Friday, June 22, 2007
Oden vs. Durant: Showdown I
By Bill Simmons
Editor's note: This column appears in the June 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The three defining debates of 2007:
1. Did Tony Soprano die?
2. Jessica Biel or Scarlett Johansson?
3. Greg Oden or Kevin Durant?
Only David Chase can settle the first one. Only Justin Timberlake can settle the second. But the third one? That's why I'm here. With Portland on the clock, let's break this baby down once and for all.
To be a superstar, your name needs to resonate like a superstar's. "Shawn Bradley" sounds like someone dying to get dunked on. "Nikoloz Tskitishvili" sounds like a tropical disease. "Ricky Davis" sounds like someone who would shoot at the wrong basket just so he could grab the rebound and fill in a triple-double. But "Greg Oden" and "Kevin Durant"? Not to be too Jack Horner, but those are some great names. I'm giving Durant the nod because his name would fit the lead character in any Omar Epps sports movie from 1993 to 2005.
Any budding franchise player should make you yelp every once in a while, like when Oden ripped away Corey Brewer's dunk in the NCAA title game. Durant had a ton of those moments last season, most notably his 25-point first-half barrage at Kansas, highlighted by his swishing a 27-footer and prancing in front of the stunned Jayhawks crowd. He wasn't showing off; it was more like he was saying, "This is awesome. I'm doing this in a famous gym on national TV!" Durant has that rare MJ/Kobe gene that allows him to catch fire like an NBA Jam character and make you think, Hey, he might spring for 50. Should I alert my friends?
Oden dominates here because everyone on the planet, and even on some other planets, has
already made the "How old is the guy?" joke. It's this decade's "Why did the characters on Gilligan's Island bring so many suitcases on a three-hour tour?" or "Does O.J. really expect to find the killers on a golf course?"
BIG EDGE: Oden
Maybe he's not as playful as Shaq, but Oden has been impressively glib over the past few weeks. He's the kind of guy who greets a room of reporters with, "What a fine-looking group of gentlemen," and he good-naturedly remembers the time a fan taunted him by asking, "Hey, what was World War II like?" He's one of the five funniest guys in the NBA, and he hasn't played a game yet. It's a stark contrast to Durant, who still comes off as uncomfortable around reporters. Then again, he's only 18, and Oden is between 29 and 45.
BIG EDGE: Oden
Oden has four moves: lefty jump hook, righty jump hook, fallaway J, dunk. Period. Durant has those and seven others: Kevin McHale's up-and-under; a running righty scoop; a crossover in which he slithers left, extends his arms and shoots that scooper; a peculiar one in which he lurches right, absorbs contact, then leans into the defender as he takes a line-drive jumper ("And one!"); a stop-and-pop to rival Mike Miller's finest; an unblockable catch-and-release jumper off picks; and a falling-out-of-bounds fadeaway from the Hakeem Olajuwon collection. He's also a gifted passer. Aside from that, he could use some work.
BIG EDGE: Durant
Oden will be a superior rebounder and shotblocker on par with the likes of Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, the Georgetown-era Patrick Ewing and the Teen Wolf wolf. He's a game-changer. Durant can't compare, obviously, but he does grab his share of boards (he was fourth in the nation last season) and protects the rim surprisingly well for someone who is skinnier than Kate Bosworth.
BIG EDGE: Oden
For Oden, it's world-class athletic ability that ranks with Hakeem's, David Robinson's and that of every other guard trapped in a center's body. For Durant, it's his decisionmaking -- not the decisions themselves but how quickly he makes them. He never hesitates, not even for a split second, which is why he'll be a better NBA player sooner than people think. Hard to choose here.
Oden leads by example, but Durant leads with the kind of passion that makes it impossible to believe he was a freshman last winter. Too bad he played for a Texas team that didn't run plays, didn't care about making stops and was coached by a guy who plays checkers when everyone else plays chess.
IMPRESSION MADE AT NBA WORKOUTS
After gutting out the season with a bum wrist, Oden, now healed, blew away everyone at the pseudo combines, moving some to throw around the word "freak." (I love that word. Who can forget Chad Ford's describing Rajon Rondo's hands as "freakish" so often last year that I expected Rondo to show up at the draft dressed like Freddy Krueger?) Now we hear Durant couldn't bench 185, fueling predictions that he'll drop from the top two. C'mon, do you think Bird or Magic could have lifted that weight out of college? If this is your reason for passing on a potential 40-point scorer, God help you.
COMPARISON TO NBA PLAYER
Worst-case scenario, Oden is the next Zo, averaging a 20/10, defending the rim, spearheading some 50-win seasons and, we can only hope, starting a brawl that leads to a Van Gundy brother hanging on his leg. Best case, he's a cross between Tim Duncan and Hakeem, an über-athletic big who can wreck foes in a variety of ways. Most plausible scenario, he's Ewing: a perennial All-Star who is not quite good enough to win a title by himself.
I see Durant's worst case as a lankier, more benign Glenn Robinson. But I can't picture his best case or most plausible scenario, because there has never been anyone like him before. A 6'9" shooting guard with a 7'5" wingspan? And he's still growing? I see pieces of different players -- KG's body, Bob McAdoo's scoring, MJ's competitiveness, T-Mac's ability to attack the rim with either hand, Hakeem's fallaway, C-Webb's passing. But add it up and you get an original. Durant is the first iPod, or the plane the Wright brothers built.
Thankfully, there will be no T-Mac-ing either guy; not even Linda Cohn would be okay with G-Ode or K-Dur. Still, I don't see Oden ending up with a better alternative. He's trapped in that vaguely bland Sampras/Duncan/Ewing zone, where it makes the most sense to call him Greg. There is Robert Parish's nickname, The Chief, because Oden is similarly stoic and regal, but I'm morally opposed to recycled nicknames. I believe LaDainian Tomlinson should do time for stealing LT from LT. Plus, others might be morally opposed on PC grounds. So The Chief is out, and Greg it is.
Meanwhile, despite some recent KD momentum -- color me lukewarm -- Durant is a natural for a supercool alias. Not something forced like King James, either. I nominate Plastic Man, after the cartoon superhero who always had a smoking-hot girlfriend (for obvious reasons). We never should have wasted such a great nickname on Stacey Augmon. I'm calling a mulligan.
With a bunch of homemade highlight reels, Durant is already a YouTube icon. My favorite is "Kevin Durant Apocalypse." Oden's videos, on the other hand, have titles like "Greg Oden" and "Oden Highlights." Then again, he's been blogging about his postcollege life at yardbarker.com, while Durant hasn't yet taken the Internet plunge. So until someone settles this with a leaked sex tape, I'm calling it a draw.
Nobody likes to root for big guys -- hell, it took us 14 years and a feud with Kobe to warm to Shaq. But someone with Durant's boyish good looks and fan-friendly skills? Piece of cake. If sponsors were smart, they'd build a campaign around both these guys (along the lines of Bird and MJ for McDonald's, or Barkley and Wade for T-Mobile). If they're fighting for the last bite of a Whopper six months from now, blame me.
Like Michael Myers, Oden never changes expression, flips out or overreacts; only his heavy breathing gives him away. But would guys be afraid of letting him down the way teammates once were of Bird, Magic, Isiah and MJ? Probably not. Because unlike Michael Myers, Oden is no killer. He admits as much, confessing to wanting to be a dentist and settling on hoops only because of his size. But Durant is wired like Bird and the rest. He's cold-blooded, living to silence hostile crowds. You get the feeling that Oden's life will revolve around many different things over the next 15 years; Durant's will be all about basketball.
TREMENDOUS UPSIDE POTENTIAL
What Hubie Brown has created and I have shortened (TUP), Oden has rendered irrelevant. Everyone already expects him to be a franchise center. But Durant ... I mean, when a guy is described as an MJ/KG/T-Mac hybrid and it seems reasonable, that says something. We have a fair idea where Oden's career is headed; we have no clue where Durant's will take him. The ceiling has been lifted. It's what makes Durant more seductive than Oden -- NBA teams love to think about what players could do instead of what they will do. Durant is the ultimate TUP guy.
TREMENDOUS DOWNSIDE POTENTIAL
Okay, so I just came up with this concept three seconds ago. Here's the idea: You'd bet your life that, barring injury, Oden will be a valuable center on a perennial contender. Would you bet it all on Durant's becoming a valuable forward on a perennial contender? I would, but you just hesitated for a split second. So ...
SLIGHT EDGE: Oden
Face it: No GM has the testicular fortitude to pass up a potential superstar center, not even for someone as potentially game-changing as Durant. If you want to compete from now until 2020, take Oden. Simple. But as soon as the Blazers pass on Durant, he will instantly be more dangerous. Because from that moment on, he'll be playing with a chip on his shoulder. As Karl Malone, Gilbert Arenas, Carlos Boozer and others have taught us, a draft slight is a scary thing: It's a contract-year push that never ends. Each season, you want to stick it to everyone who didn't believe in you all over again. (Note: The term for this phenomenon is "anti-Darkoism.") So the Sonics might one day look as if they were the ones who caught the break on May 22. I just don't know.
But you know who might? David Chase. Let's ask him what he thinks. David? Um ... David?
[Fade to black. Long hold on blank screen. Roll closing credits.]
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.