Let's rewind to 2007 for a second. To the surprise of many, the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Supersonics leapfrog worse teams to win the first and second picks of the 2007 NBA Draft. Their reward: two obvious franchise cornerstones. One is Kevin Durant, a silky-smooth scorer from Texas who potentially could become the best offensive player in the league. The other is Greg Oden, a dominant defensive force for Ohio State who completely altered games despite playing with essentially one healthy hand.
The two players were supposed to usher in a revival of one of the NBA's most under-appreciated regional rivalries. My, how things have changed in four and a half years. Durant's Sonics are now in Oklahoma City, where they are among the favorites to win the NBA championship. Oden's Blazers are merely struggling to stay afloat in a deep Western Conference, and Oden himself probably won't play in the NBA again after having his third microfracture surgery. The Thunder have become the darlings of the Western Conference, while their expected top rival has seen their rebuilding effort fall apart with a series of shattering knee ligaments.
In an alternate world somewhere, Oden and Brandon Roy stay healthy, and the Blazers keep battling the Thunder for Western Conference supremacy. With apologies to Blazers fans everywhere, let's take a trip into that alternate world and try to figure out which team would have the advantage in a playoff series.
POINT GUARD: Russell Westbrook vs. ????
Why the question mark for the Blazers' point guard? Because this was always a position in flux for them. When Oden was drafted in 2007, the incumbent was Steve Blake, who was signed in the offseason after being traded from the Blazers to the Nuggets. Blake's game, while not overly impressive, meshed pretty well with Roy. Roy often wanted to be the primary playmaker, and Blake was capable of playing off the ball, spotting up for jumpers. Blake eventually was replaced by Andre Miller, who was a poor fit with Roy, and Raymond Felton, who is currently shooting 23 percent on three-pointers.
It's safe to say neither Miller or Felton would have factored into Portland's long-term plans had Oden and Roy stayed healthy.
At the same time, Kevin Pritchard (who is still the Blazers' GM in this alternate universe) was always chasing an upgrade on the trade market. There were pipe-dream proposals to get Chris Paul, which probably would not have worked out in real life. It's more likely that Pritchard would have acquired someone like Devin Harris, who the team coveted as he was starting to put it together for the New Jersey Nets. The Harris we see today for the Utah Jazz is a far cry from what he was two years ago, but that decline could have also happened in Portland, given how much Roy wanted the ball in his hands.
In any event, we can assume that the Thunder would have the advantage at this position with Westbrook. However, it would have been interesting to see if Westbrook could have been effective driving to the basket against Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge. Westbrook would certainly be too physically overwhelming for Blake or even Harris, but the best way to stop a penetrating perimeter player is to seal off the rim with big men.
Could Oden have been mobile enough sliding his feet to cut off Westbrook, or would the Thunder take advantage of him in the pick and roll? It would have been interesting to see.
SHOOTING GUARD: Thabo Sefolosha/James Harden vs. Brandon Roy
A healthy Brandon Roy was a sight to behold. In 2009, Roy's best season, he averaged 21.5 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 57.3 percent. He was a high-usage scorer who was still incredibly efficient and was lethal late in games. Stopping him would have been a huge, huge challenge for the Thunder.
This is especially true given the Thunder's current makeup at the position. Sefolosha is the normal starter and defensive stopper, and as such, he would probably be the primary defender against Roy. But Sefolosha, even when healthy, is a complete self-check on offense, which is why he was playing only 21 minutes a game this year before getting hurt. Playing him late means the Thunder would essentially be playing four on five offensively.
More importantly, playing him late means not playing Harden, who has emerged as the league's finest young shooting guard with Roy retired. Harden's an essential late-game piece, bridging the talents of Westbrook and Durant and providing a third playmaker to keep defenders on their toes. But he's also not a great defender, and that's a problem considering he'd likely be asked to check Roy.
The Thunder could go small and play Kevin Durant at power forward, I suppose, but not against a Blazers team that can roll out Aldridge and Oden on the front line. Do you want Durant guarding Aldridge? I didn't think so.
Ultimately, it would be a tough call for Scott Brooks. My guess is he'd roll with Harden and just hope his team defense could slow down Roy. Tough proposition.
SMALL FORWARD: Kevin Durant vs. Nicolas Batum
Obviously, the Thunder have a huge advantage here, but the Blazers have defended Durant pretty well over the years. For his career, Durant is shooting just 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from three-point range in 18 games against Portland. Obviously, he's still been good, but the length of Batum, combined with Portland's team defense as a whole, has neutralized him to some degree. That effect would probably be even greater with a healthy Oden joining Aldridge protecting the rim.
As for the Blazers, it's interesting to wonder if Batum would develop the same way he has if Roy and Oden had stayed healthy. Batum has improved tremendously from where he was as a rookie starting for a 54-win playoff team, but he's also had some ups and downs as his role in the offense has changed. If Roy and Oden stayed healthy, Batum's role would be more defined, but he probably wouldn't have as many opportunities to show off his all-around game. It would have turned him into an elite role player, but would there be a time where he'd want more? Keep in mind that Batum would still be in a contract year in this alternate universe.
POWER FORWARD: Serge Ibaka vs. LaMarcus Aldridge
In many ways, Aldridge is the second-biggest unknown in this exercise behind Oden. Over the past year and a half, Aldridge has become the league's most underappreciated superstar, but would he have developed with Roy taking so many shots? On the current iteration of the Blazers, the vast majority of the team's possessions begin and/or end with Aldridge getting a touch in the post. When Aldridge played with Roy, though, he was mostly running pick and pop, and his numbers weren't nearly as impressive. Throw in Oden's presence, and the paint certainly wouldn't belong to Aldridge in the same way it does now.
In other words, while pairing the current Aldridge with the 2009 version of Roy and the version of Oden we all envisioned seems scary, there probably would have been some diminishing returns. It's more likely that Aldridge would have settled into something closer to the player he was before Roy's injury. That player was still pretty good, but also wasn't an All-Star.
Ibaka, on the other hand, continues to develop as a fearsome weakside shot blocker, but it would have been interesting to see if he could have consistently guarded Aldridge in isolation situations. One option could be to put Kendrick Perkins on Aldridge and Ibaka on Oden, but I have a feeling a healthy Oden would have dominated the offensive glass in that situation. This might have been a series where Nick Collison would have been used more extensively.
CENTER: Kendrick Perkins vs. Greg Oden
We have absolutely no idea what Oden would have become, but a look at some of the top centers in the league provides a clue. There are fewer classic post-up centers in the league now. Most of the best ones score on offensive rebounds and pick and rolls, while acting as the defensive anchors of their teams. Such a role probably would have suited a healthy Oden well, since he played like that at Ohio State.
The big question I'd have is mobility. Would Oden be quick-footed enough to defend and run pick and roll like, say, Tyson Chandler can? I think that's a bit of an open question. If I were a coach trying to attack the Blazers' defense in this alternate universe, I'd make Oden guard pick and roll instead of Aldridge.
For the Thunder, that means playing Collison at center over Perkins and using him as the screener to try to free Westbrook and Harden for drives to the basket. If Perkins plays instead, Oden can basically roam as a weakside shot blocker. If Collison is in, that becomes tougher.
In any event, I have no doubt that a healthy Oden could have shut down the paint effectively against most teams and lived offensively on offensive rebounds and putbacks. In this way, his game is very compatible with Aldridge's, which is what the Blazers had in mind when taking him first over Durant. His presence alone would have prevented the Thunder from going small with Durant at power forward, a lineup they'd surely try against most teams.
It's hard to say who would make up the Blazers' bench. It's safe to say the Blazers wouldn't have traded for Marcus Camby if Oden was healthy, and the same could be said for Wesley Matthews and Roy. The Gerald Wallace trade may have happened, but it would have been weird to mess with a good thing like that if everyone was healthy.
So who would be on the bench? The Blazers' 2008 supporting cast included names like Jarret Jack, Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, James Jones and Joel Przybilla, but how many of those guys would still be around in 2012? Keep in mind that Roy, Oden and Aldridge would all have near-max contracts, and the new CBA makes it trickier to go way over the luxury tax. My guess is the Blazers' bench would be kind of thin, given the top-heavy nature of the roster.
Oklahoma City, meanwhile, can bring Harden and Collison off the bench to counter the Blazers' starting lineup. Both players would pose matchup issues for Portland's second unit, and I have no doubt that the Thunder would dominate those portions of the game.
Nate McMillan and Scott Brooks both suffer from a similar kind of reputation. Both are seen as great regular-season coaches that get their teams well-prepared to play, but struggle to adjust on the fly and build intricate offensive systems to take advantage of their talent. A playoff series where the two would match wits would certainly expose one's weaknesses while making the other's seem insignificant.
In other words, it'd be a wash.
It would be an incredible series, no question about that, but I'd lean to the alternate universe Blazers if it ever happened. Consider: over the past three years, which is when the Thunder started to get good, the Blazers have split 10 games with Oklahoma City. That's with Oden injured and Roy a shell of himself. Portland's length bothers Oklahoma City's top perimeter threats even now, and that would certainly be even more pronounced with a healthy Oden protecting the basket.
Meanwhile, a healthy Roy would have either torched Harden or forced the Thunder to play Sefolosha and leave Harden on the bench.
Let's say, Blazers in 6. Sorry, Blazers fans. I feel for all you here.