Great news everyone: Greg Oden's knees have not swollen to an unacceptable size.
We know that to be the case because the Miami Heat's trainers have been measuring the big man's problematic joints after each tiny step of his latest comeback effort. If Oden's knees get a little too puffy, the injury-plagued center doesn't get to move forward in his recovery.
But Oden has been moving forward, slowly and steadily.
If his progress continues, it's possible that for the first time in four years, Oden will be the protagonist in a feel-good story. Up to this point, he's been the victim in some kind of tragic play, which is why everyone in the NBA community is hoping he can make it back onto the court during an actual game.
Oden's return is about more than overcoming personal struggles, though. In fact, there are far-reaching implications attached to his comeback that could shape the future of the Heat franchise and have an impact on the overall NBA landscape.
Everyone should be paying close attention to Greg Oden.
Oden's Impact on the Heat
During their second consecutive championship season, the Heat didn't often look vulnerable. Armed with three stars and a supporting cast of veterans, Miami was ready for almost anything.
But we learned in the 2012-13 postseason that dominant, conventional centers gave the Heat a little bit of trouble. Everyone watched as Roy Hibbert held down the lane against Miami, exposing the Heat's small-ball approach in a way that few others could. The addition of Chris Andersen was a marginal help, but generally speaking, the Heat didn't have an answer for old-school, lane-clogging big men.
Oden might be that answer.
If (and this will be the first of a great many "ifs") Oden manages to get healthy enough to contribute, he could serve a very specific purpose for the Heat as they pursue their third straight title. His size and strength would allow Miami to meet the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets on equal frontcourt terms.
There's no doubt that the Heat's best lineups are smaller, typically featuring Chris Bosh at center and LeBron James at power forward. But a healthy Oden would give Miami the option to go big-against-big whenever the need arises.
It's easy to forget how promising Oden was in his early career, but from the whispers coming out of Heat training camp, it seems like the big man is showing glimpses of his past form. According to Walter Vila of The Miami Herald, Oden challenged a handful of James' shots in a scrimmage and earned praise from Dwyane Wade for his aggressiveness.
Nobody's rushing to etch Oden's name onto the Defensive Player of the Year award just yet, but there's already a sense that he might be ready to make a bigger-than-expected impact. Obviously, that's good news for the Heat this year.
But there's more.
Suppose Oden not only contributes in spot duty this season, but also makes it through the year with knees intact and the promise of getting even better in coming seasons. If that happens, Miami would certainly seek to re-sign him, giving the roster a potentially dominant interior presence.
With all three of James, Wade and Bosh able to opt out of their contracts in the summer of 2014, the Heat will be looking to build as appealing an environment (and roster) as possible in Miami.
Wouldn't the presence of a healthy, defensively dominant center be enticing to the Big Three?
It's highly improbable that Oden will make it through a full season without a setback. We've seen him go through too much to believe otherwise. But it's not impossible. The mere chance—slim as it is—that Oden could positively factor into Miami's effort to keep its stars in South Beach has major repercussions throughout the league.
Forget the professional angles to Oden's comeback for a moment. They make his story interesting to some degree, but the real reason we should all be glued to this narrative is the human-interest side.
It's hard to find a more sympathetic character than Oden. By now, everyone knows the rough outline of his history: He was drafted No. 1 overall in 2007, viewed as one of the most promising big-man prospects in years. But beset by injuries, he played just 82 games over his first three seasons.
Then he missed the next three entirely.
His road back has been brutal, marked by faint flashes of hope and long periods of despair. Even now, healthier than he's been in years, it feels like Oden is a mild strain or slight tweak away from disaster.
Trainers are monitoring him closely, and only recently have they allowed him to play in actual five-on-five drills. Clearly, there's still a long way for Oden to go.
Despite that, it's impossible not to smile when hearing him describe the joy of getting to practice for the first time in years. After his first on-court work in training camp, Oden delightedly told ESPN's Brian Windhorst: "It felt good just being out there. It's the first time in awhile, I'm happy I got it completed. They had to pull me off the floor."
A recovery like Oden's would be a remarkable story for any player, but it's particularly heartwarming because of the personal strife he has endured in his star-crossed career.
In a story by Grantland's Mark Titus, we learned that Oden suffered from a combination of painful shyness, a few naive personal decisions and even alcoholism in his early days with the Portland Trail Blazers. Titus went out of his way in the piece to explain that Oden didn't ever seem depressed, but in recounting the big man's reaction to autograph seekers last year, it's hard to miss the self-pity:
...I don't understand why they are so excited to meet me. I'm just a person. I guess I didn't really mind it when I was at Ohio State and even right after I was drafted, but it just seems so fake now. Like, why are you bothering me at dinner for a picture when I'm nothing now?
Oden has suffered immensely since coming into the league, but the sources of his pain have largely been beyond his control. Injuries and a demeanor that wasn't cut out for fame have made his life difficult. And while it's usually hard to feel bad for millionaires in their 20's who play a sport for a living, that's not the case with Oden.
The fact that this might be his last chance to deliver on the promise he showed years ago makes every step in Oden's recovery feel like a milestone. And unless you're some kind of monster (or a Knicks fan), you're rooting for him to succeed.
It's easy to forget amid the din of preseason predictions, advanced stats and projected standings that there are real human beings inside NBA jerseys. In Oden's case, there's one with a good heart and modest goals.
It'd be remarkable if he could somehow stay healthy enough to impact the Heat this year and in the future. But more than anything, we should be hoping that Oden continues to be happy during the process.
He's been through enough to deserve it.