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.