If it seems like a long time has passed since Greg Oden last played in an NBA game, that's because it has — 1,132 days, to be exact. And yet, despite more than three years on the shelf — three years that have included multiple surgeries on both of his knees, his release by the team that drafted him first overall in 2007 and an announcement (in an at-times harrowing interview) that he'd take a step back to rest and rehab after three microfracture surgeries in five years — there's still interest in the 7-footer ... not only in what he might have been, but in what, even after all he's gone through, he still could be.
And we're not just talking fan interest; according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein, there are NBA clubs interested in learning what a post-injury Oden could do, so much so that, after taking the year to get healthy and think about the future, Oden reportedly plans to try his hand at an NBA comeback for the 2013-14 season:
Sources told ESPN.com that multiple teams already have expressed interest in signing Oden before the end of this season to a multiyear deal that would allow him to continue his rehab until he can get back on the court in training camp in the fall.
The Miami Heat are at the front of the line in pursuing Oden, two sources said, and have been keeping tabs as he recovers while also taking classes at Ohio State. [...]
In attempting another comeback, Oden's camp is planning to take a highly conservative approach. So the plan is for him to sit out the rest of this season and summer league to make sure he allows himself the best chance of finally getting healthy.
This isn't the first time that Oden and the Heat have been linked. Back in May, his agent, Mike Conley Sr., said that the former Ohio State standout was interested in joining the eventual champs in a move that our own Eric Freeman thought made some sense, given the Heat's relative dearth of interior defense and their plethora of offensive firepower, which would mean that Oden "wouldn't be asked to do much more than rebound, protect the rim, and catch passes for dunks and lay-ins."
As we know, though, the Heat have become a much more small-ball-dependent team since last spring, sliding Chris Bosh to the center position and LeBron James to the power forward slot to create a lineup that aims to attack opponents — both offensively and defensively — with speed, quickness and shifting talents that can create and eat space in equal measure. Primary frontcourt backups Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony have been used fairly sparingly, playing just 37.5 percent and 16.1 percent of Miami's total minutes this year, so it's not as if reserve centers play a major role on this Heat team as presently constituted. (Plus, as Windhorst and Stein note, the Heat already have more than $85 million in salaries on their books for '13-'14 and nearly $80 million for just seven players in '14-'15 when the harsh new luxury tax penalties kick in, making even a veteran-minimum commitment to Oden significantly more costly than it would be for a team under the tax.)
However, team president Pat Riley has continued to search for some frontcourt depth, most recently bringing back 2010 second-round pick Jarvis Varnado and just-jettisoned Josh Harrellson on 10-day contracts, so it's not unreasonable to think that the Heat front office would consider the prospect of taking a chance on Oden as a potential reserve upgrade in the middle in the future. Considering the Heat's largest problems at the moment appear to be on the glass and in stopping opponents when multiple starters are off the floor — Miami's two most commonly used reserve-heavy units (the trio of Ray Allen, Joel Anthony and Norris Cole with James and Shane Battier, and Allen-Battier-Cole with Mike Miller and Bosh) both allow more points per 100 possessions than the league-worst Charlotte Bobcats' defense, according to NBA.com's stat tool — giving Oden a chance to make a difference seems like it could make some sense.
And it's worth noting something that we might have forgotten, given that it feels like a lifetime ago since Oden last suited up — he was a difference-maker in Portland, posting per-minute stats that compared favorably with Dwight Howard and making sizable contributions to the Blazers, TrueHoop's Henry Abbott notes:
Despite some awkward moments, he made the Blazers vastly better. His amazing size was only part of the story. He also brings plenty of skill to the court. His scoring was efficient, his blocks were numerous and his rebounding was some of the best in NBA history for a player so young. On Dec. 5, 2009, Oden was carried out of his last NBA game with a fractured left patella — and a PER that would finish the season in the league's top ten, between Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki. And it wasn't a case of empty numbers, either. The Blazers generally destroyed people with Oden on the floor — outscoring opponents by almost nine points per 100 possessions when Oden played, compared to three when he sat — even though Oden glaringly had room to improve.
Three-plus years and three-plus procedures down the line, it's extraordinarily unlikely that Oden would be able to make that kind of impact on the Heat or any other team; as has been noted multiple times in this and other spaces, nobody's ever gone through three microfracture surgeries and made it back to the NBA, much less come back and performed at a high level. But there have been enough relative success stories — Kenyon Martin after breaking his leg in college, breaking his fibula in 2001 and having two microfracture surgeries; Zydrunas Ilgauskas having a long career after myriad foot injuries; Yao Ming playing at an All-Star level for several years in and around injuries — that it seems worth Oden's while to test the waters on a comeback before he even turns 26 years old, if he feels up to it and, after watching him work out, some NBA team is willing to roll the dice on him.
We've learned by now not to hold our breath when it comes to the idea of Greg Oden in an NBA uniform, but it's difficult to see how anyone with half a heart wouldn't at least be keeping their fingers crossed that a second act is possible.
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