What If: Kevin Durant as a Portland Trail Blazer

Editor’s Note: This might be the first in a recurring series (if I can get it together) known as What If Wednesdays where I explore alternate sports and entertainment history. If you like the concept or have one you would like me to consider, holla in the comments. 

The worst draft pick, in any sport, in any time period, at any level of play, was the Portland Trail Blazers taking Sam Bowie at No. 2 overall of the 1984 NBA Draft. It’s not even close.

You could maybe (MAYBE) try to argue for the Chargers taking Ryan Leaf at No. 2 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft, but the reason they made that selection was because the Colts took Peyton Manning at No. 1 and left them no other choice. The Blazers in 1984 had Michael Jordan available, and chose Bowie anyway.

That’s what makes it so bad. The Blazers chose an injury-prone center who averaged 34 games a year in his four seasons with them over the most revered and influential basketball player ever.

Nic Batum keeps wondering why he has to guard Kevin Durant four times a year.

Nic Batum keeps wondering why he has to guard Kevin Durant four times a year.

What’s got to be a kick in the nuts for Blazer fans is that the same sort of story is being written all-over again with every 35-8-7 line that Kevin Durant puts up for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Blazers opted for another injury-prone big man when they took Greg Oden No. 1 in the 2007 NBA Draft over Durant and now the Thunder are perennial title contenders while the Blazers are only just now starting to work themselves back into relevance thanks to the play of power forward LaMarcus Alridge (23.9 PPG, 11.4 RPG) and point guard Damian Lillard (20.7 PPG, 40% from 3-point range).

So why did the Blazers opt for Oden over Durant? Same story as in 1984 – they needed a big man and already had a good set of wings. Oden had a chance to be a once-in-a-generation center, and the Blazers started Joel Pryzbilla and Jamaal Magloire at the position for most of the 2006-07 season. Saying there was a need was an understatement. Plus, the Blazers already had their presumed franchise player on the wing in Brandon Roy and a promising small forward in Travis Outlaw. Durant came into the draft with a few questions about how his rail-thin frame would hold up in a man’s game.

The logic was all sound. Would I have done the same if I were in then-GM Kevin Pritchard’s shoes? It’s very possible I would have. Oden’s injury history would have scared me a bit, but probably not enough given he played his entire freshman season at Ohio State and led them to a championship.

The rest is history. Oden has struggled with injuries his entire career and the Blazers finally parted ways with him in 2012. The fact that Oden didn’t pan out was made worse by Roy’s career being derailed by injuries as well. If Aldridge hadn’t emerged as one of the best power forwards in the league after being drafted in 2006, who knows where the Blazers be right now.

They’ve turned things around this season because Aldridge has gone from very good to great and Lillard has emerged as one of the best point guards in the NBA. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum are having career years on the wings and Robin Lopez is giving the Blazers an interior defensive presence that J.J. Hickson never was.

At 36-17 at currently tied for No. 3 in the West, it’s great to see Portland relevant again but also easy to think about how much better they could be. Can you imagine if the Blazers had drafted Durant and now had a core of Durant, Aldridge and Lillard? It wouldn’t matter who their other two starters, their bench or their coach was. That team would automatically make the NBA Finals every year. The Thunder would be a run-of-the-mill team and the Blazers would only have the Heat or Pacers to worry about in the East.

It’s fun to think about right? Durant would mesh well with the offense that the Blazers already run, which is predicated on spacing and ball movement. Durant is an excellent shooter, which would only open more lanes for Lillard and Aldridge to operate as well as give them another devastating pick and roll option with Durant/Aldridge. Portland already averages 108 PPG this season – with Durant, 115 would be easy.

But as fun as it is to think about, I don’t think it would have happened under any circumstances. If Portland would have drafted Durant, I don’t think they would be sitting with the No. 6 pick in the 2012 draft and able to take Lillard. With Durant and Aldridge, they are at least a 45-win team every year and picking somewhere in the late teens or early 20s. With that in mind and a need at point guard instead of at wing, maybe they take George Hill in the 2008 draft instead of Brandon Rush? Or Greivis Vasquez in 2010 instead of Eliott Williams? Or just hope that Nolan Smith hadn’t been a bust in 2011?

The point is that circumstances would have changed if the Blazers would have drafted Durant. The dream of pairing him with Aldridge and Lillard is only that: a dream. If I am the Blazers, would I rather have Durant instead of Lillard? Of course, but only because Durant is developing into an all-time great right before our very eyes. With the way Lillard is playing, I think Blazers fans can take at least some small condolence in the fact that you can’t rewrite history.