Early Return by Greg Oden Should Scare Everyone but Miami Heat
Which should have every team in the league outside of South Beach shaking in its boots right about now.
Oden participated his first full practice as a member of the Miami Heat on Monday. That included playing in some five-on-five scrimmages, during which Oden, among other things, blocked a shot by LeBron James. The occasion marked the closest Oden has come to bona fide NBA action since December of 2009, when he last suited up for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Oden was encouraged by his latest results, though he evidently understands that he still has a long way to go before he's ready to play in an actual game. As he told ESPN's Michael Wallace after practice:
It felt good to get out there and get some up-and-down. You can see I'm frustrated because I'm not as back as I want to be. But it's little steps, and today was another step, getting out there and doing some five on five.
Those steps could include Oden taking the court with his Heat teammates before the end of the preseason. He doesn't seem likely to play in Miami's next two exhibitions—on the road against the Washington Wizards and the Brooklyn Nets—though, with proper progress and the absence of swelling in his surgically repaired knee, Oden could be ready to go shortly thereafter.
The Challenges Ahead for the Champs
On its own, Oden's return isn't reason enough for Miami's chief rivals to worry much more than they did before. The fragile former No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft will be brought along slowly and figures only to play sparingly, even when he's regained his bearings.
The Heat, for their part, should already be of grave concern to the likes of the Chicago Bulls, the Indiana Pacers and the Brooklyn Nets in the East, not to mention the panoply of title contenders out West. They're coming off three straight Eastern Conference crowns and back-to-back NBA championships. They're also bringing back nearly everyone from last year's 66-win squad, save for Mike Miller, who was "amnestied" this past summer.
As such, this group already knows how to win and is fully capable of winning championships as is. The Heat will be favored to three-peat come playoff time, with or without a healthy Oden.
But the success that Miami has enjoyed since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010 has been anything but easy to come by. The Heat had to battle their way to the top and have had to work even harder to stay there.
Last season's playoffs were proof of as much. Miami lost Game 1 of the second round at home to a short-handed Chicago squad and went the distance with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals and the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. The latter two cases, in particular, saw the Heat come controversially close to letting a second title slip away.
In all three cases, the Heat found themselves matched up with teams whose size and strength inside gave the defending champs fits. The Bulls had their trio of bigs (Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson), while the Pacers (David West and Roy Hibbert) and the Spurs (Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter) both started pairs of behemoths.
To be sure, Miami's issues with bigger opponents came somewhat by design. During the summer of 2012, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley went all-in on the brand of position-less "small ball" the team had employed to survive and advance through the 2012 playoffs. Playing three-point specialists like Shane Battier and Mike Miller up front, alongside LeBron and Bosh, allowed Miami to spread the floor on offense and play an aggressive, trapping style of defense.
But the system, more useful than your usual tactical novelty in the NBA, wasn't without its flaws. With a smaller lineup devoid of bona fide bulk, the Heat were bound to get beat up on the boards and at the basket, especially against opponents that sported more traditional power forwards and centers. According to NBA.com, the Heat ranked 22nd or lower in all three rebounding percentage categories (i.e., offensive, defensive and total).
Moreover, having guys like Battier and Miller to defend bigger, stronger forwards left the Heat defense susceptible to easy scores, forced the rest of the players on the floor to scramble frantically in help situations and ultimately wore down those tasked with "sliding up" a position. It's no wonder, then, that Udonis Haslem, a more traditional power forward, ended up starting more often than not last season.
The Heat will need size on their side more than ever now that their toughest foes have all improved over the last few months.
The Bulls have Derrick Rose back in the lineup and have added a tall sharpshooter of their own (Mike Dunleavy Jr.) to the equation. The Pacers, too, will be welcoming in a shooting big (Chris Copeland) and an interior bruiser (Luis Scola), in addition to the return of Danny Granger. The Brooklyn Nets are a team of ample size now that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko have joined Brook Lopez up front. As for the New York Knicks, they'll no longer need to worry so much about their own style of "small ball" with Andrea Bargnani serving as the stretch 4.
Old Greg or the Oden of Old?
Oden alone may not be the silver bullet the Heat need to overcome this slew of challengers, but what he brings to the table could prove vital to Miami surviving yet another gauntlet on the way to a third straight title.
When healthy, Oden can step in as yet another two-way big man with the hands to finish on offense and the length, strength and sheer mass to be a major factor on defense. Even if Oden's only able to play, say, 15-20 minutes a night when he's fully fit, that might be enough to help the Heat mitigate the less desirable effects of their free-flowing style.
Consider Chris Andersen's impact on the Heat last year. Miami was plenty good prior to Andersen's arrival, with a championship already under its belt and a 27-12 regular-season record in the works.
But with the Birdman aboard, the Heat soared to new heights. His energy, athleticism and ability to attack and protect the rim were exactly what Miami needed off the bench to not only shore up the team's thin front line but also lend a spark to what would've otherwise been a lethargic title defense.
Which Eastern Conference contender is the biggest threat to the Heat's supremacy?
Just over a week after Birdman's first game for the defending champs, the Heat embarked on a 27-game winning streak. Coincidence? Probably not.
Remember, too, that Andersen played fewer than 15 minutes per game during the regular season, registered three DNPs during the Heat's playoff run and, at 6'10" and 230 pounds, struggled to defend post players one-on-one.
Oden, at seven feet and upward of 250 pounds, should have no such trouble standing up to the Hibberts, the Duncans, the Lopezes and the Noahs of the NBA. If he can log anywhere near the number of minutes that the Birdman did last season, Oden's signing will have been more than well worth it for Miami.
(And even if he doesn't, the veteran's minimum contract to which the Heat inked Oden will be easily forgotten amidst the flurry of money doled out to the rest of the team's roster.)
Anything the Heat can do to expand their already considerable edge over the rest of the NBA should be of at least some concern to those playing catch-up. Rather than rest on its laurels, Miami has found ways to boost its own championship-chasing bottom line, both internally and externally.
The addition of Greg Oden is but one of the ways the Heat have done this since they last hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy, if not the best one. If Oden's anywhere near as good as he was four years ago, when his knee last buckled in a Blazer uniform, the Heat could be on their way to their most dominant season yet.
A frightening thought for everyone else, indeed, considering how good Miami has been and already is.
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