There have been better dunks than the one Greg Oden threw down against the New Orleans Pelicans Oct. 23, but none in recent memory have simultaneously inspired more hope and dread across the NBA landscape.
For Eastern Conference rivals like the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets, Oden's slam should have inspired fear. But for the Miami Heat, who gambled on the snakebit big man with a one-year deal, it represented the possibility that the two-time defending champs could get even better this year.
No Ordinary Jam
First, let's check out the play itself, which came on Oden's first in-game touch in nearly four years.
You'll note that there's not much of a "move" involved here, which indicates that Oden probably hasn't progressed in the finesse department during his prolonged absence from the court. That's understandable; Oden's recovery has been about taking baby steps, not adding a shimmying, turnaround jumper.
Besides, what made him a great prospect in the first place had nothing to do with a polished post game.
What we did glimpse on that meaningful jam was the raw, brute force that made Oden the No. 1 overall pick ahead of Kevin Durant in 2007. He simply bulled his way to deep position in the lane, received the pass, shouldered his defender out of the way and dunked.
Watching that clip, it's hard not to feel an overwhelming sense of happiness for Oden. The guy has been the victim of horrible luck since he entered the league, and his inability to stay healthy hasn't had anything to do with a lack of effort or conditioning.
Seeing him on the court—and creating a signature moment, no less—was like a scene out of Rudy.
Man I'm so happy for GO tonight! Couldn't imagine being away from the game for 3 years. Feel like a proud big brother! Determination wins— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 24, 2013
Everyone on the Heat bench was psyched, but not in a typical "my teammate just threw down a two-hander" type of way. You can see in Udonis Haslem's face as he pumps his fist that he appreciates the significance of the play. He knows there's something special attached to that dunk.
Oden couldn't hide his enthusiasm either.
Is your heart warmed? Mine is.
That postgame interview tells us that Oden's goals remain modest, which indicates that he hasn't lost sight of the big picture. So at the same time Haslem clearly recognized the possibilities that a healthy Oden represents, the big man himself has been through enough to know that those possibilities have a long way to go before they become probabilities.
He's still in a phase of his recovery where nothing is guaranteed. A little extra swelling or a slight tweak, and "Operation Comeback" goes back on indefinite hold. For that reason, it's difficult to look at Oden's dunk as more than a faint hint of what might be possible at some point later this season.
As has been the case for years, Oden's basketball future is exceptionally fragile.
Still, as a possible sign of what Miami might get out of its big man in short bursts, the play had serious ramifications for the 2013-14 season.
Small ball remains the Heat's best plan of attack, but we saw in last year's playoffs that they struggled against bigger lineups. Roy Hibbert controlled the lane on both ends in the Eastern Conference Finals, and with huge front lines in Chicago and Brooklyn, it's only going to be more important that Miami finds some kind of interior presence this season.
Oden gives them a chance to do that, and if he's healthy enough to play even a few minutes per game in the postseason, those minutes might actually come during a key closing stretch. If healthy, Oden can match up physically with anyone.
There aren't many players with the size and strength to bang with Hibbert, but the 7'0", 270-pound Oden is one of them.
And if the Heat have to contend with the Bulls at some point during the playoffs (which they almost certainly will), having Oden as an option is a major plus. He can compete with Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer inside, and he'll serve as a potentially game-changing last line of defense against Derrick Rose's drives.
The Heat have generally thrived in the past by playing small and forcing opponents to adjust. But among legitimate contenders in the East, the front lines are only getting bigger and better. Miami can't rely on the same old tricks to succeed this time around.
Oden provides a new option.
A Dash of Realism
Look, it's highly unlikely that Oden will make it through the year healthy. We've seen far too much in the past to give him the benefit of the doubt.
In addition, the numbers don't suggest that the Heat are all that desperate for the brief spurts of interior defense Oden might be able to provide. During the 2012-13 playoffs, Miami allowed opponents to convert 57.7 percent of their shots in the restricted area, per NBA.com. That figure sounds high, but it ranked fifth-best among playoff teams and was only marginally worse than the Pacers' figure of 56.2 percent.
During the regular season, only five teams—the Pacers, Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks—had more success in limiting opponents' field-goal percentage in the lane, per NBA.com.
So there's a fair amount of anecdotal analysis involved when discussing how valuable Oden might be to Miami's interior defense. Nonetheless, it still makes sense to assume that he could take a defensive unit that is already very good and turn it into one that—for short stretches—could be the league's best.
Ultimately, it's just nice to discuss what Oden could do for Miami in terms that aren't totally hypothetical. His return to the court is a small step in the right direction for him, and it provides the possibility, however slim, that Miami could actually be better, more versatile and more dangerous than ever this year.
Because of the extra significance attached, one little dunk in a preseason game could be as meaningful as any in recent memory.