Portland Trail Blazers, Greg Oden: Getting a Leg Up on Next Year

Drew BartonAnalyst IMarch 13, 2008

It took about 37.2 seconds for the news to flash across Portland.

"Hey, did you hear? Greg Oden practiced with the team yesterday! Now, on a less important note, the governor of New York resigned when allegations surfaced..."

In truth, it took at least another 15 minutes to get to the thing about the New York governor. Next to Oden practicing, it just was not that important.

The excitement felt over Oden's playing was enough to get tongues wagging during some serious water cooler time.

The elation was palpable and it was generated by a mere half-speed 45-minute practice.  This is part of what has become a dangerous trend for the Blazer franchise.

From the moment the lucky ping-pong ball awarded Portland the top pick in the draft, "Blazer-mania" has been rebuilding as the frenetic, passionate, wild thing it was back in the late '70s.  That's when the Big Redhead Bill Walton was leading the franchise to its first and only championship.

And now people have simply gone nuts for Oden.

At least once during every home game this season, the scenario plays out. A tremendous cheer rises, building up, becoming louder and louder until everyone looks at the screen hanging high over the Rose Garden floor to see Oden.

Every time Oden finally looks up to see the cause of the cheering and notices that it's him, shown sitting on the bench.  In response, he dons that sly, shy little smile.

Portland fans have consistently cheered nearly as loud, or perhaps even louder, for an injured rookie who has yet to play a minute in the NBA as they have for anyone else. Even the immensely popular "Reigning Rookie of the Year and Western Conference All-Star Brandon Roy" does not get that kind of reception.

In other words, Greg Oden has been treated as a virtually guaranteed championship for Portland since before he was even drafted.

His physical status has been front page news in Portland, ahead of events of genuine world importance. Even for someone as humble and likable as Oden, that is an unreasonable amount of pressure.

The pressure to perform and to raise the franchise to playoff success is coming at Oden from all sides: the fans, the front office, and the rookie himself. Because of this, accelerating the pace of recovery and trying to do too much too soon is a distinct possibility.

But micro-fracture surgery is still a risky, touchy surgery, and Oden needs to take the time to deal with it properly.

Any attempt to do otherwise—Oden pushing himself too far, or the Blazers either encouraging him or just failing to prevent that over-working—is a dangerous thing.

Throughout the recovery process Oden has shown he is willing and anxious to work. His team-oriented attitude is ironically part of what makes this an extremely precarious time.

The sheer amount of muscle he put on by working out his arms and chest while waiting for his leg to heal illustrates his work ethic and desire to return to the court.

Magnify that with the delayed expectations of thousands of Blazers fans and you have a potentially combustible situation.

Fortunately, the team has exercised caution and restraint up to this point. When they saw how much he had bulked up, they recommended that he lighten up on the weights. They have publicly stated that under no circumstances would he be allowed to play this season.

However, the team's stance could be threatened by the unexpected success it has experienced.

This season has been exciting for the Blazers, who have achieved an unexpected above .500 record without Oden.

The success of other players has sufficed so far to carry the team. LaMarcus Aldridge has nearly doubled his points and rebounds. Travis Outlaw has emerged as an explosive scorer and a tenacious, if inconsistent, defender. Roy has continued to develop as a do-everything point forward.

There is no need to mortgage the future of either Oden or the franchise to chase the impossible dream.

As Oden is able to practice longer and longer and looks better and better, the temptation will be there. The Blazers have fallen into that gray area, tantalizingly close to a playoff spot, but not quite there.

The six or seven-game deficit they have faced for a while now does not seem insurmountable, especially if you look at their surprising record and their relatively benign schedule for the foreseeable future.

It would be easy to argue that a fresh Oden could provide the rebounding and front-court scoring that have been sorely lacking throughout the Blazers' season.

With him, Portland could squeeze into the playoffs. Failing that, people might argue, Oden would at least gain valuable experience for next season.

But even if they did make the playoffs in that manner, it would be a huge mistake. The risk of re-injuring the leg is too great.

Another danger is less obvious, but no less important.

The current incarnation of the Blazers has done something special. They have already exceeded the number of wins most prognosticators pegged them to achieve this season and still have 19 games left.

They have done that after absorbing the devastating psychological blows of losing Oden in preseason and then blowing a 25-point third quarter lead against a struggling Philadelphia team early in the season.

But somehow this team pulled together, developed great chemistry, and the whole became more valuable than the sum of its parts to win and win and win some more. Long-losing streaks in Utah and Denver fell by the wayside.

The relationship developed by the young players has been very special.

Though they all seem to get along with Oden, the chemistry of a young team can be a fragile thing. Add Oden to the equation and you risk stunting the growths of Aldridge and Outlaw or of causing dissatisfaction as changing roles mean disappearing minutes for players who have been contributors all season long.

As exciting as the prospect of seeing Oden in action in a real NBA game might be, the Blazers and Oden are best served by taking their time, bringing him along slowly, and waiting for next season.

Then, the playoffs will be a realistic expectation, not a pipe dream as they are this year (barring an unforeseen free fall by multiple teams that, frankly, are better and more deserving of the playoffs).

It is definitely exciting to see Oden practicing rather than sitting on the bench and working on his "GOhawk" (Greg Oden Mohawk). But the rest of this season needs to be more of the same.

Patience is a virtue, and hopefully the Portland fans and franchise recognize this.


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