be there. Better than LeBron. Better than D-Wade. And honestly, barring injury he's almost a shoe-in for MVP in 2010-11 now that the Miami Trio is official.

Durant is two days shy of his 22nd birthday. (Yes, that's not a typo.) When I was 22, I was learning the fine art of staying up all night writing history papers. He'll only get better, and better.

Jordan entered the league more mature and seasoned. After an injury-plagued second season, he put up 37.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists in his third campaign with the Bulls. In Durant's third season with burgeoning Oklahoma City, he averaged 30.1/7.6/2.8. So, no, not quite Jordan-esque numbers, but good enough to compare to the 10-time scoring champion.

As far as scoring, Durant is still learning the fine art of shot selection and isn't as selfish as M.J. -- especially young M.J. -- so he may never average as much as the five-time MVP, especially with explosive Russell Westbrook by his side. But I'm guessing he'll accumulate as many MVPs and we'll see about the titles.

Now to the Bowie part of the equation. Oden, undoubtedly, has plenty of talent and has shown glimpses of it during his first two seasons. But even when he's at his best, he doesn't have close to the impact on a game that Durant has. This is a guard/ballhandler's league, and Oden isn't doing any of that.

Mostly, sadly, he's been on the bench -- often in street cloths.

During Bowie's first two seasons, the 7-foot-1 center played 114 games (missing 48) and averaged around 11 points and 8.5 rebounds. After missing his entire rookie season, Oden has played 82 games (missing a full season's worth of action) over the past two years and averaged about 10 points and eight boards.

So Oden hasn't even been as good as Bowie. Can he be better, can he be consistently good? Yes, of course. But at this point, it's almost inevitable that Oden will not live up to his status as a No. 1 draft pick -- and this task is made all the more daunting by the production Durant is amassing.

Many basketball experts say there will never be another Michael Jordan. And there's a good chance they're right. So perhaps the Oden-Durant draft will never quite get the same attention as Jordan-Bowie did (and continues to receive through books). But to be able to write pretty definitively after three seasons about the opposite fortunes of the two speaks to just how disparate their NBA careers have been.

Of course, Portland never would have received so much backlash over the Bowie selection if Jordan hadn't gone on to win six titles for the Bulls while the Blazers haven't won a trophy since pre-ESPN. If Durant fails to lead the Thunder to championships in a stocked NBA and Portland does all right -- it's still a playoff team minus a healthy/great Oden -- this won't be a big deal.

I'm not predicting that, though. Durant has 10 great years left in the league, and the Thunder are assembling a behemoth. I foresee multiple titles for KD & Co.

Which will leave the entire Northwest -- don't forget about Seattle! -- feeling about as bitter as Cleveland.

Friday, September 10, 2010

For Wolverines, season's fortunes will depend on defense


Believe it or not, the shoelaces of Denard Robinson won't be the main determining factor when it comes to Michigan's wins and losses columns this season. Yeah, I know -- it's a tough sell. I don't think shoelaces have ever gotten as much attention during a week. In fact, write it in ink — no untied shoelaces have ever gotten more pub. Period.

And Robinson, and his shoelaces, looked pretty phenomenal last Saturday, as he pressed the turbo button and sped past hordes of helpless Connecticut defenders. But why did the Wolverines defeat the Huskies so handily, 30-10? Because of 11-plus young men in winged helmets who tied their shoelaces and pretty much shut down Connecticut.

Yes, the defense.

Last season, remember, the Wolverines were far from bad on offense. They were near the top of the Big Ten in all offensive categories, scored a ton of points and were fun to watch. But a combination of terrible defense and a horrible turnover ratio led to the collapse from a 4-0 start into a 5-7 season, officially making Rich Rodriguez's seat red hot.

Then the team's top two defenders, Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren, bolted for the NFL, starting cornerback Troy Woolfork busted his leg before the season, and things were looking extremely grim for an inexperienced, no-reason-to-be-confident, undersized defense learning a new 3-3-5 scheme from career unsuccessful coordinator Greg Robinson. Not good at all.

But in the new Big House Saturday, the defense looked OK, which could be enough to win seven or eight games — yes, Wolverines fans, an eight-victory campaign would be very good for this group.

Before you go serenading Michigan a Top 25 team, however (and that talk, really, is ridiculous after just a game), let's see how it handles Notre Dame's offense tomorrow and then, down the road, the Big Ten's top dogs. Let's not go anointing this team special as the national media did last year after a measly two wins, with a Sports Illustrated article and everything.

Lost in all the excitement of the season-opening blowout was the fact that Connecticut played really poorly. The Huskies dropped several balls, fumbled away the pigskin inside the Michigan 10-yard line and generally were out of sorts. The offense was far from sharp. So it's difficult to get a gauge of just how good, or bad, the Wolverines' D is.

The best word to characterize the performance — encouraging. If nothing else, the unit definitely has more confidence going into this weekend, which it will need against the Fighting Irish on the road.

There's no doubt Michigan has talent on the defensive side of the ball. Rodriguez's zealous recruiting hasn't suffered despite his 3- and 5-win seasons to begin his (maybe very short) career in Ann Arbor. There are several players who could quickly make names for themselves this season.

But at this point, be hesitant in giving these Wolverines too much credit. We all know Robinson is a mega talent, not to mention personality, who will probably do more of what he did Saturday the rest of the season (although things will get much more difficult as opposing coaches view film of him and come up with game plans hellbent on confusing him). The offense will be good, possibly very good.

It won't matter, however, unless the D is, well, fine, OK — just not bad.

Its first big test will come at South Bend. Shoelaces tied or not.