The Greg Oden Dilemma
How much do you love the idea of the Miami Heat signing Greg Oden?
Oden and his agent know what everybody else does. If the Heat want to win a third straight NBA title, it might be important to get some size.
He has the size. He is willing to help. He remains very interested in signing with the Heat.
Imagine, just for a moment, what the world would look like with a healthy and fully explosive Greg Oden playing center 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.
Oden was once the fastest center in the game. He was once the most agile. His measurables were mind-boggling. He was an athletic freak. Considered to be the next all-time great. A taller, quicker, more imposing version of Bill Russell, only with some big-time offensive skill.
But then he got hurt. First it was cartilage damage in his right knee. Then a chipped patella in his left knee. Then a full fracture of the patella. Then patellar tendinitis. Then cartilage damage. All in the left knee. Then debris in what was previously thought to be his now completely healed right knee. Then debris in his left knee.
Despite it all, he was always looking at a comeback, and teams were always going to be interested in a very real way. He remained that intriguing. But things changed considerably when it was announced in February of last year that he would undergo a third microfracture surgery to repair cartilage damage, essentially ending his 2012-13 season before it started, and the Trail Blazers finally gave into exhaustion and waived him in March. He instantly became an unrestricted free agent, with a longer comeback than ever.
But most of the league still tracked his medical updates. The intrigue would not fade. Even with the understanding that the plan all along, and rightfully so, was to return to Ohio State to take classes and rehab for 2013-14.
That’s the thing. Front offices were not mocking Oden at 25 years old even if others were — which may be the greatest statement of how much they thought he could have changed the game when he came into the league in 2007. Without being able to get close to that projected level of impact, with the five knee surgeries, without having played since December 2009, front offices still continue to believe that Oden can be a dominant force.
That’s why if continuing health were truly possible, Riley would be foolish not to give Oden whatever he desired. First class medical care. The best possible training program. Someone to work with him one-on-one to see it through. A personal dietitian. A roster spot. A contract. Whatever.
But if you were Riley, what type of contract would you offer?
The presumption has always been that the Heat would offer a minimum salary contract. There’s no risk in doing so. The Heat is required, by league rules, to employ a minimum of 13 players. The team currently has 12 players with guaranteed contracts. Chris Andersen will likely be added and Mike Miller will likely be subtracted. That’s still 12.
The Heat typically uses, at the very most, a 10-player rotation. Therefore, by definition, the Heat will need to employ at least 3 players next season who will almost never play. One of those 3 is not yet on the roster. The hope is that this player will have the cheapest possible salary. Why not, then, utilize it to offer a minimum salary contract to a player who perhaps may never be healthy enough to play (thus making him no different than anyone else who would get the spot) but who, if he were healthy, could be a game-changing talent and an ideal fit?
But what if a minimum salary contract is not enough to entice him?
Oden has reportedly narrowed his list to five potential suitors. He will choose from a group that includes the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and Memphis Grizzlies, as well as the Heat. The other pursuers are in a less strenuous financial situation than Miami, have more available resources than Miami, and have varying incentives not to let him wind up in Miami.
The Heat already has a guaranteed team payroll of $85.7 million. They’re at the high stakes medal round. They simply can’t afford to make a mistake. Not when a losing bet would cost well into the eight-figures.
The concept of continued health is an idea that has never really been all that realistic for Oden. He hasn’t been NBA-ready, not by a long shot, for his entire career. And though his extended rehabilitation and the massive amounts of both rest and recuperation might have changed that for the better, all that’s been proven about him 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.
Articular cartilage damage of the type that Oden has sustained is serious stuff. It’s excruciatingly painful. It can make it impossible to climb or run or even walk. It can lead to osteoarthritis down the road, and possibly a total knee replacement after that.
As of now, there is no cure. Once the cartilage is destroyed, it doesn’t grow back. Microfracture surgery is among the best in a range of unsatisfactory alternatives. It 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.
Oden has undergone three microfracture surgeries. No athlete has ever returned from that.
Sources close to Oden have said that he is optimistic he can return for the 2013-14 season opener. That seems to suggest he is not fully healthy even now.
If you were Heat owner Micky Arison, would you offer that kind of player the team’s lone $3.2 million taxpayer mid-level exception even though it would cost you another $13 million this season alone, and substantially more than that in future seasons as the repeater tax kicks in?
The Heat reportedly lost big money when its payroll was in the $75 million range. Now it’d be getting close to the $120s.
Whichever team ultimately lands Oden, there is an alternative to consider which would provide some degree of protection in the event of a re-injury.
The protection exists in the form of an Exhibit 3 to the Uniform Player Contract.
The “Uniform Player Contract” is the contract that every NBA player executes when he signs with an NBA team. Every contract looks the same: same styling, same wording, same everything. The only thing that separates the contract of one NBA player from that of another – from, say, LeBron James and Jarvis Varnado – is the names, the dates, the signatures, and the exhibits. The exhibits contain, among other things, the individually negotiated salaries by season.
Exhibit 3 is entitled “Prior Injury Exclusion.”
It reads “The Player’s right to receive his Compensation as set forth in … this Contract … is limited or eliminated with respect to the following re-injury of the injury or aggravation of the condition set forth below: …”
In other words, it says that if you can’t play skilled basketball due to your pre-existing injury and we waive you, we don’t have to pay you. But if you remain healthy, we will gladly pay out your salary as stipulated in the contract.
It is the same language that is allowing the Minnesota Timberwolves to get out of paying Brandon Roy the salary stipulated for the second year of his two-year, $10.4 million contract executed last summer. It is the same language a smart NBA franchise is likely to give Andrew Bynum.
But here is where things get tricky.
If you represented one of the five teams pursuing Oden, how much salary would you be willing to offer if it meant that you were guaranteed protection from his salary in the event of a re-injury? How much would you be willing to increase your offer and/or sacrifice your protections if it meant an ability to pry Oden away from his other suitors?
If you were Oden’s agent, Mike Conley, how much salary would you be willing to give up in order to increase the guarantee? How much of a guarantee would you willing to give up in order to increase the salary? If you were to be given a completely guaranteed million dollar salary on the one hand but a completely non-guaranteed salary at more than three-times the value on the other hand, which would you take?
If you were Oden, where would you most want to play? In Miami, with a chance to play for an NBA title and the appeal of a not-so-grueling work schedule? In San Antonio, with the same opportunity? In Memphis, with your close friend? In Cleveland, next to a world-class medical facility? With the team that pays the most? With the team that can inflate your future value the most?
These are the questions that need to be answered in the days to come.
The Heat is not likely to offer Oden a mid-level salary contract, not even with an Exhibit 3 exclusion. It’s simply too expensive. The most they’re likely to offer is a minimum salary contract. The hope is, however he justifies it, that Oden chooses to accept it. But he’d likely need to turn down more lucrative offers elsewhere, however they may be structured, to do so.
Oden has earned $23.2 million thus far into his NBA career. With his propensity for injury, he would be wise to treat each future contract as if it could be his last. Given those circumstances, whether he is willing to sacrifice larger dollars elsewhere to join the Heat only time will tell.