While the Miami Heat aren’t—and shouldn’t be—counting on a major contribution from Greg Oden as they lurch toward a possible three-peat, the hard-luck center has put himself in a position to move the needle for the defending champs.
This is a scenario—should it occur—that would have been unfathomable a year ago. Impossible, really. And it would make for a remarkable feel-good story for anyone with a working human heart and a posture toward the Heat that isn’t most aptly described as “rage that precludes basic empathy.” People who can feel things should feel good about Greg Oden.
The center is a nice man who has suffered greatly. He’s been through a terrible and very specific sort of agony that most of us could scarcely imagine. His story is Tragic with a capital “T.” Tragic in the Athenian sense.
Let’s stretch some imaginative muscles here: You’re Greg Oden, or someone like him—which is to say, someone with a world class ability. You’re one of the top people on the planet at something consequential and you have the work ethic to match it. You love this thing that God, or chance or whatever force makes such determinations has gifted you. You treasure it.
And then one day, right when you’ve reached the highest level where people ply this trade—right when you’re about to hit your zenith as a (Pilot? Architect? Lawyer? Surgeon? Author?)—it happens: The ability, the greatness that resided in you, is wrested away. You lose it entirely because of an injury, an accident—whatever. It’s gone. You can’t do it anymore. Not at a high-level, not at all. You’re through. Your sine qua non stripped. Where a man once stood, a withered husk now inertly sits.
Meanwhile, while you’re withstanding this devastating psychological torment, hundreds of thousands—no, millions—of people are savagely criticizing you in public for the fact that you’re not dominating in this discipline you once dominated so completely.
To their eyes, the failure isn’t some fluke, some random fluctuation in a complex universe that you had zero say over—but something that you did. You’re a bust. You messed up. You are not a victim of this thing—this sudden, spontaneous disintegration of a unique brand of greatness—but the perpetrator of it.
You’re either hated or pitied, some pathetic wretch with filthy fingernails and a change cup in hand—chewed up and spat out by life.
Oh, and you’re 22 years old.
This is, roughly, with a bit of psycho-artistic license, what Greg Oden has gone through these last five seasons, with leg injuries of more varieties than a supermarket has of mustard taking an axe to what should have been a brilliant basketball career. Maybe even a Hall of Fame career.
Oh, yes. Let’s not forget this. Oden’s rival, the player he was compared to in the months preceding the 2007 draft—the player he was deemed by nearly every pundit who put a prediction on the record to be superior to—has blossomed.
Kevin Durant is a superstar in such a way that the expression "superstar" doesn’t quite articulate. He’s now crafting one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history—one which is only marginally better than the one he assembled a year ago—and appears headed toward his first MVP award. While Oden mourns what could have been, he’s had to watch Durant actualize it.
Oden admitted to Grantland's Mark Titus, a former AAU teammate, that this was especially difficult.
“I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t suck to see Durant doing so well,” he said. “Only because every time he had a good game in those first few years, I knew I was going to get a bunch of crap from all of my haters. But that doesn’t mean I dislike him as a person or anything like that. He’s a good guy and one of the three best players in the league right now. The only reason it hurts to watch him play is because I know that if I got the chance to show what I’ve got, I could be making All-Star teams like he and Horford are, too.
“That’s the worst part about all of the injuries and the criticism. It would be one thing if I had been healthy for five years and just sucked when I was on the court. But I can’t prove what I can do because I can’t stay healthy. Not having control over the situation makes it tough.”
Oden has had every reason to waive the white flag in the face of this searing, unrelenting, open-nerve pain. To give up, succumb to drugs or alcohol or despair in the way victims of awful injustices sometimes do. He would, eventually, have been forgiven and forgotten. But here’s the salient thing about Greg Oden, the heroic thing about Greg Oden: He didn’t do that. He hasn’t given up.
After missing the entirety of his rookie season, all but 21 games during his junior year in the NBA and failing to play a minute of professional basketball in 2010-11, 2011-12 or 2012-13, Greg Oden is back. And, while he’s not the player he once was physically, his statistical signature isn’t altogether different from what he offered before his body betrayed him.
Consider the numbers. According to Basketball-Reference, in 2008-09, the brief pinnacle of his professional career, Oden averaged 14.8 points, 11.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 0.7 steals per 36 minutes to go along with a true shooting percentage of 59.9. In 2013-14, after all he’s gone through, Oden is thus far posting 14.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals with a true shooting percentage of 60.8.
His win shares per 48 minutes are, so far this season, at .164, per Basketball-Reference. This is 64 percent above the league average and just a hair below his .179 career mark. (Kevin Durant, for the record, is at .203 for his career.)
Granted, usage plays an enormous role here. Oden is playing just 8.4 minutes per game so far in 2013-14, down from 21.5 and 23.9 during his first two professional seasons. It stands to reason that, in a bigger role, his production would take a dive—permitting that his body didn’t break down first.
But, in the context of the Heat's plan for Oden, that’s fine. The team doesn’t need him to play often to contribute. That was never the plan. Given his age (he's 26) and potential, the Heat might still carve out a long-term role for Oden. But for now, he’s a third-string center, a big man to spell Chris Andersen when he’s worn out from spelling Chris Bosh. And relative to other players with similar responsibilities, Oden has been great.
According to NBA.com, of the 46 backup centers who have played fewer than 15 minutes per game, Oden is fifth in true shooting percentage, 10th in usage, 12th in net rating, 8th in offensive rebounding percentage, 13th in blocks and 13th in steals. These aren’t numbers befitting a former No. 1 overall draft pick, sure, but nor are they what you’d expect from a man who’d been out of basketball for three full seasons.
And he’s getting better. On Monday, ESPN Heat beat reporter Michael Wallace opined that the big man is quietly rounding into form for Miami.
Oden is gaining both confidence and rhythm—albeit one possession at a time—with his role and playing time having slightly increased in recent weeks. He is coming off modest season highs in both minutes played (13) and points (eight) during Saturday’s victory.
The progress seems likely to continue, according to Pat Riley. The Heat president says his training staff has gone through pains to tailor a program that will enable Oden to produce when Miami needs him the most.
“Our training staff has done an incredible job of getting to a perfect time, through trial and error, of exactly how many minutes he can play, what his knee feels like the next day and how they’re treating him, which is allowing him to play every night,” Riley told Wallace. “I just cross my fingers and knock on wood every day that he stays healthy. And if he does, he’s going to get better. And if he gets better, than we’ll get better. That’s why we brought him in.”
The Heat are, in every meaningful sense, LeBron James’ team, but in each step along the way of their recent run, they’ve received significant contributions from unexpected places. Mike Miller’s seven three-point shots in Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals. 18 points on six triples from Shane Battier in the finals’ clincher last year. Everything the Birdman has done since coming to South Beach.
With Miami seemingly on a collision course headed for Roy Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals and, possibly, an NBA Finals rematch with Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs looming as well, the team may need a similar boost from Oden to join the rarefied ranks of three-peaters. It’s a boost that he, incredibly, seems prepared to provide.
Four months, or four years from now, we might not look back at the 2014 Finals and shake our heads at that beautiful and unlikely moment when Greg Oden lumbered off the bench in the deciding game and—like a limping Kirk Gibson, or a battered Willis Reed—tapped into something magical to carry his team to a title.
But I sure hope we do.