As much as we love basketball for its high-scoring and freakishly athletic nature, it is undeniable that NBA history is brimming with examples of players whose unparalleled athleticism and skill just didn’t quite pan out in the pro’s. These individuals may have been primed for success at the NBA level, but their career statistics are often considerably underwhelming.
Drafted as the number one overall pick in 2007 by the Portland Trailblazers, legitimate seven-footer Greg Oden was expected to be the next great generational center, following in the footsteps of Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Moses, Shaq, Robinson, etc. Oden had the physical tools to do everything you could ask for from a center: score in the post, defend the basket, rebound the ball.
Oden’s skills and talent were on full display during his sole collegiate season at Ohio State when he and high school teammate Mike Conley Jr. led the Buckeyes to the National Championship where they eventually lost to the back-to-back champion Florida Gators (led by Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, and Al Horford). Before the draft, Portland’s decision came down to Oden versus Texas freshman forward Kevin Durant – and the Blazers ultimately took the center to plug the middle, a responsibility once entrusted to Bill Walton and Sam Bowie….
As fate would have it, Oden followed in Walton and Bowie’s footsteps, though not in the way he would have liked. Micro-fracture surgery on his right knee kept him from playing his entire rookie season. He would play sporadically in 2008-09, often giving glimpses of his talent, but injuries plagued him throughout his first six years in the league, and Oden was eventually waived by Portland in 2012.
For the 2013-14 season, Oden briefly returned to action as a member of the back-to-back champion Miami Heat, but his career revival was short-lived. After a single season abroad in China in 2015-16, Greg finally announced that his basketball career was over, not having come close to living up to expectations.
Earlier this year, Oden was quoted as telling ESPN that he will be remembered as “the biggest bust in NBA history.” While his career statistics certainly don’t live up to the massive expectations, we can comb the annals of NBA history to find several other players drafted number one overall that were arguably bigger busts.
Before we explore these other players’ circumstances, we need to first define and narrow our definition of a bust. After all, anyone could be labeled a bust if they were drafted into the league (in any pick) and failed to contribute in a meaningful way.
For the purposes of this analysis, I will restrict my search to players selected number one overall, because the expectations are exponentially greater for a player of such talent and reputation. A player selected second overall, while still expected to contribute to his team, doesn’t carry the same stigma if he fails in the pursuit of greatness. Moreover, it is far more common for a player selected second overall to wind up under-performing than it is for a player selected first overall.
As for the actual definition of a bust, I am looking for players that (a) were never selected to an All-Star team during their career, (b) never established a niche as a regular starter – due to either serving as a journeyman or a lack of functional talent, or (c) failed to make a meaningful positive impact on their team and league as a whole.
Furthermore, my analysis will focus solely on four specific categories or statistical values: average career Player Efficiency Rating (PER), total career Win Shares (WS), career Box Plus-Minus (BPM), and number of seasons played. The following table represents all of this data, in addition to the season each player was drafted number one overall:
As you can see, these (mostly) advanced statistics paint a very different picture from what Mr. Oden claims, since his statistical averages are considerably better than other players drafted number one overall that never made an All-Star team. My search precludes anyone drafted before the year 1972, but there are already 10 other players in NBA history who performed worse over a longer period of time.
The biggest issue that arises when you compare all of these players is clearly the number of seasons that each played during his career. Some players like Joe Smith and John Lucas were able to enjoy extended careers while playing modestly average basketball. On the other hand, Greg Oden’s injuries kept him from playing any longer than three seasons.
During those three seasons, however, Oden’s performance on the court is reasonably impressive given his PER and BPM. He didn’t play enough seasons to really contribute in terms of Win Shares, but his 7.3 total Win Shares are still higher than Michael Olowokandi’s 2.5, and the Kandi Man played three times as many seasons as Oden did.
If you’re going to label Oden as a bust, it can only be for the reason that injuries hampered and limited him to only three seasons. His performance on the court was anything but subpar, and while he never played long enough to garner attention as an All-Star, he certainly was far from the worst NBA player of this bunch.
As it stands, I think anyone in their right mind would rather have three mediocre seasons of Greg Oden than to have to work with the likes of Anthony Bennett or Kwame Brown, and we certainly know how Stephen A. Smith feels about the latter…