Andrew Bynum vs. Greg Oden: Which Injury-Prone Big Is Better Free-Agent Gamble?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJuly 1, 2013

LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 4:  Greg Oden #52 of the Portland Trail Blazers blocks out against Andrew Bynum #17 of the Los Angeles Lakers on January 4, 2009 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.    NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Andrew Bynum hasn't played in an NBA game in over a year. Greg Oden's been out of action for nearly four years himself.

And yet, both have already garnered plenty of interest on the league's newly reopened free-agent market. According to Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com, Bynum has emerged as a Plan B for some of the teams currently pursuing Dwight Howard:

Yahoo! Sports is reporting that a "half dozen teams" are already in on the action.

As for Oden, Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports reports that the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft has fielded calls from no fewer than eight franchises, including all four of this year's conference finalists.

This proves, once again, that size does indeed matter in the NBA—at least as far as securing employment is concerned.

Chances are both will have jobs by the time the 2013-14 season tips off. Small ball may be the playing style du jour, but there's still no substitute for quality size, as the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs both came within mere moments of reiterating during the 2013 playoffs.

But of the two oft-injured centers, which is the better—or, shall we say, the safer—investment?

If money (and attitude) were no object, that distinction would clearly belong to Bynum. He's played far more recently than Oden has and reached heights of the sport that would've seemed perfectly suited to Oden's gifts six years ago.

Bynum's been a champion twice and an All-Star, as well as All-NBA performer once.

Oden, on the other hand, hasn't even come close to achieving any of those distinctions. His career averages of 9.3 points and 7.3 rebounds, while solid for a player who's managed a middling 22.1 minutes per game as a pro, don't exactly qualify him as elite.

Even less so when considering how sparingly Oden's played. He's figured into 82 games total in the six years since the Portland Trail Blazers picked him.

All of those came between 2008 and 2010, with multiple microfracture surgeries on his knees mixed in before, during and after that particular period of time.

For all of Bynum's knee problems, at least he'd played in a significant portion of his team's games every year up until the fall of 2012. In fact, he saw time in all 82 of the Los Angeles Lakers' games in 2006-07 and missed just six games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, four of which stemmed from a season-opening suspension.

That was the result of Bynum's body slam on J.J. Barea, then of the Dallas Mavericks, during the 2011 playoffs:

Such concerns of the mind are inherent in the risk of signing Bynum. He's often been described as aloof, with pursuits other than basketball coming ahead of (if not at the expense of) the game itself.

In 2010, Bynum postponed surgery to repair his right knee, in which he'd torn his meniscus, so that he could attend the World Cup in South Africa. Last November, Bynum admitted that his debut for the Philadelphia 76ers had been delayed by damage in his left knee incurred while bowling.

All the while, Bynum teased his hair to uncharted tonsorial territory and tested his footwork overseas.

Not that Oden's personal slate is all that clean. In 2010, the Internet got ahold of some risque photos of Oden and did what the Internet usually does with things of that nature. During an interview with Grantland's Mark Titus in May 2012, Oden admitted to battling the bottle during his stint in Rip City.

Basketball wouldn't appear to be his first love, either. As Oden told nearly every media outlet prior to the 2007 draft, he grew up dreaming of a career in dentistry—a dream to which his massive size proved a hindrance.

But those concerns would appear to be firmly in Oden's past. He left Portland long ago to split time between his hometown of Indianapolis and Columbus, where he played his lone year of college basketball at Ohio State.

By all accounts, Oden's worked diligently to rehabilitate his knees to the point where they won't be quite so fragile, where he'll be able to play without fear of another agonizing setback every time he steps on the court.

When Oden's played, he's been plenty productive. Check out the career per-36-minute averages of these two players:

Points Rebounds Assists Blocks Free Throws PER
??? 16.3 10.9 1.6 2.2 4.9 19.8
??? 15.3 11.9 1.0 2.3 5.7 19.5

Can you guess which stats belong to Bynum and Oden? More importantly, does it matter?

FYI: Bynum's the top line and Oden's the bottom.

It certainly does when millions of dollars are at stake. Bynum's coming off a year in which he earned nearly $17 million in salary to sit on the sidelines and show off his coiffure.

In all likelihood, he and his agent, David Lee, will seek out a shorter contract this summer in the neighborhood of, say, two seasons at $10 million per. That'd give Bynum the opportunity to prove that he's still healthy and productive, and that a team should reward him with a long-term deal for his services.

As much as the duration would limit the risk, that's still a ton of money to commit to a guy who hasn't played pro basketball in well over a year and whose commitment to the game that brought him fame and fortune is suspect to begin with.

Oden, though, could probably be convinced to sign for a much lower sum.

That would seem to be the case if there's any substance to his interest in the Miami Heat—and theirs in him, according to Chris Tomasson of FOX Sports Florida. Miami can't offer Oden any more than the $3.183 million allowed by the mini-midlevel exception and probably wouldn't want to bring him aboard for anything beyond the veteran's minimum.

If there's serious concern about how much (or whether) either center plays, wouldn't it make infinitely more sense to opt for the cheaper one?

Sure, but that's only true if the balance between risk and reward is equal in these cases...which it isn't.

As mentioned earlier, Bynum has played more and more recently. Neither player has ever averaged more than 36 minutes per game in a given season, though Bynum has come close, with 35.2 per game during his breakout 2011-12 campaign.

Oden, meanwhile, has played more than 36 minutes in a given game just twice in his entire career. Part of that stems from constant foul trouble. To date, Oden has averaged 6.4 fouls per 36 minutes—which is 0.4 more fouls than are allotted to any player during a regular NBA game.

He'd be fine in the Summer League, though, where players aren't disqualified for racking up fouls.

Still, most of Oden's issues are the result of physical maladies, some of which go beyond even wear-and-tear or freak accidents.

As Grantland's Bill Simmons noted in The Book of Basketball, Oden's left leg is about an inch shorter than his right. That unevenness naturally places undue pressure on his joints. Unless doctors have discovered a way to lengthen his left leg (or shorten his right), Oden is bound to have trouble with his gait for the rest of his life.

Realistically, then, Bynum is the much better gamble of the two. We've seen the extent to which he can dominate when healthy and, more importantly, we've seen him do so much more recently.

We know Bynum can be a top-five player at his own position, a player whose All-Star-caliber contributions can make title contention a reality.

We don't know what Oden's ceiling is, we may never see it and we haven't seen him reach for it in live action since Dec. 5, 2009. He might be a solid role player, perhaps in limited minutes off the bench for a championship squad, but no team in its right mind would realistically expect Oden to pile up double-doubles.

And yet, time is still on their side. Bynum will turn 26 at the outset of the 2013-14 season. Oden won't reach that age until January.

In mathematical terms purely divorced from corporeal reality, their athletic prime awaits.

It doesn't matter that neither of the two has played in so long, nor does it seem all that pertinent that both are such strong risks for reinjury.

No matter how bad the condition of their knees becomes, Bynum and Oden will always be 7'0" tall.

And in the NBA, there will always be room (and money) for seven-footers.