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Addressing the Miami Heat Need At Center

We’re NBA champions.

And we’ve gotten better. It’s a beautiful thing. This Miami Heat team is nearly perfect.

Nearly.

For the third straight season the Heat finds itself in need of a center — one who is both reasonably sized and knows how to rebound a basketball.

While we applaud head coach Erik Spoelstra’s decision to embrace a ‘position-less’ half court offensive philosophy that has Chris Bosh in that role, it is perhaps a less than ideal strategy over the course of a largely meaningless but still very grueling 82-game regular season.

And it’s a strategy not without its risks. Though the strategy (which essentially entails surrounding the Big Three with two wing players rather than a true center) has produced phenomenal results over the past two regular and post seasons, it has been tested over a grand total of just 568 minutes, the equivalent of fewer than 12 games. The Heat has gone all-in on an approach that is still very much unproven.

While ‘position-less’ might be a nice term to throw around, what it really boils down to is an accommodation for the team’s lack of size, and a lack of skill, at the five spot. The approach could prove costly against more physically imposing front lines.

Pat Riley has, at least for now, put his faith in seldom-used third year center Dexter Pittman to fill the void. Riley cemented his belief by choosing to guarantee Pittman’s contract for the upcoming season.

But Pittman isn’t the answer. Neither is Joel Anthony.

So we are left sifting through a slew of uninspiring alternatives.

Darko Milicic. Eddy Curry. Hamed Haddadi. Joel Przybilla. Joey Dorsey. Nazr Mohammed. Ronnie Turiaf. Tony Battie. Etc.

Not one is a difference maker. 

And then there’s Greg Oden.

For a man who hasn’t played a single NBA game since December of 2009, the former No. 1 overall pick sure has had his name tossed around in media reports and chat rooms a whole heck of a lot lately. It could possibly be due to the intrigue inherent in a Hall-of-Fame-level talent if he were ever to rise above his myriad injuries.

Oden’s injury-plagued history has been well documented:

  • In the sixth grade, he underwent surgery to repair a fractured right hip, which had nearly separated from his right leg. The surgery left his right leg shorter than his left, resulting in his unusual gait which is often mistaken for a limp.
  • On June 16, 2006, during his senior year of high school, he had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right wrist, which took him six months to rehabilitate and kept him out until the December of his freshman year of college.
  • On September 13, 2007, during the preseason before his rookie season, he underwent microfracture surgery to address cartilage damage in his right knee after having felt a sharp pain from getting out of a chair. He would miss the entire 2007-08 season.
  • On October 28, 2008, in his NBA debut, he sprained his right foot when he landed on Derek Fisher’s foot while going for a rebound. He would miss the next six games.
  • On February 12, 2009, he bumped knees with Corey Maggette and chipped the patella in his left knee. He would miss the next 15 games.
  • The next season, 2009-10, was set to be his year. He was looking very much like the game-changing talent he was supposed to be. Then, on December 5, 2009, Oden badly fractured his left patella in a non-contact injury after leaving the ground on defense. He was carried off the court on a stretcher. He had surgery to re-attach the patella, during which two screws were placed into his knee, the very next day. His recovery was projected to take him right up until training camp of 2010.
  • His recovery from his left patella fracture did not progress well. The fractured kneecap led to a bought with patellar tendinitis (a.k.a. “jumper’s knee”), which further delayed his projected return to the court into the following season.
  • After missing training camp, preseason, and the start of the 2010-11 regular season, he complained of swelling in his left knee following a workout, which led to microfracture surgery on November 19, 2010 to address cartilage damage in the knee. He would miss the entire season.
  • On December 9, 2011, it was announced that he had suffered an unspecified setback with a non-weight bearing ligament in his left knee that left doctors less optimistic about his ability to play in the 2011–12 season.
  • On February 3, 2012, he underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove debris from what was previously thought to be his now completely healed right knee.
  • He was scheduled to have the same arthroscopic surgery on his left knee at the same time, but doctors discovered a blood clot in his left ankle and had to wait for it to clear before doing the procedure.
  • On February 20, 2012, he had the procedure. However, during the operation, further damage to the articular cartilage was discovered, and he awoke from anesthesia having learned that he had undergone a second microfracture surgery to his left knee, his third overall. Any chance at a return in the 2011-12 season was over.

The Blazers officially released Oden in March.

Serious allegations began to surface in early April that the Blazers’ medical staff might have been negligent in guiding Oden through his various rehab efforts, and that this negligence may have directly led to his continuing string of injuries.

In early May, Oden revealed that his inaction and frustration in Portland led him to drink too much. He went on to announce his plan to take the entire 2012-13 season off, move back to Columbus, take all the time he needs to rehab his knees back to full strength, and continue working toward the degree that he abandoned after one year at Ohio State.

At around the same time, Oden underwent the controversial knee procedure, called Orthokine, that Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez say helped prolong their careers. The non-invasive procedure, which involves doctors taking the patient’s own blood, spinning it in a centrifuge, making a serum and then injecting it into the knee was done to accelerate the healing process. Doctors claim the re-injected blood works to stop inflammation and reduce pain and cartilage damage.

It all seemed, at the time, like a great idea. It can take up to a year, sometimes longer, to recover from a typical microfracture surgery. And Oden’s situation has been anything but typical. No NBA player has ever come back to play after undergoing three microfracture surgeries.

Yet Oden is back in the spotlight, this time through the words of his agent Mike Conley, and declaring that he is re-thinking his desire to sit out the entire 2012-13 season.

In an interview given just a few days ago, Conley went public with his client’s change of heart: “(Oden) called me, and he was kind of excited. I think he’s motivated … He wants to play. He had said he wanted to take this season off, but he’s backed off from that … He’s open to playing this season. I think he will play this season.”

Conley said he has not heard from the Heat at all since Oden was waived. But he said Oden has interest in playing for Miami if they ever were to be interested. “Obviously, if the Heat wanted him, who wouldn’t want to play for the Heat? That goes without saying. They have roster spots and a need.”

For a team in need of exactly what Oden provides, a dominating low-post presence on both ends of the court, this revelation has become fodder for all kinds of speculation.

Imagine, just for a moment, what the world would look like with a healthy and equally explosive Greg Oden manning the paint for the Heat. Champagne would fall from the heavens. Doors would open. Velvet ropes would part.

We’re not talking about championships anymore. We’re talking about perhaps the best team of all-time.

That’s why if a return – and continuing health – were truly possible, Riley would be foolish not to give Oden whatever he desired. First class medical care. The best possible rehabilitation program. Someone to work with him one-on-one to see it through. A roster spot. A contract. Whatever.

Yet, despite Oden’s desire to return to the game, it’s never been all that realistic.

He hasn’t been NBA-ready, not by a long shot, for his entire career. And though his current rehabilitation and the massive amounts of both rest and recuperation could change that for the better, all that’s been proven about Oden so far is that he is very tall, he is very talented, and his body has been unable to withstand the rigors of NBA play.

It’s difficult to imagine Oden returning to play any time soon. Conley even admits that there is no timetable for a potential 2012-13 return. As much as Oden may want to play, the decision isn’t up to him. It’s up to his body, and the medical professionals who will scrutinize it.

It’s even more difficult to imagine Oden maintaining consistent health. As a result of his injuries, the strength and stability of Oden’s knees have likely been permanently compromised. He has lost a great deal of articular cartilage in both of his knees. Such cartilage reduces friction and acts as a cushion between the bones of the knee by covering the surface of the joint that brings together the femur, tibia and patella. Damaged articular cartilage, which cannot be repaired, causes a bone-on-bone interaction which often leads to arthritis, severe pain, swelling, and a substantial reduction in mobility.

The microfracture surgery that Oden has thrice undergone works by creating tiny fractures in the underlying bone. Blood and bone marrow (which contains stem cells) seep out of the fractures, creating a blood clot that causes new cartilage to develop. Such techniques, however, form fibrocartilage rather than the original hyaline cartilage.

Fibrocartilage is not as mechanically sound as hyaline cartilage. It is much denser and unable to withstand the demands of everyday activities as well as the original cartilage and is thus at higher risk of breaking down. It also doesn’t act as much like a shock absorber as the original cartilage. A successful outcome, therefore, is a relative concept, as the knee will never be as structurally sound as it was before the damage. And, in the case of Oden, the damage is extensive.

Even if he were to have a successful outcome, it’s difficult to imagine that Oden would, despite the intrigue, ultimately choose Miami when he is cleared for play. That’s because he knows that the moment he proves to be healthy, he becomes too expensive for the Heat to retain. The Heat’s only mechanism to even partially combat such a reality is to get creative. By way of example, the Heat could, and perhaps should, offer Oden a two-year minimum salary contract right here and now, knowing full-well that he probably won’t play for the entirety of the upcoming season. Yes, they’d be wasting their money in the first year. But they’d be getting a tremendous bargain in the second. And they’d come out on the other side with Early Bird rights, and at least a chance to re-sign him for the long term if the finances could be managed. But such a strategy takes a type of vision, and risk tolerance, that most franchises don’t have.

That is why the Heat should always leave the door open, but would be foolish to rely upon him as the definitive answer.

Which leaves the Heat right back where it started – searching for a difference maker down low, ideally one that fits within Spoelstra’s newly styled “everybody needs to be live in the offense” strategy.

It’s not so easy to find one, let alone one who would be willing to play for a minimum salary contract. Those who are willing to consider it, naturally, come with serious limitations – whether they be recovering from injury, playing on the wrong side of youth, or having severe offensive or defensive limitations.

There is no perfect solution.

But there may be one possibility that has seemingly been overlooked. And given how well he could fit within the Spoelstra system, perhaps shockingly so.

If you could fabricate the ideal center for this Heat team, how would you describe him? Veteran? All-Star? NBA champion? Sweet-shooting big man who knows how to space the floor, posts up smaller defenders, catches the basketball, never turns it over, clears the defensive glass, and plays physical (if unspectacular) post defense? Someone who would allow the Heat to employ its current offensive system without playing multiple players out of position? Sound about right?

Well, that man exists in the form of Mehmet Okur.

Who is Mehmet Okur?

He is a 33-year-old. He is from Yalova, Turkey. He is 6’11 and weighs around 250 pounds. He is a ten-year NBA veteran. He is a former All-Star. He is a former NBA champion.

He is the complete opposite of (and perhaps therefore the perfect complement to) Greg Oden.

Memo was drafted with the 37th overall pick in the second round by, and played his first two seasons with, the Detroit Pistons. After a breakout sophomore campaign, he signed a six-year, $50 million offer sheet with the Utah Jazz as a restricted free agent which the Pistons, who couldn’t come up with the money after re-signing Rasheed Wallace, declined to match.

His performance in a Jazz uniform speaks for itself: 15.3 points (46.2 FG%, 38.1 3PT%, 80.3 FT%) and 7.6 rebounds per game, including an All Star appearance in 2007.

More than just numbers, Okur was a warrior for the Jazz. If you remove the 2010-11 season, his last in Utah, Memo played 461 of a possible 492 games (93.7%) over the course of six years.

With his past performance impressive and his future bright, Memo went on to sign a two-year, $20.8 million maximum extension in the summer of 2009.

Then tragedy struck.

On April 17, 2010, he ruptured the Achilles tendon in his left leg during the first game of the 2009-10 postseason against the Denver Nuggets, ending his season. The Achilles had reportedly been giving Okur trouble for the previous two weeks – the Jazz called the injury Achilles tendinitis – and Okur had in fact received a local-anesthetic injection prior to the game. Questions about whether the Jazz medical staff had put their starting center at increased risk by clearing him for play simply because it was playoff time were asked and answered.

Okur returned to the court 27 games into the 2010-11 season – perhaps far too soon for an injury of such magnitude.

It was far from a peak season. He did not return to his All-Star form, or anything anywhere close. While the surgery was successful, the Jazz were returned a tentative Memo who was not mentally ready to test a less than completely strengthened left leg at full speed. The Achilles injury quickly led to a series of back injuries that wiped away the rest of the season.

Okur was traded to the Nets after the lockout, where he made it back into a starting role to begin the 2011-12 season. But lingering back issues continued to rob him of his prior form. He was shut down permanently less than a month into the season. He hasn’t played since.

He was again traded, this time to the Blazers in March, but was waived less than a week later. Despite interest from the Bulls and Celtics, Memo decided to take the rest of the season off to properly rehab.

He is now an unrestricted free agent. He has career earnings of $72.9 million.

Should the Heat Consider Okur?

Well, that depends entirely on whether he is, and he can stay, healthy.

The past two years were lost seasons for Memo. And while he was a true iron man in his first eight seasons, on those rare occasions when he did miss time it was typically in regard to his back. So there is cause for concern that he may never regain his prior form. Prognostications by reporters and bloggers alike don’t even mention him as someone to consider going forward.

But he is still relatively young, back to 95% health, and he reportedly wants to continue his NBA career.

Memo has a distinct skill set which could allow him to be a vital part of the Heat offense, with his high yield outside shooting. He neutralizes the effectiveness of opposing big men by forcing them to run off screens and guard the perimeter which, in turn, allows there to be enough room in the paint for a power forward to work in (Bosh) or for wing players to cut into (Wade, James). More than anything else, Memo’s game would allow the Heat to employ its current strategy on offense without sacrificing any length or girth on defense. Imagine a front line with two near 7-footers and a freakish 6-foot-8, 250-pound small forward.

But that’s not all Memo could provide the Heat.

He has a high basketball IQ. He knows where to set up to get open. His height and bulk allow him to get his shot off. When defenders close out too quickly, he can put the ball on the floor and drive to the rim (though he’s not overly quick or explosive). When called upon, he has a nice post game which he can utilize against smaller defenders. He’s a great pick-and-pop option. He draws fouls at a decent clip, and he makes his free throws. He has great hands – he catches the basketball, he is a superb ball-handler for his size, and he never turns it over.

Memo also brings differentiated defensive capabilities – he plays tough post defense against the league’s more rugged centers, and he takes care of the defensive glass at a better rate than, for example, both of the Gasol brothers.

There are negatives. There always are in potential minimum contract players.

Memo has undoubtedly lost some athleticism to age and injury. But his game doesn’t rely upon athleticism to be good.

He’s also not a complete defensive player. He can’t jump. He doesn’t block shots. He doesn’t protect the rim. And he lacks lateral quickness, which leaves him vulnerable in defending the pick-and-roll. But the team already has Joel Anthony to fill that role.

It all makes sense.

He’s a veteran big with playoff experience, he has a differentiated skill-set that fills a Heat need, and he thrives in the uptempo style of offense that the Heat wants to run. A healthy Memo could make Miami’s rotation that much more versatile.

And in return for accepting a minimum contract, the Heat could offer Memo something no other team can – a legitimate chance to win the starting center position on the team favored to win the NBA title.

Should the Heat take a flyer on a guy like Memo?

Absolutely.

That is, if he’s healthy.

Categories: Commentary Tags: ,
  1. Dominic
    July 19th, 2012 at 02:35 | #1

    What are your thoughts on Darko, assuming he is anenable to playing for the veteran minimum?

  2. July 20th, 2012 at 18:35 | #2

    @Dominic
    Milicic isn’t really an impact player. He likely wouldn’t get significant minutes.

    The Heat has two open roster spots. I would prefer they be utilized on players who have the potential to make a material impact. My primary targets would be, if healthy, Okur and, despite the character concerns, Andray Blatche (with a spot to be gladly made available to Oden if he were to be enticed to rehab as part of the Heat organization on a multi-year minimum contract deal).

  3. Dan R
    August 14th, 2012 at 00:47 | #3

    Insightful article, now that Dwight has been traded and the Lakers have a super team, Miami needs to make a move or two (albeit small movies). Either (or both?) of the moves you mention would be brilliant for them. I quote Bill Simmons, this just got veeeeeeery interesting…

  4. Sam
    September 23rd, 2012 at 20:33 | #4

    Go Greg…get him great rehab specialists and he will be fine. Go slow with the heat and he will help them and may be a star in this 2nd or 3rd year of being healthy. Go Greg!!!!

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