Greg Oden Worth the Risk If Teams Are Careful in Contract Negotiations

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistJuly 24, 2013

Mar 8, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; NBA free agent Greg Oden walks along the court after the game between the Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers 103-92 at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it all works out or crumbles under the weight of his papier-mache knees, 2007 No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden is on the precipice of an unprecedented comeback.

The 25-year-old big man, who has not played in an NBA game since Dec. 5, 2009, worked out for teams Tuesday in his hometown of Indianapolis. Representatives from the Miami Heat, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings were in attendance, according to what sources close to the situation told ESPN's Marc Stein and Jeff Goodman.

From all accounts, the workout went as well as anyone could have hoped.

"It went well," the source said. "He did a ton of agility stuff, ran suicides and also did drills on the court."

"He's coming along," a scout told Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears. "Good to see him out there working.”

All of this is working to fulfill its express purpose—make Oden as sought-after as humanly possible. In the aftermath of Dwight Howard finally finding a home with the Houston Rockets and Andrew Bynum coming to terms with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oden instantly became the most intriguing big man on the market.

Don't confuse that with best. Nikola Pekovic is a safer bet than even Bynum and possibly a better player. Chris Kaman is seven-feet tall and has played basketball during this decade. But those players weren't getting anyone craning their necks.

Pekovic, though still a free agent, is bound for a return to Minnesota once the two sides come to a long-term agreement. The last time Kaman had a solid NBA season Oden was still playing basketball and signed a minuscule deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Meanwhile, Oden's tires have possibly been kicked by no fewer than seven teams. In addition to the three teams that watched the former Ohio State standout work out Tuesday, the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks have known interest.

Cleveland was interested in keeping Oden in the greater Ohio area—he's been taking classes at Ohio State during his basketball hiatus—before landing Bynum on a team-friendly deal.

Why would teams be interested in a man who will be nearly 47 months removed from his last NBA game? Because of course they would be interested.

Folks love breaking out their virtual Your an Idiot sticks to scoff at the Portland Trail Blazers' decision to take Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007. The move is this generation's Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, if only Bowie had exactly 82 games under his belt rather than 511 as a serviceable rotation big for three franchises.

Portland being "haunted" by that Bowie decision has been reason enough for some to think the Oden injury was inevitable.

Seriously. People actually think that. Like it would have been a rational decision for Portland to pass on a potentially franchise-changing center because of something that happened nearly a quarter-century prior. 

It's easy to forget six years later what Oden represented in 2007. I was 17 in 2007. Outside of junior prom and finally getting my driver's license, I didn't have a whole lot going on. So that made for a ton of college basketball sessions, many of which were spent watching these two transformative players.

Oden and Durant were both otherworldly prospects—completely dominant in different ways, Oden being one of the most dominant defensive players in recent memory and Durant a scoring machine.

My database on prospects goes back to 2002 at the moment and is currently in beta phase, but these two were separated by the thinnest of margins (Durant is slightly better). They were 1a) and 1b) after that college basketball campaign, even as both had their flaws.

Durant couldn't lift a pack of Doublemint over his head or defend. Oden had battled through a few injuries and was a little raw offensively. 

Whatever. Just go look at the entertaining-in-hindsight debate article about Oden vs. Durant. It will tell you all you need to know. 

Within 12 months of that draft, the chorus went firmly in Durant's favor. That said, it's not like Oden was a stiff when he was on the floor—and that's exactly why teams are keeping an open mind about making a run.

After sitting out the 2007-08 season with his first microfracture surgery, Oden had his longest sustained run of health. He played in 61 of 82 games in 2008-09, averaging 8.9 points, seven rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game on 56.4 percent shooting, including an excellent 67.2 clip from the restricted area.

The Blazers were better in nearly every facet of the game with Oden on the floor, including a jarring rate during the postseason.

In that fateful 2009-10 campaign, Oden was seemingly putting it all together. His averages spiked across the board, as Portland had an elite point differential when he was on the floor versus being a mid-tier playoff bunch with him off.

Sample sizes are difficult to parse here, but over a career 82-game run, Oden has per-36-minute averages of 15.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. He was an excellent post defender—players shot just 40 percent against him, per Synergy Sports (subscription required)—and wasn't terrible on pick-and-rolls.

It's fair to say that a healthy Oden—and forgive me for going into this hellish wormhole—would have been in the yearly conversation for Best Center Alive. 

There's no need to go forth with that analogy. Oden didn't stay healthy. He's nearly four years removed from the game. From the research I've done, a comeback of this magnitude would be completely unprecedented in NBA history. Even Shaun Livingston, after suffering his horrifying knee injury that nearly caused amputation, sat out less than half the time Oden has. 

Any team adding Oden knows what a risky game it's playing. Four years and a bevy of surgeries have almost certainly sapped Oden of his athleticism and lateral quickness. He's going to be a liability in pick-and-roll defense, and he's going to need the offense to slow down when he's on the floor. 

The work Oden did in those workouts is beyond benign. The modern-day equivalent of Yi Jianlian's chair. Teams should have expected Oden to look fine running up and down the court for a couple hours and that he's worked his way down to his playing weight after being 315 pounds.

The problem is that Tuesday's workout might have drummed up enough excitement to take this inspirational story and send it careening off a cliff. Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports reported last week that the Pelicans were planning a $3 million offer. If a team was impressed enough from what it saw in Oden, could that figure become the starting point?

Even if that figure is guaranteed money, every other team should back away because it's insane.

Miami is far and away the best fit from nearly every perspective. The defending champs have superstar talent, would provide Oden a chance to compete for a title and would only use him in sparing situations. But if the bidding starts at $3 million, it would eat up the Heat's mini mid-level exception—and that's too big of a risk for a squad that's mostly looking to add pieces to the status quo.

The same is true for the Spurs, who are mostly capped-out.

It's utterly remarkable that Oden has even reached this point in his recovery. But smart teams will acknowledge what he is—a complete luxury item whose presence shouldn't even be counted on for a minute.

You pay those players minimum salaries. Not $3 million. If Oden and his team are willing to take a prove-it deal with a minimum salary—or even something only slightly above it—then there's no reason for any contending team not to push for a deal. 

If we're talking about a C.R.E.A.M. situation, it'd be best for teams like Miami and San Antonio to walk away and allow the New Orleanses of the world to make their mistakes. Oden is a great story. But it's not one you should want to watch if the price of admission risks a title run.


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