There's a misconception that's been floating around the NBA since Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns took basketball by storm: that size doesn't matter, that the true center is a relic of basketball's glorious past.
The "small-ball" Miami Heat were held up as proof after recently winning not one, but two championships. So too was the league's decision to "eliminate" the center position from the All-Star Game ballot.
Except, the "facts on the ground" paint a different picture. Just ask the six teams still in the running for Greg Oden's services:
Free agent center Greg Oden to make decision next week picking from Sacramento, Miami, ATL, NO, San Antonio & Dallas, source told Y! Sports.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) July 23, 2013
Indeed, a fifth of the NBA, including this past season's champions, is vying for the services of a guy who hasn't seen live action since Dec. 5, 2009, and who has only featured in 82 total games after he was taken first overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2007 NBA draft.
Ahead of Kevin Durant, no less. Why such strong interest from so many parties, then?
Because despite the myriad of microfracture surgeries conducted on his knees, Greg Oden is still seven feet tall, with hands big enough and arms long enough to challenge shots on the defensive end, catch and finish on the offensive end, and grab rebounds on both.
Because, after all of these years, scouts and executives continue to see the talent that had so many hailing the Ohio State product as basketball's next great big man six years ago.
Because he's only 25. Because his latent potential can probably be had for pennies on the usual dollar. Because bargains like that tilt the risk-reward ratio to an extent that would soothe the minds of even the jumpiest of general managers.
And, most importantly, because size still matters.
It's why there was such a frenzy over where Dwight Howard would go, even though he may never be the All-World game-changer he was before his back and his shoulder went bunk. It's why Andrew Bynum remained a live target in free agency after Howard signed with the Houston Rockets. It's why the Dallas Mavericks threw themselves at Samuel Dalembert once they'd lost out on Center A (Dwight) and Center B (Bynum).
It's also why three of the teams that reached the NBA's "Final Four" this year fielded more traditional, two-big starting lineups, and why the fourth (the Heat) has been hot after Oden since hoisting its second consecutive Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Contrary to popular belief, teams understand that bigger is better, especially on the defensive end. Players who are tall, long and strong will always be better than most at roaming the paint and defending the rim simply by virtue of their physical stature.
That is of vital importance considering the validity of another aphorism that holds true across all sports: defense wins championships.
The Heat have won back-to-back titles not because they can spread the floor for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to attack off the dribble (though that offense has proven plenty effective under Erik Spoelstra). Rather, Miami's success has stemmed from its aggressive, trapping defense.
The Heat have ranked among the top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions and effective field-goal defense every season since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together. They have been one of the best at forcing turnovers in each of the last two.
It's a devastating style of defense that, when played properly, can make it darn-near impossible for the opposition to so much as dribble without heavy panic and pressure.
It also happens to be a very demanding and taxing scheme, both physically and mentally, that leaves the Heat vulnerable to giving up easy buckets when something goes wrong. Hence, the maddening inconsistency that plagued Miami throughout its grueling grind to the 2013 title.
This is especially true in the middle, where Miami is regularly without a bulky shot-blocker to cover for any mistakes made on the perimeter.
The Heat's deficiency therein proved particularly problematic against the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs, both of whom tended to start two traditional bigs. Miami allowed those two teams to score nearly 40 percent of their points in the paint during the playoffs, per NBA.com.
Usually, that's no way to win a championship. The Heat, though, were fortunate to make some massive plays at opportune times—and to have the best player in basketball. But that may not be enough to save Miami's bacon next time.
The Pacers will be as big as ever with Roy Hibbert and David West up front, and they should be even better overall with Danny Granger set to return from a lost season. The Chicago Bulls, who are no slouches when it comes to size, will welcome back an All-Star of their own, Derrick Rose, to partner with the likes of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. The Brooklyn Nets will be similarly stacked with size now that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will be joining forces with Brook Lopez.
Out West, the Spurs (Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter), Memphis Grizzlies (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph), Houston Rockets (Dwight Howard and Omer Asik), Los Angeles Clippers (Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan), Golden State Warriors (David Lee and Andrew Bogut) and even Minnesota Timberwolves (Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic) possess the sort of big, skilled bodies who can abuse Miami on the interior.
The larger the opponent, the more help the Heat have to send to keep LeBron, Bosh, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen from relinquishing shots at the rim or getting tuckered out from taking on guys of superior size and strength. And the more help Miami's other defenders have to provide, the more vulnerable the rest of the defense becomes and the tougher it is for the Heat to win.
Surely, Pat Riley and his front-office minions saw the writing on the wall. They were fortunate to win the last two titles after surviving three Game 7's—two against the giant lineups afforded to Indiana and San Antonio.
The Heat will need to be even more vigilant next year, with the upper crusts of both conferences populated by teams of significant size, if they're to extend their run to a three-peat. If anything, Miami's success so far has been the exception to reinforce the norm. The Heat's brand of "small ball" works because they feature a multi-talented superstar, LeBron James, who can play all five positions credibly on both ends of the floor.
With which team should Greg Oden sign?
Good luck finding anyone else in the NBA who could do that now, or anyone who could ever do it as well as LeBron does. I know, Magic Johnson famously filled in at the 5 as a rookie, but he never so much as sniffed an All-Defensive squad. LeBron, on the other hand, has already been honored thusly five times and is regarded by many as the best defender in the NBA today. Take that, Earvin!
And it's not as though the Heat are exactly devoid of size themselves. LeBron is a full 6'8" and 260 pounds, while Bosh stands around 6'11" with arms long enough to bring Jay Bilas out of his seat. Birdman, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony aren't all that small, either.
Nor is Miami the only team out there that wants Oden on its roster. The Spurs could use another big to flesh out a front line that's thin behind Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. The same holds true for the Mavs beyond Sam Dalembert.
The Hawks are absent a true center (of any experience) after missing out on Howard and Bynum and letting Zaza Pachulia walk to Milwaukee. Anthony Davis isn't ready to start in the middle for the New Orleans Pelicans, nor is Jason Smith a smart solution over the long haul.
Whichever of his six suitors Greg Oden hands his final rose to will be getting a giant dude at a relatively cheap price who's a threat to wind up back on the operating table every time he steps onto the hardwood. And you know what? That team will be mighty happy to have him on board.
Because size still matters, regardless of what some "trends" might suggest.