His return against the Washington Wizards on Jan. 15 after more than four years spent in solitary, grueling rehab was the most-discussed narrative in a game that would otherwise have been notable because it marked Miami's third consecutive loss.
But the Heat didn't sign Oden back in August because they wanted a distraction.
They signed him because he can impact the team in a number of vital ways. Amid the sheer joy of seeing him actually play basketball in a game that mattered, we saw hints as to the ways Oden could make an impact during his eight-minute stint against the Wizards.
As an aside, this is my proposal for Oden's new nickname. Not bad, right? Because of all the glass cleaning? Get it?
Back to the point: Oden's a giant human being, and time away from regular cardio workouts—combined with the natural aging process—has made him, well, "huger." He looked noticeably bulkier in his return, bigger than we've ever seen him before.
That's not ideal for a guy expected to run up and down the floor for heavy minutes, but I think we can all agree that the Heat have no designs on turning Oden into a track star.
That added size has clear advantages, though. Oden now takes up more space than ever in the lane, which makes his willingness to fight for position and his ability to go right over the top of opponents to snare rebounds all the more effective.
We saw that 15 seconds into his debut when he charged into the paint, snatched the ball from an unsuspecting Marcin Gortat and hammered home his first NBA bucket since 2009.
The ability to use raw size to occupy valuable space in the lane makes Oden a beast on the offensive glass. It also doesn't hurt that he has always worked extremely hard in that area of the game. That combination of space-eating and effort is something the Heat can't get from Chris Andersen or Chris Bosh.
It's a new dimension that will command defensive attention, allowing for better perimeter spacing, less aggressive help defense when Miami's guards drive and more room to work on offense. Clearly, Oden's ability to clean the glass has secondary benefits for the Heat.
It's not a stretch to say that in an alternate universe where Oden stayed completely healthy, he—and not Roy Hibbert—would be the league's most dominant interior defender today.
Remember, before Oden began his harrowing journey through injury hell, he was the guy everyone suspected would become a one-man wrecking crew on D. He didn't have the positioning knowledge or understanding of scheme that has made Hibbert so good, but Hibbert didn't have those things in his early years either.
The fact is Oden had far better physical tools to begin with and was showing clear signs of grasping defensive nuance before he got hurt. And when he did get hurt, he lost years of development and untold amounts of athleticism.
Despite that, the Heat now seem committed to using Oden very much like the Indiana Pacers use Hibbert. And even if it's only for a few short spurts, it looks like Oden can do a lot of the same things as Indy's dominant big man.
We didn't get much of a sample to judge against the Wizards, but you can see in the shot below that Oden allows the Heat to be much more conservative (which is not a synonym for "less effective") on defense when they want to be.
Oden is dropping in pick-and-roll coverage there, a tactic Heat big men rarely employ. Usually, Miami relies on trapping, an aggressive strategy that sends two defenders at the ball-handler while the other three scramble to cover four players behind the action up top.
There's no doubt that Miami's blitzing style creates chaos at times, but it is difficult to sustain. Now, the Heat can let Oden sag to the foul line, daring guards to attack him while the rest of their defenders stay in more balanced positions.
Couper Moorhead of Heat.com discussed how that worked against Washington:
It’s the tiniest of small sample sizes right now, but for the first go-round the shift to a more conservative defense worked. The Heat had allowed 11-of-14 shooting to the Wizards through the first 17 minutes of the game–albeit with some of those makes coming in transition off turnovers–but with Oden on the court for eight-plus minutes the Wizards only attempted two shots in the paint.
The natural extension of Oden allowing Miami to play more like Indiana is that it will also allow the Heat to match up more evenly with its chief competitor in the East.
The logic of going head-to-head with Indy from a stylistic perspective is dubious. It might still be better for the Heat to stay small in a way that makes Hibbert somewhat uncomfortable, rather than sending an equally large center out to battle him.
But Oden at least gives the Heat that option, and it's a valuable one against Indiana and the league at large.
Eight Minutes and Hope
We've only seen eight minutes from Oden so far—in a game that was completely out of reach during the entire time he was on the floor. So it's crazy to make broad, predictive leaps about what he'll give Miami this year.
He's a fantastic story at this stage, but little more. Still, that counts for something.
Per Tom Haberstroh of ESPN, LeBron James talked of the team's limited expectations:
“He has no pressure. Whatever he can give us, it’ll be a big plus. He’s somebody that we can definitely use.”
Cautious optimism aside, if (and this is obviously a massive "if") Oden can stay healthy enough to increase his time on the floor, he can't help but make Miami more dangerous.
The truth is, the good vibes created by Oden's return aren't entirely related to the heartwarming story of his triumph over injury. There's also an element of hope—hope that he can single-handedly take the Heat from "great" to "greater" by giving them a couple of the important things they lack.
Oden's a feel-good story for the Heat. But if things break right, he can be so much more than that.