Truth be told, Golden State’s former coach wasn’t sure the Warriors needed Kevin Durant.
The Warriors were already small-ball sensations, capable of piling up the points with their daring drives and sizzling shooting. So rather than add another scorer, Don Nelson figured Golden State might be better off getting a dominant man in the middle to shore up the defense in the 2007 NBA draft.
Nelson thought the Warriors needed Greg Oden.
That was 10 years ago, leading up to the heavily hyped draft in which the Oden-Durant debate raged throughout basketball. And now, as Durant leads the league’s most potent team into the NBA Finals while Oden is long gone from the NBA spotlight, it’s easy to forget that a lot of people agreed with Nelson.
“I think everyone felt that there were two players there that were going to be prominent players, but one thing you can’t count on is injuries,” Warriors executive Jerry West said. “So Greg really never had a chance to have a career, where Kevin’s obviously been more than advertised.”
The Warriors were looking like a lottery team in March 2007 when Nelson was asked what he thought they should do if they got the No. 1 pick. He’s one of the innovators of small ball, a coach who seemed more comfortable with a point forward than a power forward, so it wouldn’t have been surprising if he leaned Durant.
But he favored Oden, a 7-footer who in his lone season at Ohio State was drawing comparisons to Hall of Famer Bill Russell, Nelson’s teammate in Boston.
“I think it’d be pretty simple for us,” Nelson said. “We would probably have to go with the bigger guy at this point.”
Nelson said he might reconsider if he thought Durant was going to be a superstar, and the forward looked like one as he tore through the Big 12 as a freshman at Texas. But with the Warriors already having Baron Davis, Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson, Nelson saw other needs.
“With this team, the center position is one that we’re looking for,” he said. “But I’d say anybody up front. Our backcourt’s pretty solid.”
The Warriors were fined by the NBA for Nelson’s comments about players who weren’t yet draft eligible. Boston, San Antonio and New Orleans also would be penalized that spring when normally button-lipped coaches couldn’t help themselves when thinking about the promise of the two freshmen.
“I don’t think there could have been any more hype than there was,” Memphis guard Mike Conley said. “It was an amazing time to see two great players who have Hall of Fame potential from the beginning. You just know that they could come in and win multiple championships and be All-Stars every year and you don’t have that in every draft.”
The No. 1 pick became a moot point when the Warriors finished the regular season with a 16-5 kick to secure the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, then pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in NBA playoff history when they ousted the 67-win Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
Later that postseason, the Portland Trail Blazers won the draft lottery and the Seattle SuperSonics were second. The Grizzlies had the league’s worst record and the best odds at the No. 1 pick but fell to fourth as West, then the Grizzlies’ president of basketball operations, left livid with the process.
Had he been given the chance, West said he would have taken the best player available, which is always his strategy. He said he considered Durant that player. Many mock drafts had it the other way, given Oden’s potential — he likely would’ve been the top pick a year earlier out of high school, but the 2006 draft was the first with the NBA’s age requirement.
“Everyone is always looking for someone big in the draft because everyone thinks it’s a game-changer. Well, the game has changed,” West said. “Now, they’re not naming big guys unless you’re really versatile. There are very few back-to-the basket centers in the league that are not versatile enough to go out and play on the court. And so when you look at it, I think A, it would have been really interesting to see if another team, except Portland, who they would have taken if they needed a center.”
Oden’s knee injuries ended his NBA career after 105 games, long before he would’ve had to worry about playing away from the basket, the way traditional centers such as Marc Gasol now do. But Conley, Oden’s high school and college teammate who went to the Grizzlies with their No. 4 pick, believes his friend could have handled the transition.
“I think he’s that kind of a talent. He would have reminded me of like a Joel Embiid, how he’s able to stretch it out there and shoot the ball like he is,” Conley said, referring to Philadelphia’s rookie center. “So I think they have similar bodies and similar way they move, so I think he could have done it.”
Instead, Oden himself acknowledged he goes down as a bust, which nobody could have predicted when coaches were tantalized by him.
“Same thing was true with the Bowie-Olajuwon-Jordan draft, and that was years before that,” said former NBA Commissioner David Stern, recalling more of Portland’s painful past, when the Blazers took oft-injured center Sam Bowie at No. 2 in between Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan in 1984.
“You never know. That’s the beauty of it. That’s why people watch,” he said.
Next week they’ll be watching Durant, who will play for his first title in his first season with the Warriors, a chance to finally be No. 1 on a team that once viewed him as their No. 2.
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley in Oakland, California and Teresa Walker in Memphis, Tennessee contributed to this report.