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Greg Oden to Sign with the Miami Heat

Greg Oden will resume his NBA career as a welcomed member of the Miami Heat.

The No. 1 pick from the 2007 NBA Draft, who has been out of the league since a Dec. 5, 2009 appearance with the Portland Trail Blazers, agreed to terms with the two-time defending champions on Friday, ending months of suspense over where the center whose career has been decimated by a series of knee problems would be attempting his comeback.

The Heat were long perceived as the frontrunners to land Oden, and now have their coveted 7-footer to help them try for a third straight title. Oden has agreed to a one-year deal worth approximately $1 million.

Those who watched Oden during his one season at Ohio State need no reminder of what he’s capable of when healthy. His NBA career, limited to just 82 games over five seasons, has been far less substantive. But he has nonetheless dominated in his short bursts.

Through the first 21 games of the 2009-10 season, Oden’s most recent in the NBA, he averaged 22.3 points, 17.0 rebounds, and 4.6 blocks per 48 minutes while shooting 61% from the field, including a 13-point, 20-rebound, 4-block performance against Miami in his last full NBA game. He was looking very much like the game-changing talent he was supposed to be. He got into foul trouble a little more than he should have, but he showed enough flashes of brilliance in his modest playing time to convince most NBA observers that he was well on his way to living up to the burden of being a first overall draft pick.

That’s exactly the sort of production the Heat covets at the center position.

Oden wasn’t courted by the Heat because they wanted something more than the back-to-back championships to rub in everyone’s faces. They signed him because they need a center. They signed him because of Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Tim Duncan. They signed him because Chris Bosh is too frail and Udonis Haslem is too short. Oden has legitimate value.

Of course, even the most optimistic Oden fans will concede that the Heat are not getting the former Greg Oden. His past accomplishments hold little predictive value for his return to the court more than three years later. His injury history is unprecedented for a pro athlete.

Maybe it has just been a series of highly unfortunate events, connected to each other in a way that a small change – whether it be to his gait, to his weight, or whatever else – can fix. Or maybe they’re interconnected, the continued failings of a body that just can’t cope with the stresses professional basketball places upon it, dating back to a broken hip in his childhood and continuing indefinitely through a kinetic chain of side effects.

Most believe it’s the former. But if it’s the latter, the rest of the league is in serious trouble. 

Last season’s Heat team tore through the league with reckless abandon on the strength of a healthy Big Three, putting together one of the best ever regular seasons, and the single best ever second half, in NBA history. Even a Wade hobbled to the point of becoming a liability on the court at playoff time wasn’t enough to deny the team the title.

Now add to the mix a hopefully healthy Wade and a perfect complement at the team’s only position of need, and the Heat three-peat in a virtual walkover.

Oden was once an athletic freak, a skulking seven-foot beast with speed and agility that bested most point guards. We all know Norris Cole is fast. Cole finished the 3/4 court sprint, a combine drill, in 3.22 seconds. Oden was 3.27 seconds. He completed the lane agility drill, where a player runs through cones alternating between running backward, sideways and forward, in 11.67 seconds. Derrick Rose did it in 11.69.

That was then. He’s not that person anymore.

Oden’s injuries are serious. He has lost a great deal of the hyaline articular cartilage in both of his knees. Articular cartilage sits at the ends of the long bones that come together at the knee joint, reducing friction, acting as a cushion, and helping distribute the load of pressure and weight over the surface the joint. Without it, the joint would soon be damaged and destroyed. Articular cartilage has no blood supply, and therefore has very limited healing capabilities.

Microfracture is often the best and only alternative in cases of articular cartilage damage. Oden has endured three such surgeries on both of his knees.

Microfracture is an arthroscopic technique that aims to replace damaged articular cartilage, whereby the surgeon cleans away the damaged cartilage and then, through use of an awl, creates tiny fractures in the bone it was covering. Blood and bone marrow (which contains stem cells) seep out of the fractures, creating a blood clot that releases cartilage-building cells to replace the damaged cartilage.

However, microfracture forms fibrocartilage. Fibrocartilage is not as mechanically sound as hyaline cartilage; it is much denser and unable to withstand the demands of physical activity as well as the original cartilage and is thus at higher risk of breaking down. Therefore, nobody truly knows how well this inferior cartilage will support Oden’s massive weight, how long it will last before breaking down, or how much athleticism it has robbed him of. No one knows how fast he’ll run, how quick he’ll cut, how high he’ll jump, or how much banging his knees can endure.

It’s very possible his knees can simply no longer withstand the rigors of NBA play. Even Oden’s doctors tried to persuade him to move on from his playing career and focus on other aspects of life. After all, no NBA player had ever returned to the court after undergoing three microfracture procedures, not to mention the two other surgeries that he’s had on his knees.

But there’s reason to be encouraged. The injuries he has sustained all have a far better prognosis when you’re young. Oden is, after all, still just 25 years old.

And if he does make it back, even with diminished athleticism, he still hasn’t lost his size and he still hasn’t lost his coordination. He still has a 7-foot, 4.25-inch wingspan. His still has a standing reach of 9 feet, 4 inches. He is still capable of swatting away anything and anyone that comes anywhere close to the rim. He’s still a huge presence down low. He still has soft hands, and is still capable of smashing down every ball he gets them on with equal parts ferocity and grace. These qualities alone should yield big production at the center position when playing with LeBron James in the Miami Heat system. All it would take for Oden to be a dominant force on the court for the Heat is for him to be on the court.

***

The best part is, there’s very little risk.

When it comes to 7-footers who can defend like mad and potentially dominate the paint, we can’t help but dream about the possibilities. But for all the anxiety we felt leading up to his late-night-Friday decision, for all the elation we felt upon his announcement, it would be prudent to exercise a measure of caution now that it’s over.

Our hearts tell us his presence virtually guarantees the Heat a three-peat. Our minds tell us that there is a strong possibility that he contributes nothing at all. The odds of Oden salvaging his career are stacked against him.

Cognizant of that reality, Riley was able to grab the seemingly limitless upside that Oden possesses on the smallest possible contract the league allows.

Oden has agreed in principle to a one-year minimum salary contract that will pay him $1,027,424. However, part of his salary will be reimbursed to the Heat by the league at the end of the season. When a player has been in the NBA for three or more seasons, and is playing under a one-year minimum salary contract, the league reimburses the team for any amount above the minimum salary level for a two-year veteran. For 2013-14, the minimum salary for a two-year veteran is $884,293, so for a five-year veteran like Oden, the league will reimburse the team $143,131. Only the two-year minimum salary is included in the computation of team salary and luxury tax, not the player’s full salary. Thus, when including the tax, Oden will cost the Heat just $3,095,026.

This was utter Pat Riley brilliance. Again.

***

At a cost that small, Oden can earn his keep with just one good playoff game.

That’s all this Heat team really needs him for anyway, the playoffs.

Both Oden and the Heat realize that. That’s the beauty of it all. This is a gamble the team doesn’t need to win, certainly not any time soon. While Oden is back on an NBA roster, he knows that the hard work isn’t over. He’s still not ready to take the court just yet, and when he does he will still need to start the long journey of getting back into game shape. The Heat understand that this is going to be a process, and are going to be very patient with Oden. Their goal is to have the center healthy and productive for the playoffs, not for meaningless regular season games. This is a low-risk, high-reward move in which everyone involved understands the timetable.

Oden has a support system now. He has access to first class medical care to be provided by a first class organization. He has teammates pulling for him, not just because he’s the good man that he is but because they could use him on the court fighting with them in the most critical of times.

The Heat has an unquestioned ability to win without him, but also a definitive need for exactly what he provides. His mere presence on the basketball court would electrify an entire fan base, but he has no pressure to step onto it. There was simply no better mutual fit in the whole of the NBA.

***

There is, however, an unfortunate reality to face.

If the Heat cash in with Oden, he may price himself out of the Heat’s long-term vision. Quality big men command a hefty price, even those with substantial injury concerns. For perspective, the Cavaliers just signed similar health risk Andrew Bynum to a two-year contract starting at $12.25 million, which has $6 million guaranteed for next season, despite it not being clear when, if ever, he will be cleared for play.

If Oden becomes the breakout performer we’re hoping he can once again be, he will command a substantial contract.

At that point, under the current Heat construct, Miami would only be able to offer him $1,145,685 using the minimum salary exception, up to $1,374,822 using his “Non-Bird” rights, or up to $3,278,000 using the single-use taxpayer mid-level exception in a new deal signed next summer. The latter contract would be a gamble, considering the Heat may also need to replace the perhaps retiring Shane Battier and Ray Allen and given that even if completely healthy by season’s end he’d still be a substantial health risk going forward.

But that’s a conversation for another day.

***

Whatever the future may hold, Greg Oden is here now. And he brings with him a great deal of hope.

Oden hasn’t been NBA-ready, not by a long shot, for his entire career. The hope is that his current rehabilitation and the massive amounts of both rest and recuperation have changed that for the better. And that the Heat’s patience and prudence, and its medical staff, can keep it that way.

Imagine, just for a moment, what the world would look like with a healthy and an anywhere near equally explosive Greg Oden manning the paint for the Heat at some point during the season and on into the playoffs. Imagine how much damage could be done to opponent offenses and defenses with Chalmers, Wade, James, Bosh and Oden all playing at the same time. Champagne would fall from the heavens. Doors would open. Velvet ropes would part.

We’re not talking about a third consecutive championship anymore. We’re talking about perhaps the best and most complete team of all-time.

For $3 million, it was a risk worth taking.

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  1. berkeley223
    August 7th, 2013 at 09:25 | #1

    Albert, what remaning moves would you like to see the Heat make this offseason? I’d love to see a Joel Anthony trade but I think it very unlikely. So I assume it will be another vet signed for around the min. Who makes sense?

  2. John Markson
    August 11th, 2013 at 17:46 | #2

    Alonzo Mourning recently talked about the importance of Oden for the franchise moving forward. I don’t understand how they intend to keep him after this season if he plays well and doesn’t get injured. I can’t see them getting under the apron next year to give him the full mid-level. Does the FO really have a plan to keep him, and if so, what do you think that plan is?

    • August 11th, 2013 at 19:01 | #3

      @John Markson
      I’ve discussed this concept extensively in my posts about Oden (both before and after the actual signing). It will be difficult to retain Oden if he proves healthy and dominant (unless he were to take less to stay).

      The tax level is currently estimated by the league at $76.1 million for 2014-15. Even if the Heat were able to trade Joel Anthony in exchange for nothing in return (a big if), the Heat would still start the offseason just $6.6 million below the tax level and would need to fill between 7 and 9 roster spots with $10.6 million. Thus, it would be very difficult to get far enough under the apron to offer the full MLE.

      Some are expecting Wade and/or Bosh to take big discounts, in which case the Heat could potentially make the math work for Oden and perhaps even still retain Chalmers on a similar contract. But even if everything were to come together, would the full MLE ($5.3 million) be enough to retain a healthy and dominant Oden? And even if it were enough, would it be wise for the Heat to use it on an injury risk like Oden with Allen and Battier potentially retiring and only able to be replaced by minimum salary players? These are all questions the Heat would need to answer.

      Many are talking about the Heat making a major roster change after the season. Several are talking about trading Chris Bosh. But while that would produce huge tax savings, it wouldn’t provide much roster flexibility. Even if the Heat were to trade away Bosh and Anthony and take back nothing in return for either (a huge if), the Heat would still have only $14 million below the salary cap, which is currently estimated at $62.5 million, and between 8 and 10 players to add (including on replacements for Chalmers, Battier, Allen and Oden). The most the Heat would be able to offer any single free agent, after roster charges, would be $10 million. But remember that you’d no longer have Bosh anymore. So how much of that $10 million would you be willing to give Oden, and how much would be left over to give to someone else? However you split the $10 million, after using it all up, all other players would need to make the minimum except for one, who could receive a salary of up to $2.7 million using the MLE for Room Teams. Would you really want to replace Bosh, Chalmers, Allen, Battier and Oden with a re-signed Oden, a player making whatever is left of the $10 million, a $2.7 million player, and minimum salary contracts?

      The Heat could have maneuvered to prevent this scenario, but apparently didn’t press the issue.

      Can I come up with ideal scenarios to this problem? Absolutely. For every problem, there is a dreamer who can find a way to make it work. The Heat could theoretically: (i) trade Bosh for LaMarcus Aldridge or a perhaps healthy Kevin Love (saving $5 million in the process), (ii) ask Wade to give up his $42 million over two years and replace it with $45 million over three years (saving another $5 million in the process), (iii) trade Joel Anthony (saving another $3.8 million), (iv) utilize the full MLE on Oden (adding $5 million), (v) re-sign Mario Chalmers at the same level (adding $4 million), (vi) fill out the roster with minimum salary contracts, and (vii) still end up below the tax level. That would be a wonderful alternative. You’d have a starting rotation of Chalmers/Cole, Wade, James, Love or Aldridge, and Oden/Andersen. But is it realistic?

      My answer to your question would thus be to enjoy the Heat, hope for the best from Oden, and worry about the rest later.

  3. John Markson
    August 11th, 2013 at 22:04 | #4

    I have been tracking Oden ever since he was cut by the Blazers. The idea of signing him for the minimum while he recovered to get his bird rights was so clear to me, that I thought we should have signed him in 2011, kept him for the minimum for 2012, and then signed him again this year. I’ve been amazed the Heat haven’t done this.

    The reason I mention this is that I can’t imagine a scenario where our front office could be that short-sided. Oden must have wanted to stay out of media scrutiny and stay independent and refused all overtures until he recovered.

  4. August 11th, 2013 at 22:21 | #5

    @John Markson
    I’ve been tracking him even longer than that. I now know more about the anatomy of the knee than I had ever intended to. :)

    The part you may not understand is how simple it would have been to get his Bird rights. We didn’t need to sign him for the whole season every time. No team wants to pay millions to a man they know won’t play, and for whom they won’t have exclusive rights. But we didn’t need to. We could have signed him for one day every season and waived him the very next day (assuming he wasn’t claimed on waivers). Or we could have signed him on the very last day of the season every season. There were countless ways we could have acquired his Bird rights at almost no cost and with no trouble to Oden.

    I have been amazed at some of the less-publicized decisions made by the Heat front office over the years.

  5. John Markson
    August 11th, 2013 at 22:28 | #6

    Thanks for a great reply by the way. I’ve been worrying about the 2014 off season so long I can’t really enjoy what we’ve got!

    1. I don’t see why Bosh and Wade would take pay cuts if Lebron doesn’t; both are still max players. Max is max. In a league where a 29 year old Joe Johnson signs a 6 year max contract with the old 10.5 raises, there’s really no question in my mind that both are max players.

    2. I don’t think Oden will be considered “healthy and dominant”, firstly because I don’t think Oden will have nearly the ceiling he once did, and secondly because the injury risk after just one season of backup minutes would be too high for any team to offer him a huge contract (look at bynum).

    3. A sign and trade for Bosh is very unlikely to net a return as good as Bosh, I completely agree. Plus, he might want to join a team under the cap, you never know. The Wade-James-Bosh roster has been very frustrating in some ways, since they schematically mitigate each other’s strengths, and so their total value to the heat is much less than their individual values to other teams. A James-Love-Howard big 3, for example, would be much have much more synergy. Of course, the main problem schematic problem isn’t Bosh, it’s Wade (in fact, I think Bosh is one of the few players in the league that can help mitigate the problem of having a non-shooting ball-dominant wing next to Lebron). And the Heat can’t trade Wade for sentimental reasons.

    Anyway, it’s a great discussion, and I’ll be very interested to see how it works. Riley has worked miracles in the past!

  6. John Markson
    August 11th, 2013 at 22:35 | #7

    @Albert

    Oh, I didn’t think about that at all. I thought you had to have the player continuously for 3 seasons. But that makes sense, since Oden wouldn’t sign with any other team for that period, it would still work.

    But again, there’s really no significant benefit for the Oden camp, and he would have a lot of unwanted media pressure on him during his rehabilitation, just to leave open the possibility of re-signing with a team he’s not even sure he wants to sign with in case he happens to stay healthy which he’s not even sure he wants to.

    It’s my viewpoint in general on all matters such as these, that rather than assuming people in high level positions that are paid to know these things and make these decisions are screwing up, I’ll assume that there is something I’m unaware of preventing them from doing them.

  7. August 11th, 2013 at 22:45 | #8

    @John Markson
    If Oden isn’t healthy and dominant, then retaining him would of course not be as difficult. Bynum, by the way, did get a big contract – one the Heat could not offer Oden next season under any realistic scenario; his salary for next season is $12.25 million.

    Perhaps you are not understanding. We’re talking about 1-day contracts. Contracts that I playfully suggest he could have executed while lying down in his bed. Contracts that would have paid him roughly $5K for doing absolutely nothing but providing an autograph. They had nothing to do with his rehab. They didn’t require Oden to commit to the Heat for any more than 1 day each time.

    I used to take that same viewpoint. But I now am much more knowledgeable about the rules, and I now have developed contacts who have access to the thought processes and questions that individual teams themselves ask. I can tell you rather definitively that sometimes there are extenuating circumstances we are not aware of, but sometimes teams just make mistakes and sometimes they are just not as creative as they can be.

    But, hey, let’s not lose sight of the big picture. Despite the opinions of the few (who are upset the team hasn’t used its MLE and, in turn, don’t fully comprehend and/or appreciate just how much our owner has committed to spend in support of a winner), the Heat has had a great offseason thus far and are favorites to win a third straight title.

  8. John Markson
    August 12th, 2013 at 00:01 | #9

    No, I understand that it would be a one day contract. I think the downside is just the media attention. There would be an expectation from fans that he would sign with the heat after his return. He would need to think about the future earlier than absolutely necessary (he might have been in the mindset that ‘right now I’m only going to think about rehab’ and told his agent to tell all teams he has no interest until the 2013 offseason). Little things like that. For him as a player, he still hits free agency and gets paid the same, it just might not be for the heat. And again, who knows, maybe this offseason another team’s pitch would be more appealing to him, he’d want to play for them, but then would have to face the ire of heat fans.

    From his perspective I can see an emotional downside.

  9. August 12th, 2013 at 00:22 | #10

    @John Markson
    I agree with everything you are saying. The Heat couldn’t control Oden’s right to choose. Perhaps he didn’t want to sign as you suggest.

    But I don’t believe the Heat offered the contract. Reports at the time were that all teams were offering multi-year contracts that would have guaranteed his rights for an additional season. It would have taken a bit more creativity to offer a contract with only Bird rights in mind. I could be mistaken but I don’t believe it ever crossed their minds that on January 6, the day after waiving Terrel Harris, they could have offered to sign Oden to an unguaranteed contract, waived him on January 7 (the last day to waive a player before his contract becomes guaranteed, thus making it reasonably certain no other team would claim him on waivers), paid him for the 4 days (players stay on waivers for 2 days), and still signed Jarvis Varnado as they did on January 9.

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