Greg Oden’s decision to sign a reported two-year contract with the Miami Heat could be the most significant free-agent signing of the summer.
The former Ohio State All-American hasn’t played since the 2009-10 season because of debilitating injuries to both knees, but six teams were hot on his trail for months: Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio, and the defending champion Heat.
Oden could easily have been a good fit with any of those teams, but joining the Heat was the right choice. He fills a very big need for Miami in the frontcourt and masks the team’s weakness in the middle.
It’s a move that’s comparable to the one the Boston Celtics made 27 years ago when they acquired what appeared to be an old, broken-down Bill Walton. That small investment turned into an NBA title in 1986, and Walton ended up winning the Sixth Man of the Year.
The Heat are hoping Oden would turn into their Bill Walton. And it’s ironic that both started their careers as No. 1 overall selections by the Portland Trail Blazers only to have their careers derailed by injuries.
Walton was the top pick in the 1974 draft out of UCLA, and led the Blazers to their only NBA title in 1977. The following season the Blazers won 50 of their first 60 games and appeared to be on their way to another championship season when Walton suffered a broken foot in what turned out to be the first in a string of foot and ankle injuries. Walton was never the same after that.
Oden, who has played in just 82 games for his career, was the No. 1 pick in 2007 draft by the Blazers but missed the entire 2007-08 season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee. Oden played in 61 games in 2008-09 and averaged 8.9 points and 7.0 rebounds.
Injury struck again early in the 2009-10 season when Oden sustained a fractured left patella (kneecap) in his 21st game and missed the rest of the season. He hasn’t played since.
Acquiring the broken-down-but-still-serviceable Oden is a minimum investment for the Heat with a potentially huge return. The deal is reportedly around $1 million per year, with a player option. Salary-cap wise it will barely make a dent should Oden goes back on IR.
But if Oden has anything left in those creaky legs, he could play the same role Walton did for the Celtics in ’86.
If he’s healthy — and that’s a big “if” — Oden is strong around the rim, can rebound in traffic, and is a very good rim protector. At 7-0, 280 pounds, Oden gives Miami size and strength inside. One person who watched Oden work out told USA Today Sports that Oden was further along than expected when it came to agility, conditioning and jumping exercises. But the person also said Oden was limited in on-court basketball drills.
Anyone who watched the 2013 NBA playoffs saw how vulnerable the Heat were to teams with big men. The Pacers with 7-2 center Roy Hibbert extended the Heat to seven games and the Spurs with future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan was 28 seconds away from winning their fifth title until Ray Allen’s miracle 3-point shot saved the Heat’s season.
It would be a minor miracle if Oden returns to his old form when he dominated college basketball six years ago and nearly led Ohio State to a national championship. But the Heat are not asking Oden to be dominant for 40 minutes. They’ll only ask him to be effective for 15-20 minutes or even less depending on the matchups.
There are only a handful of teams in the league who have legitimate centers, so the Heat may not call Oden’s number until the Eastern Conference playoffs when they face teams such as the Pacers with David West and Hibbert, the Chicago Bulls with Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, and the Brooklyn Nets with Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett.
Oden can ease his way back into shape and will most likely start the season as the third-string center behind Chris Bosh and Chris “Birdman” Andersen. That should be just fine. Come playoff time, when the Heat need a big body to bang with Hibbert, Noah, Duncan, or Dwight Howard, Oden should be up to the challenge.