Commentary

Oden, Blazers must avoid perils of a premature comeback

Originally Published: September 13, 2007
By Kiki Vandeweghe | ESPN.com

Having been an NBA general manager, I can tell you that the news that Portland's Greg Oden will miss the season with a knee injury is devastating for the Trail Blazers. Let's be honest: It's very difficult news to hear if you're with that team, or a fan of the team, and you're going to see and read a lot of doom and gloom about the Blazers and their future.

I was a member of the Blazers when we drafted Sam Bowie over a guy named Michael Jordan -- just like the Blazers drafted Oden over Kevin Durant. You'll get the obvious comparisons, especially with Durant right up the road there in Seattle. Durant is going to have a terrific year for the Sonics -- he's an exceptional athlete -- and when you're the Blazers and know that and you now know that Oden is going to be out the whole year, that's a very tough situation. There's a temptation to be emotional, even despondent.

But when you step back and analyze this, it's important to note the following:

European Reaction To Oden News

Sergio Rodriguez heard the news about Greg Oden, but didn't want to believe it. Out for the season? The entire season?

Rodriguez wanted to hear that news from the Trail Blazers themselves, which is why he planned to place phone calls to Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard and some of his Trail Blazers teammates as soon as he exited the Madrid Sports Palace, where he had played just eight minutes in Spain's 83-55 rout of Germany in the EuroBasket quarterfinals.

"I'm going to call now, then worry about that. But I don't know, I can't talk now," said Rodriguez, who had hoped to be lobbing alley-oop passes to the 7-foot Oden for the next seven months.

Now, he'll have to wait another year.

"Wow, that's bad news," Germany's Dirk Nowitzki said upon learning of Oden's setback. "I mean, I think he would be good for the league, and anytime a player gets hurt it's tough. He's going to be a good prospect for this league, and it's sad to hear."

The news of Oden's surgery traveled around the world relatively quickly, but it didn't reach the ears of Spain's Rudy Fernandez until ESPN.com let him know about it in the hallway leading to the players' locker room at Madrid's Palace Arena.

Fernandez's eyes shot wide open when he heard.

"Really? Greg Oden is a really good player. I look forward to playing with him one year from now," said Fernandez, whose rights were traded from Phoenix to Portland on draft night in late June. He plans to play one more year in Spain before going to the NBA, and now it appears Fernandez will be a rookie in Portland the same season in which Oden is a rookie in Portland.

The injury also means Fernandez and the rest of the Spanish team will have no chance of seeing Oden in Beijing next summer. Not that it was likely, but there was an outside chance, given his age and his size, that Oden could have been added to Team USA's roster for next summer's Olympics. Now, in addition to likely not being able to wear a Portland jersey until the fall of 2008, Oden won't get to wear a Team USA jersey for at least another three years.

-- Chris Sheridan in Madrid

Research First of all, this is not the Trail Blazers' fault. They did all of their research on this young man, and these injuries develop. It happens in pro sports. This was not expected.

Look, you never want a star player to miss a minute of playing time, and it will be tough on both the Blazers and for Oden to have him sidelined for the year. But this is not a cursed organization, even when you look back on what has happened with injuries to Bill Walton, Bowie and Oden. Just coincidences. The Blazers did their homework.

You do as much research on a player as you can. Does Oden have some history of injuries? Well, with his wrist, the back and now the knee, yes. But it's my understanding that the Blazers did a full MRI on Oden in advance and there was no obvious concerns.

Of course, I understand how the second-guessing happens. When Bowie went down, after being the second pick in the 1984 draft over Jordan, it was devastating for the Blazers. We had a stacked team that season -- me, Clyde Drexler, Jim Paxson, Mychal Thompson, Sam -- we were loaded. We were blowing teams out by 20 points a game. We had every position covered, we matched up well with the Lakers, who were the powers in the West, and we thought we were ready for a championship run.

And then … Sam went down, and it sucked the life out of our team. But none of that means that the Blazers made a mistake in selecting Oden. They made the right decision for their franchise and all signs point to the fact he'll be a mainstay for the future.

Reaction

These Blazers are not planning a championship run. They are a rebuilding team, and Kevin Pritchard has done it the right way as GM -- he's bringing in young, talented guys to build around, including Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and of course, Oden. This was not going to be a banner year for this team, even if Oden played all 82 games.

As a rookie, Oden was going to spend this season getting beat up -- he's only played one season of college basketball -- and this will allow his body a chance to mature and he'll be able to get bigger, stronger, watch the game and grow within the organization. You want him to work on the offensive skills he will need to help this team one day make the Blazers a truly championship-caliber team. He's got to capitalize on that.

This gives other players a chance to expand their roles. Aldridge is going to be the focal point down low, Roy is a tremendous player, and those guys have to grow from this, too. Everybody on that team has to circle around this and keep moving in the right direction.

You don't mortgage your future at this point to bring in another big man. You can't panic. You have to take deep breath on this one. The Blazer fans are great fans -- I know, because I played there for four years -- and they are going to support the team. Because of the issues they've faced on and off the court in the last 10 years, the fans want to turn the page, and they have to remember that Oden is still the future of the franchise.

As a GM, you have to be very positive. You are looked to be the leader of this team, along with the head coach, and you have to turn this into an opportunity for other players. Of course, this does not look good at the onset. But if you use it as a rallying point and give those eager young players a chance to compete and improve, you can overcome this.

Recovery

Kiki Vandeweghe
Mike Powell /Getty Images Kiki was on an earlier Blazers team that lost a promising big man to injury.
There are three really critical pieces when it comes to rebounding from microsurgery:

• The first is age. There is no doubt that younger players are going to recover faster and more completely than older players. There's only been one big player who has ever recovered completely from microfracture -- Amare Stoudemire of the Phoenix Suns.

I was with Denver when Kenyon Martin had microfracture surgery after the 2004-'05 season, and he ended up having the surgery on both knees -- the only player to have that happen. I spoke to Kenyon two weeks ago and he's been cleared to play this whole year -- I hope he's the next big man to make that complete return, but age makes that difficult.

• Second, the question is, how big is the microfracture? How big is that spot? (The microfracture procedure is meant to spur new cartilage. Tiny holes are created in the bone, forming healing cells and potentially new cartilage, the fibrous cushion that keeps bone from rubbing against bone in joints). If the size of the hole is more than a centimeter or so, you're in big trouble.

• Third, it depends on the location of the microfracture surgery. If it's on the side, not in a weight-bearing spot, then it's much better in terms of recovery. That was the case for Stoudemire. If it's in a weight-bearing location, then that could spell trouble.

Those will be important factors for the Blazers as they evaluate how to react to Oden's return. By all accounts, the spot was small and it was a clean surgery, so that is all encouraging. There's certainly optimism that he's going to make a full recovery.

So the key here is not to rush him back. You have to give this young man as much time as possible to recover. If I'm the Trail Blazers, there's no way I'm going to take a chance with him and bring him back at any point in this season. The players always want to be on the court and there's been great hype about Oden in Portland -- they threw him a parade -- but you have to resist the temptation to accelerate his return.

I refer back to Martin when we were in Denver. He was on his way to recovery, about six months after the surgery, and all of a sudden Nene tears his knee apart and we're all saying, "We don't have a power forward, what are we going to do?" Kenyon is a warrior, and he decides he's going to step up because his team needs him. And you know what? He wasn't ready. Related or not, he ended up having a second microfracture surgery on the other knee last season.

I have to take some responsibility for that. As the GM, I should not have let him play as many minutes as he did when he came back. We were too anxious, and we didn't know enough about this surgery. Remember, the microfracture surgery was developed first for older people who, obviously, are not as big as professional basketball players or running around and jumping up and down the basketball court. So you must be cautious.

As the Blazers, you have to take a long-term view of this. This is not an average player in an average role, and not even just another star. This is the future of the franchise, and there's no way you rush him back. You have to understand that he's going to be with you many, many years, and you cannot sacrifice that future just to get him back sooner.

ESPN analyst Kiki Vandeweghe, the former Denver Nuggets GM, averaged 19.7 ppg in 13 NBA seasons (1980-93).

ESPN analyst Kiki Vandeweghe, who was the Nuggets GM for five years, played 13 NBA seasons averaging 19.7 ppg for four teams from 1981-1993.