Greg Oden is still pondering where he will play next.
The last time that Greg Oden played in a game, on Dec. 5, 2009, LeBron James was early in his final season as a Cleveland Cavalier, Dwight Howard seemed reasonably content as a member of the Orlando Magic, Blake Griffin was still an Oklahoma Sooner and the Miami Heat had won just one championship as a franchise.
Now, two Heat championships and nearly four years later, Miami is interested in adding Oden to its roster. Team president Pat Riley has communicated regularly with Oden's agents, and coach Erik Spoelstra and VP of player personnel Chet Kammerer watched the center work out in Indianapolis earlier this week.
Why the interest in someone who has had three major microfracture knee surgeries?
Pat Riley explained in mid-July:
If he’s healthy, he’s still young. Sometimes, and I’ve made this point before, you can go back to half-a-dozen athletes who started their careers missing two or three years with injuries, and then all of a sudden, never had another problem again.
Riley mentioned one (Kurt Thomas) who started his career with the Heat, and one (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) who finished his career with Miami. Neither had Oden's talent, talent that was attractive enough to convince the Portland Trail Blazers to draft him first overall in 2009, ahead of Kevin Durant.
The Heat liked what they saw in Indianapolis, enough to continue the pursuit, and are expected to learn within the next week whether Oden will continue his career under their watch, or in San Antonio, Dallas, New Orleans, Sacramento or Atlanta.
Why would an Oden-Miami marriage make sense?
For at least five reasons.
(All quotes in this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post.)
It may be hard to remember, but Greg Oden was starting to make an impact.
Pat Riley has always drawn a stark distinction between basketball outcomes:
And there's misery.
In the name of winning, the Miami Heat ultimately embraced Erik Spoelstra's innovative strategies, one based on a style that outsiders have called "small ball."
But Riley, at heart, has always been a proponent of talented pivots. As a coach, he inherited Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Los Angeles Lakers and Patrick Ewing with the New York Knicks. After he joined the Miami Heat as a coach and executive in 1995, his first major move was to trade for Alonzo Mourning.
Greg Oden hasn't accomplished anything close to any of them yet, playing only 82 games since the Portland Trail Blazers picked him first overall in 2007. And none of them had anything approaching Oden's health issues, at least not until Mourning was diagnosed with kidney disease just prior to his sixth season under Riley.
Still, there's appeal for Riley, because skilled size is harder to find, and thus at an even greater premium, than it was in those earlier eras.
Plus, Oden has shown, in his limited action, that he can be productive on both ends.
In his 82 games, Oden averaged just 22.1 minutes, during which he posted averages of 9.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. His career rebounding rate per 36 minutes (11.9) would have easily led the Heat last season, ahead of Udonis Haslem (10.3).
So, if he can stay on the court, even for limited stints, Oden can help Riley win next season.
And, if the small-ball trend reverses, he might help even more down the line.
After winning two titles with small ball, LeBron James and the Heat aren't desperate for anyone.
Players want to play.
They want to play as much as possible. They want to play at the start of games. They want to play at the end of games.
Sometimes, though, it's better to sit some.
That's the case for Greg Oden who, after missing nearly four full seasons, needs to be worked in slowly.
That's why signing with the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks or Atlanta Hawks doesn't make all that much sense, even if they're offering more dollars and cents. None of those teams are surefire playoff squads, and all would require some contribution from him to grab a lower seed in their respective conferences.
That might put pressure on him to rush some, to return before he's entirely ready.
His other two suitors, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, are in a different position. They are coming off an epic NBA finals against each other, and neither has lost anyone of note from its respective frontcourt.
The Spurs re-signed Tiago Splitter to a four-year, $36 million contract, and they still have Tim Duncan. The Heat brought back Chris Andersen to support the undersized but skilled Chris Bosh.
Both teams are good enough to advance deep into the playoffs again, even without another major addition. Neither team needs to worry much about results in November, December, January or even February.
That would make Oden a luxury this season, one who wouldn't be called upon to contribute until absolutely necessary. That would allow him to pace himself, without pressure, knowing that his team is still winning without him.
That's best for him this season, and so he can play more in those that follow.
It's not a sure thing the Heat's stars will stay after 2014, or what will be left for the supporting cast.
Pat Riley has tried to put off talk of 2014.
The Miami Heat president has even challenged the media to keep quiet about the possibilities of next summer, a pointless request if there's ever been one.
"We're about the present moment," Riley said recently. And yet, he acknowledged, "we have long-range plans."
He needs to, considering that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem all can exercise opt-out clauses after next season, and the contracts of Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and Shane Battier all come off the books.
That could create a boom-or-bust scenario, similar to the one Riley faced in 2010, when he kept Wade and Haslem, while adding James, Bosh and Mike Miller. Depending on what James decides, Riley could be perfectly positioned to reload around him or be forced into a full rebuild.
Either way, signing Greg Oden now makes some sense. That's especially true if the Heat can secure a team option for the 2014-15 season.
If Oden can recover enough from his previous injuries to become a quality center by that time, that might give James one more reason to stay. It might even give the Heat more flexibility in the event that Bosh decides to test the market.
Riley showed, in the lead-up to 2010, that he was thinking two steps, and several seasons, ahead. He also showed an ability to get his man—or men—when he set his mind to it.
An Oden acquisition would demonstrate that, in those key ways, he hasn't lost his touch.
The Heat's power trio should be together for a little while longer.
Want to pay a compliment to the Miami Heat?
Compare them to the San Antonio Spurs.
The Heat players, executives and coaches had great respect for San Antonio's NBA operation long before the 2013 NBA Finals, when the Spurs were five seconds away from eliminating them in six games.
Erik Spoelstra has repeatedly, publicly credited the stability of each organization as the critical factor in each's ability to sustain success.
There's nothing to suggest the Heat's hierarchy will change anytime soon, because it hasn't changed much since Micky Arison became the team's managing general partner. His son Nick is now entrenched as an executive, and Andy Elisburg is still crunching salary cap numbers. Riley recently said that he didn't want to "get off this train," and that he wanted to stay "as long as Micky will have me."
The Spurs are also set, with Peter Holt as an owner and R.C. Buford making personnel decisions.
But here's one Heat advantage that Oden should consider:
Gregg Popovich may be the best in the business, but the Spurs leader has stated that he plans to retire whenever Tim Duncan finally does. Duncan is still playing at a high level, but he can't play forever, so that could be two years. Or it could be one. And the Spurs staff is already getting picked apart, with Mike Budenholzer leaving to coach the Atlanta Hawks.
Riley recently joked that he didn't know the length of Spoelstra's current contract, but has made it clear he'll do what it takes to keep the young, two-time champion coach, a coach who has been part of the Heat organization for 16 seasons.
Oden could use as much support as possible. That can come from stability: an organization in which all the key people are on the same page and a coach who will be around to steer him through every step.
He can likely find that in Miami.
Lots of centers, like Andrew Bynum, present some risk. Greg Oden may prove worth it.
Greg Oden could never be a secret.
If so, the Miami Heat, after viewing him as a target for the past couple of seasons, could have offered the veteran minimum ($1.7 million) this summer without any fear of competition or rejection.
As other teams entered the fray, however, it became clear that Miami might need to offer part or all of its $3.2 million mini mid-level exception merely to have a chance.
For a team that has been intent on reducing its hefty luxury tax bill—so much so that it waived a quality player in Mike Miller—that wouldn't be ideal.
That's especially true in light of the risk: This potential recipient has had major knee trouble, significant enough that it's unclear he'll be able to make it through a month, let alone a year.
Still, if he can return to pre-injury form, he would be a bargain even at that price, especially at a time when Tiago Splitter is averaging $9 million per season and Zaza Pachulia is making $5.2 million.
That makes Oden worth the risk, even if the Heat give him a player option for the next season at nearly the same price. If they can convince him to take an incentive-laden deal, along the lines of what Andrew Bynum took in Cleveland (with Bynum getting greater guarantees), all the better.
And why should Oden join Miami, even if he can make more elsewhere?
For many reasons, some mentioned already: a supportive, stable organization; a reduction of the risk that comes with rushing to play for a bad team; the chance to be part of the franchise's long-term plans, with more money and a greater role potentially available down the line and the opportunity to catch perfect passes from LeBron James.
Oh, there's another thing:
He would have the chance for some satisfaction, after a frustrating start to his career.
Joining the Miami Heat? It could have a ring to it.