Reasons to Be Optimistic About Greg Oden's Latest Comeback Bid

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Reasons to Be Optimistic About Greg Oden's Latest Comeback Bid
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It is Marv Harshman who is credited with the quote "Quick guys get tired. Big guys don't shrink." It's been 30 years since Harshman left the University of Washington, and science has yet to disprove his assertion.

The Miami Heat appear to have based their recent signing of Greg Oden in part on this truism, but is there any more that Oden has to give to the two-time defending champs? There are signs that there's more to Oden's game left than many think.

Oden, listed at 7'0", is coming off an extended rehab after several knee operations, including three separate instances of microfracture. It's hard to remember that he's still only 25 years old and could have a decade of basketball ahead of him—if Jay Sabol and the Heat medical staff can keep him together.

Notably, the Heat are one of a few teams with more than one athletic trainer on staff. While several teams have two, and more have some that they work with on a consulting basis, the Heat have three full-time, travel-with-the-team ATs—a big advantage for a situation like this.

The Heat aren't expecting Oden to come in and dominate like a first overall pick, the way that the Blazers did when they picked him over Kevin Durant. What the heat are looking for is, oddly, a complement to Chris Andersen and a massive inside presence to counter the big bodies of Roy Hibbert and Tyson Chandler.

The challenge for the Heat is figuring out how to best use Oden while balancing his playing time with his ability to recover.

Oden is never going to play 30 minutes a game. He's unlikely to play in all, or even half of the Heat's games next season. He's the ultimate matchup player, a weapon that Erik Spoelstra is going to have to use sparingly and only in the right situations. 

I spoke with Mike Reinold, one of the top physical therapists in the country. Mike has worked extensively with Kevin Wilk and Dr. James Andrews in the past. Reinold explained that "there are modern approaches to training and rehabilitation that will allow athletes to continue to perform workouts, such as using the Alter-G anti-gravity treadmill, which literally allows you to run on a treadmill with as little as 20 percent of your body weight, and performing exercises under water in a pool to allow the buoyancy of the water to unload the knee."

While there are some successful returns to production in the NBA—names like Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin come to mind—the operation has become less popular in recent years. It seems there is a transition period between the Hail Mary of microfracture and the more advanced regrowth/stem cell/transplant axis of advancement.

That means the state of the art hasn't moved significantly. Kevin Pelton's research from 2008 is still timely. 

The Heat should be in a unique position. They don't need Oden, though he offers them upside, especially in certain matchups. We will have to see if Spoelstra, Sabol and to some extent Pat Riley can figure out how to go outside the normal rotations and maximize their use of Oden's talents. Keeping Oden inactive in certain games should be considered a positive. In fact, thinking of Oden as the ultimate end-of-bench player is the best way to think of him.

It should be impossible to use normal metrics, even games or minutes, to judge Oden in context. If he plays in as few as 20 games, he could have an outsized impact on the Heat and hopefully be healthy enough for a bigger stretch in the playoffs.

And it's there that the medical staff will be tested. Oden's recovery from game to game will be the staff's biggest challenge, and the tight schedule of the playoffs—when he's likely to see a lot more of Chandler, Hibbert and the like—will be very tough on his degenerated knees.

Reinold explained that the condition of the knee itself is going to be problematic for Miami to maintain.

"It is really about controlling the loads to the knee," he said. "If you think of the cartilage like a sponge with water. When the sponge wears down and starts to get brittle, it can hold less water. Playing basketball causes the water to get squeezed out of the sponge. With proper rest and controlling of the load on his knee, the water is allowed to go back into the sponge again. If you play too much or don't have enough recovery, this effect will be magnified."

If there's any perfect comparable situation for Oden, it's Bill Walton. While it's unlikely that Oden will have the same kind of stat line as Walton during his last two years in the league with the Celtics, that's really the model.

Walton played almost 40 percent of the minutes possible in the 1985-86 season, which is much more than I expect Oden will be able to play. The result, though, could be similar, as both teams were able to overcome their players' physical challenge and end the season hoisting a trophy.

Miami's unique needs, plus the surrounding talent, trumped the thought that Oden would go to a team where the medical team was the top consideration. Both San Antonio and Cleveland were thought to hold some significant advantages, but in the end, Miami was close enough on the important issues that the chance at a ring made the ultimate difference.

It's funny to say that I'm optimistic about Greg Oden because of the limitations, but that's exactly the case. Between the surrounding talent, the team's understanding of Oden's abilities, the uniquely suited medical staff, and Oden's age and physicality, the Heat may well have just signed the best 10-minute-a-game player in the NBA and locked themselves in as the favorite to win not one, not two, but three titles in a row.

 

Will Carroll has been writing about sports injuries for 12 years. His work has appeared at SI.com, ESPN.com and Basketball Prospectus. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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