There are some situations in the sports world that require instant takes. They require you to formulate a quick opinion, drive home that opinion really hard and see whether your readership agrees. Some outlets might call these #HotTakes.
Greg Oden signing with the Miami Heat does not lend itself to that instant analysis. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald was the first to report Friday evening that Oden would be signing with the defending champs:
Greg Oden's agent tells me he will sign with the Heat.— Barry Jackson (@flasportsbuzz) August 3, 2013
ESPN's Marc Stein notes the deal is for the league minimum, and that Oden will have a player option for the second season:
Oden, I'm told, will report to Miami on Monday to formally sign his contract. Two-year deal at league minimum with player option in Year 2— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) August 3, 2013
With someone of Oden's stature—a former No. 1-overall pick coming back from years of injury—it's easy to get swept up in hyperbole: to look at how Oden's signing shifts the paradigm of the championship structure; to assert that his acquisition is acknowledgement that Miami's small ball can't work long-term; to credit the Indiana Pacers, specifically Roy Hibbert, for forcing this move.
By the time this posts, it's likely you will have already seen that type of analysis and will see more of it in the coming days. At the very least, you've seen jokes about LeBron James and Oden both looking too old for their age and thousands of witticisms about the big man's fragility. Social media is nothing if not a perfect place to do your best Louis C.K. impersonation.
The problem with all of the instant analysis with Oden's signing is that it's wildly overreaching. (Except the jokes. Never stop being Twitter, Twitter.)
When delving into the basketball implications of this move, the only correct answer is I don't know. It's unlikely that any of us will know for months—perhaps not until a month or two into the regular season, if not later. Oden has already acknowledged to Stein that a big reason he signed with Miami was because there was no pressure for him to be ready by opening night:
Oden tells ESPN by phone that it was “big deciding factor” that Heat officials made it clear he “wouldn’t be needed as much” early in season— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) August 3, 2013
Oden adds in ESPN phone interview it's not yet clear if he'll be ready for Opening Night. Says '13-14 goal is “to finish the season healthy"— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) August 3, 2013
Oden isn't tempering expectations by accident. He's spent his entire NBA career—what you can call that, at least—with the weight of face-of-the-franchise expectations. Miami won't pressure him to be back on opening night because it doesn't have to; that isn't a small deal.
So we don't know when Oden will be back on the floor—if ever. Oden's problems have always cropped up when he's started to ramp up activity, playing basketball every day and banging bodies in the paint. The big man's career has been filled with so many red herrings you'd swear it was scripted by Veena Sud. Until Greg Oden is back on an NBA floor consistently, his contract is a piece of paper that guarantees him money—nothing more.
The more important thing here—perhaps the only truly important thing—is that we also have no earthly idea how good a basketball player he is at this point. He hasn't set foot on a basketball court since Dec. 5, 2009. If he suits up and plays opening night, it will have been 1,424 days since his last NBA appearance. He's gone almost a full-term presidency since performing his chosen profession in a competitive setting.
We can speak in generalizations about the effect he had on the Portland Trail Blazers, and theoretically speak to how that skill set would translate to Miami. Oden boasts career per-36-minute averages of 15.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. The Blazers were, on average, 3.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off.
But what does that mean nearly four years later? After this much time, and that many knee surgeries? Not much. We have a framework with which to imagine what Oden is at this point. That's about it.
Is he 25 percent the player he was four years ago? 50? 75? The only answer we know cannot be the case is 100 percent, as the injuries and time off have certainly sapped a good deal of Oden's lateral quickness and athleticism. If the Heat get 75 percent of 2009 Oden, you'll see Pat Riley dancing like he just won a title.
But here's the thing. From Miami's side of the bargaining table, it's risking nothing. There will be some who go out of their way to laud the Heat for "taking a chance" on Oden or "gambling" on his potential.
The Heat didn't "gamble" anything by signing Oden. That is, unless you count Mickey Arison's millions that he'll be paying out on Oden's contract and the subsequent luxury-tax payments that come along with it. In NBA terms, though, this is the very definition of a no-risk, medium-reward signing.
The Heat correctly view Oden as a luxury—the near-perfect luxury. There is the possibility that Oden's ticking time-bomb knees stick it out through the season and that he's an effective low-post defender who can fluster the Hibberts of the world while not being a minus on the offensive end. Whether he plays 80 games or 40 is irrelevant as long as he's helping out come May and June.
If things don't work out, well, Joel Anthony has as many rings as LeBron. What's another plus-one to the parade list?
They've won two straight championships and made three-consecutive NBA Finals with this core. Miami returns almost its entire roster in 2013-14, minus Mike Miller and a few spare parts who played a role as minor as you or I.
And by signing Oden to a veteran's minimum deal—this is where the "no risk" comes in—Riley still has some roster flexibility. The Heat get to keep their full mini mid-level exception, worth a little over $3 million, in their back pocket. It's that exception that landed them Ray Allen a year ago. And we all know how that worked out. With veterans like Mo Williams still out on the open market and finding the free-agency waters tepid, Miami could land a similar coup sometime later this month.
How many games will Greg Oden play next season?
But even if Arison balks at adding another contract to his books, signing Oden is already a success. He's the latest guy to come and take less to play with LeBron in South Beach—proof to just how much James' name and the city carry weight together. Don't think the Odens and the Allens won't be part of Riley's pitch come next summer when LeBron can be a free agent.
So, what does Oden's deal mean outside that fact? Not all that much. The Heat are favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the finals for a fourth-straight season and to win their third-straight NBA championship. No signing this summer—not even Dwight Howard—was going to shift the paradigm away from that fact. The defending champs have the best player alive, play in a weakened Eastern Conference and have the best assembly of talent.
Will Oden be the key to a three-peat? Will his presence allow Miami to play any style of basketball, leading it to another championship and LeBron re-signing next summer? I don't know yet. And you know what? Sometimes, that's all right.
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