Is Starting Greg Oden the Right Move for Evolving Miami Heat?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 19, 2014

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After blitzing the NBA with a banner-raising small-ball attack, the Miami Heat are ready to get big.

Offseason import Greg Oden, all 7'0", 273 pounds of him, has started carving himself a bigger piece of the rotation and may be looking at a permanent place in coach Erik Spoelstra's starting five.

Oden logged a season-high 14 minutes in Miami's 100-96 road win over the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night. A six-point, three-rebound, two-block performance might not sound like much, but it could be the sign of the two-time defending champion's changing face with the big man having now made consecutive starts.

"Spoelstra would like Oden to remain in that position for the team's push to the playoffs," wrote the Miami Herald's Joseph Goodman, who also cautioned that "nothing is certain yet."

"There are a lot of different layers to it, but it cleans up some of the things with our rotation,” Spoelstra said after the game, per Goodman. “It also guarantees we can get those minutes. I really like what he has been doing the last month or so."

Oden made his season debut—his first NBA action since Dec. 2009—on Jan. 15. He's been slowly increasing his activity level ever since.

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Oden's Gradual Rise by the Month

There's some obvious room for mobility in his production, but his playing time will likely peak in the low double digits:

There are few solids in Spoelstra's liquid lineup, and this apparent promotion comes with its own fluidity. Matchups, production, even something as small as a hunch could shift Miami back over to the "pace-and-space" style that has fueled its ascent to the top of the basketball world.

Let's assume, though, the move is a permanent one and that the trendiest team in the business has permanently added a retro look to its wardrobe.

Is this the right call for Miami to make? Absolutely.

The benefits for the Heat and Oden himself far outweigh the risks involved.

Shaking Off the Rust

Four years is an awfully long time.

Our forefathers deemed it lengthy enough for a full presidential term. The evolutionary cycle of high school life (ideally) encompasses a four-year span, taking us from wide-eyed freshman to confident seniors (ideally) groomed for the working world, the armed forces or the college life.

In basketball vernacular, four years is nearly a lifetime. The average career lasts only 4.8, via ESPN.com's Larry Coon.

Oden, the top pick in 2007, lost four years and then some to a variety of knee ailments.

PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 01:  Greg Oden #52 of the Portland Trail Blazers watches from the sidelines during the game against the Miami Heat on December 1, 2009 at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon.  The Heat won 107-100.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

With that amount of rust to scrape, he's looked a step (or two or three) slow on the hardwood:

The Heat haven't fared much better when he's been on the floor.

The league's most efficient offense has lost its potency. At the defensive end, where Oden would presumably have his biggest impact, leaks have sprung at an alarming rate.

An Unsightly Imprint: Oden's On/Off Splits
Off RtgDef RtgNet Rtg
Oden On102.3106.3Minus-4.0
Oden Off110.2102.9Plus-7.3

To help digest those digits, the Oklahoma City Thunder have a plus-7.3 net rating. Only seven teams have a net rating below minus-4.0.

"He's rusty for sure," LeBron James said of Oden earlier this season, via Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, apparently looking to place an Understatement of the Year award alongside his four MVP trophies.

Oden is covered in rust, a lifetime of it by basketball standards.

But there's a massive reward lying underneath it all, one that he feels moves closer to the surface each time he's allowed to open a game:

The numbers don't disagree with that assessment.

He's grabbed nearly three times as many rebounds as a starter (4.7) than as a reserve (1.8) despite seeing slightly more than five extra minutes per outing. His defensive rating has dropped a full 12 points per 100 possessions when he's opened the game on the floor (95) instead of the bench (107), via Basketball-Reference.com.

He's looked a little more like the player the Heat hoped they were bringing in last summer. The man who could scratch an itch they'd just been forced to live with in the past. 

Oden Gives Miami a Different Look

Miami's return path to the podium is incredibly long in the literal sense.

If the season ended today—and the playoff results followed the seeding—the Heat would be looking at matchups with the Charlotte Bobcats, Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers. What do those three teams have in common? They all employ building-block bigs.

Charlotte's Al Jefferson (21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds) might make up for his All-Star snub by forcing his way onto an All-NBA team. Toronto's 21-year-old center Jonas Valanciunas (10.5 and 8.4) could be a perennial All-Star down the line. Indiana's Roy Hibbert (11.2 and 7.2) burned the Heat for 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.

If Miami makes it through that supersized field, it would still have to contend with whoever emerges from a fully loaded Western Conference.

Mar 6, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) is defended by Miami Heat center Greg Oden (20) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Heat won without size before, but that's no guarantee of future success.

"I've stressed that to our team, that last year's blueprint was for last year," Spoelstra said, via Winderman, "and the more we tried to pigeonhole ourselves into that blueprint, we might not be opening ourselves up to a more successful or necessary blueprint for this year, as the competition has changed."

Miami doesn't need to adopt a massive blueprint, but Oden's presence ensures that option is always available. Already, the Heat have seen the type of difference he can make:

Oden provides the Heat with a big body able to absorb the constant punishment on the low post, but he also brings a badly needed intimidation factor.

Only 12 teams have a higher field-goal percentage against on shots within five feet of the basket than Miami (59.2). All but four of those teams are sitting outside of the playoff picture, and only one (the Los Angeles Clippers) owns a top-five seed in its conference.

Defending at the rim is kind of a big deal. And it's kind of Oden's specialty.

So, too, is hitting the glass—also one of Miami's primary weaknesses.

The Heat have a 49.9 rebounding percentage when he's on the floor and just a 46.0 mark without him, via 82games.com. The former would check in at No. 18 in the category. The latter would be good for the 29th spot.

Miami might have learned how to play without size, but there are still tangible benefits to getting bigger.

Besides, it's not like this would restrict the team's versatility.

Small Ball Is Still an Option

This isn't a systematic change in approach, but rather extra ammunition for what was already one of the NBA's deepest arsenals.

Think of Oden as a (nother) trick up Spoelstra's sleeve, a wild card the coach can play whenever its needed. Whether Oden is starting or working with the second team, he'll still be looking at a fraction of the total playing time available.

That means the frenetic, up-tempo attack that powered Miami's past two title runs is still at Spoelstra's disposal. The coach can go big and small at various points, as he did in Miami's 113-104 win over the Houston Rockets Sunday afternoon.

Oden started the contest. Spoelstra's small-ball group closed it out.

NBC Sports' Kurt Helin noted, "...at the end of that Rockets game, when Miami went on a 15-0 run to come from behind and win  — when they played like a title threat — the lineup was LeBron, Wade, Ray Allen, Norris Cole and Bosh. They went small and destroyed the Rockets team with the big lineup."

Spoelstra long ago learned the importance of never placing his team inside a box, big or small. Putting Oden in the starting five won't change that.

What it can do, though, is make the best team in the game for two years running even better.

That chance to push a ceiling that already extends higher than any other in the NBA makes this a no-brainer good call.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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