When the Portland Trail Blazers selected Greg Oden with the #1 pick in the 2007 draft, he was supposed to restore the franchise to their former glory days. Jubilant analysts predicted that he would bring a championship to Portland within three years. Fans literally danced in the streets of Portland, giddy with excitement – giddy, that is, until that September, when he underwent season-ending microfracture surgery on his right knee.
The rest is history. Oden missed all of his rookie season, 21 games of his sophomore season, and played 21 games this year before being sidelined with another devastating knee injury. He showed significant progress this year when he was playing, but hasn’t been the instant championship many predicted.
Blazers management have been optimistic, however. After all, there’s little reason to fret when you still have young talent like Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster…the list goes on and on. While it’s disappointing to see the franchise center out, the idea is to let him heal and focus on the future.
That’s all well and good, except for one snag: next year is a contract year.
Oden’s rookie deal expires at the end of next year, which means Blazers brass will have to sign him to another contract. Obviously, there’s no debate in their minds about signing him to another deal. While he’s missed a lot of games (two full seasons by the end of this one), he’s undoubtedly a big part of the future in Portland.
Here’s the real question, though: how much do you pay him?
Portland had a similar dilemma last summer. Roy and Aldridge were both coming off of their rookie deals, and management wanted to lock them up for the future. Roy, already a two-time All-Star, had certainly earned a max deal, the maximum allowed under the NBA collective bargaining agreement for someone with his amount of experience, or roughly $9 million per year.
Aldridge, however, was a bit dicier. By any measure, he had played well, and was certainly a pillar for the franchise. But was he worthy of a max deal? The two sides argued back and forth for some time, finally settling on an extended contract that was just short of the maximum.
But what to do with Oden? While the Blazers obviously want him to be part of the team’s future, the problem is that they have little idea what they can expect from him. His ceiling is through the roof. If he can stay healthy, he has the potential to be one of the best centers in the league.
If his knee fails to hold up, however, those echoes of “bust” will ring louder and louder.
A big part of the problem is that an NBA contract isn’t just about money. By any account, Oden is doing just fine financially. As a #1 draft pick, he earned just over $5 million a year. He’s hardly hurting for money at this point. But an NBA contract isn’t just about putting food on the table. It’s also about status. Whether it’s true or not, the highest-paid player is usually seen as the best player on the team.
Roy and Aldridge are now the highest-paid Trail Blazers, and by that measure, the best.
Should Oden be?
Financially, it’s risky to sign Oden to a long-term deal with his injury history. NBA contracts are guaranteed, so if Oden misses extended playing time, the Blazers are still on the hook for his contract. Management in Portland are keenly aware of that fact, as they’re still shelling out millions of dollars a year to former player Darius Miles.
One solution to the problem would be to sign Oden to a short-term, lower dollar amount contract. Fiscally speaking, that makes sense for the organization. The only problem is that it lumps Oden in with players like Fernandez, Outlaw, and Webster, status-wise.
Good, but not great, essentially.
That’s hardly the message the organization wants to send to Oden, but at the same time, they want to be sure their investment will pay off in the long run. A healthy Oden means title parades in Portland. An injured Oden probably means a lot of first-round playoff exits.
So what do you pay him?
Executives around the league would probably kill to have Portland’s problems, but this is one decision I’m sure they’re glad they don’t have to make.