Ordinarily, no one cares when a team signs what very well may amount to a third-string center, but Greg Oden won't be any ordinary third-string center. He may one day be remembered as the unluckiest first overall pick in history. For now, we'll remember him as a probable benchwarmer whom quite a few teams were nevertheless keen on signing this summer.
For a third-string center, we all know there's a chance he's still really good.
But if you ask LeBron James, getting back to "really good" will be a process (via ESPN's Brian Windhorst):
Adding Greg is a huge piece for us but we're not asking too much from him, we're not going to put too much pressure on him. He hasn't played since 2009, so it's been awhile. We just want him to work his way back into condition. Whatever he gives us is extra.
Of course, "extra" doesn't mean useless.
In a perfect world—even more perfect than the one where you win back-to-back NBA titles—Oden could make a difference, perhaps even a timely one. That time won't be in November, and it might not come until after the All-Star break, when those difference-makers really start coming in handy.
Still, James is right about the process part. The blueprint for that process is straightforward enough.
But not easy.
Oden will find himself working as hard as anyone in Miami's locker room, in some ways even harder. And no matter what he does, his playing time probably won't be commensurate with the effort.
The Heat may not boast an All-Star center who'd gobble up Oden's minutes, but this club really wasn't built for big men. Chris Bosh is its closest thing to a legitimate center, a fact that hasn't put Miami at a significant disadvantage yet.
Thanks to James and Dwyane Wade playing so much bigger than their respective sizes, this team rebounds and defends in a variety of ways—not always in the paint. Even though there's no Roy Hibbert ahead of Oden in the rotation, there may be inconsistent demand for his services.
Returning to the floor in more than name only will require a few things.
The first step will be staying healthy.
Greg Oden's injury history is ridiculous in the worst possible way. He's suffered through no fewer than three microfracture surgeries between 2007 and 2012.
If there's any silver lining to Oden's tragic induction into the NBA, it's the very thing that makes it so tragic: He's still just 25 years old. It's a reason for optimism insofar as he doesn't have all that wear-and-tear mileage on his body and he's not subject to the kinds of injury risks a player 10 years his senior would be.
But optimism doesn't make for good coaching policy. Limiting Oden's minutes will be a fact of life for most—if not all—of the first 82 games, out of precaution if nothing else. Minimizing his knees' exposure to the regular season's long grind will be essential, and an inevitable byproduct of a rotation that likes to go small.
It's what happens next where things get tricky, according to Bleacher Report's Will Carroll, who notes, "the tight schedule of the playoffs—when [Oden's] likely to see a lot more of Chandler, Hibbert and the like—will be very tough on his degenerated knees."
So tough that we really may have to revise what we mean by a successful comeback in Oden's case. Doing much of anything in games that matter would be impressive.
Assuming Oden can stay healthy down the stretch, he'll also have to work on fitting in with the Heat.
If you haven't noticed, Miami likes to run the ball. That's not an indictment of the half-court offense, but teams that can run and shoot are crazy not to. Miami can do both. That's part of why Bosh has remained such a nice fit in the middle. It's less about his production and more about the fact that he can run and shoot.
It's also why Udonis Haslem often finds himself as Erik Spoelstra's de facto center despite being only 6'8". Haslem doesn't have Bosh's range, but his serviceable mid-range game contributes to at least some floor spacing. More importantly, his ability to move his feet allows him to do things like defend the pick-and-roll and keep up with Miami's pace.
Can Oden keep up?
One NBA executive told HOOPSWORLD's Alex Kennedy that Oden was "moving well" earlier this summer, but it's hard to know what to make of that. Is he moving well for a guy who had three microfractures or...well enough to stay on the floor in the NBA Finals?
That's one of the reasons Oden's been doing Pilates. Not only will the improved core strength and agility improve his odds of staying healthy, but it will also help him remain mobile on a team where that really matters.
Of course, he'll continue to engage in all sorts of training to that end. This blueprint's most significant component is also its most understated; all the stuff Oden has and will continue to do off the floor.
There's a good chance Greg Oden wins a title in 2014, a title he probably won three or four years ago in some alternate (and far more just) universe. But that title won't be his biggest payoff if all this work ends up amounting to something. The real payoffs will be the sporadic 10- and 15-minute appearances he makes on the way there.
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