Keep Oden on the bench

Greg Oden is best suited at this stage coming off the bench for the Trail Blazers. There has been much talk on the Oregon Live website about what Nate McMillan will do with his centre pairing of Oden and Joel Przybilla, but as far as I see it, Oden benefits the Blazers most in his role joining the second unit.

There are various facets to this argument. Firstly, let’s gaze at the statistics. A comparison of the big man’s per-48-minute numbers reveal an improved level of play off the bench:

Greg Oden Avg Min Reb/48 Ast/48 Stl/48 Blk/48 TO/48 PF/48 Pts/48
Starter 23.3 15.0 1.3 1.0 2.1 3.2 8.0 18.0
Bench 18.0 18.1 1.1 1.0 4.4 3.6 10.9 24.8

What sticks out when you look at these numbers?

  • The big guy scores, rebounds and blocks like a demon when coming off the bench.
  • Fouls and turnovers are more forthcoming as well.
  • He tends to average more minutes as a starter.

How can we explain these numbers?

It’s well documented that Oden has felt an onus of responsibility on his shoulders, coming into this season with all of the expectations attached to him, in addition to a feeling of guilt that he let the team down by missing all of last season. Whilst those feelings on his part are totally unfounded, all the same, they apply undue pressure to the big man. Coming into the game as a starter probably adds to those jitters and pressure, slowing his performance early in games. Being a benchie likely breaks that ice a little.

Another thing worth remembering is that he is a rookie, unfamiliar with the playing styles of most of his opponents. Time to absorb the game from the bench before being injected would give him a chance to mentally prepare himself for the tempo of the game, improving his timing on blocks and rebounds.

Being part of the second unit likely also increases his touches, leading to more scoring opportunities. The starting lineup, alongside Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, would place him in more of a complementary role.

The second unit generally plays at a higher pace (I don’t have statistical evidence to support this to hand, but I’m almost certain that it is the case) with Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw keying a faster pace. This pace inevitably leads to more points, rebounds and possessions in general. It also means that it may lead to more turnovers and fouls for the big man.

This increased foul count likely explains his reduced minutes in a bench capacity — 10.9 fouls per 48 minutes is going to take anyone out of a game. The referees will do that to you…

Importantly, playing in the second unit often means that Oden will be facing inferior (smaller and/or slower) opponents. Dunking on most bench centres in the NBA is child’s play for a manchild of his ridiculous physical talents. This was brought up in Jason Quick’s discussion:

“It puts a lot of pressure on the opponent knowing they have to matchup with Greg on the second unit,” McMillan said. “It’s one thing to have your starting center against him, but it’s another thing when you have to think about getting your starting center back in early when Greg’s in there.”

This is where we come to the second part of the argument. McMillan has always wanted Oden to be a starter from the get-go, with a view not to winning this year, but to developing a team that will win titles in the medium-term. It makes sense to try and develop Oden as much as possible and to get his top-flight teammates used to his play as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the injuries that Oden has gone through, coupled with his tendency to be disheartened by failure mean that he is not ready for the burden of being a starter — particularly on a team that is garnering a lot of attention due to its earlier than expected success.

There is one man who should not be forgotten in all of this: Joel Przybilla. Portland has the luxury of arguably the greatest centre tandem in the league. Przybilla is having an epic season, stopping everyone who even thinks about entering the paint, with his Vanilla Gorilla-like ways. The very presence of him generally allows other Portland defenders to stray away from their positions near the paint and gamble and offensive players are quite often fearful of putting up a shot when Joel is nearby in the paint — just watch the next time a player drives on the basket. It’s comical to watch.

Przybilla is perfectly suited to the starting lineup as he matches up well on the big names of the league, with his veteran savvy and unselfishness. He is more than happy to let Roy and Aldridge do the scoring, whilst he does the dirty work. Unlike Oden, he has learnt how to moderately keep his fouls in check too.

Oden’s time to be a starter is just around the corner, but I don’t think we should see that until October 2009.