When the Miami Heat signed Greg Oden earlier this month, it was rightfully seen as a move to address one of the two-time defending champion’s weaknesses -- its size. At the same time, while the addition of the 25-year-old could end up being a key factor in the team’s attempt to make a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, one gets the feeling that the former No. 1 overall draft pick’s health and productivity would just be a bonus, not something they’re counting on.
According to a source who witnessed Oden’s workouts prior to him agreeing to a one-year deal at the veteran’s minimum with the Heat -- per NBA salary information Web site ShamSports.com -- Miami could have a worthy counter for true centers in the East like the Bulls’ Joakim Noah, the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert and the Nets’ Brook Lopez.
“If he can stay healthy -- and that’s a big if -- he can be effective,” the source told CSNChicago.com. “He understands [the skepticism many people have about him staying healthy], given his history.
“[But] he's not a bust,” the individual insisted. “He's been injured.”
Oden dealt with myriad ailments, going back to his high school days in Indianapolis, but although it’s easy to call him a bust, his career NBA averages of 9.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots per game -- albeit in 82 total games, with Portland, which drafted him first, over superstar Kevin Durant, in 2007 -- demonstrate that when he was on the court, he showed great potential as a rim protector, rebounding presence and finisher around the rim, the latter illustrated by his gaudy 57.7 field-goal percentage.
Those aren’t Hall of Fame or even All-Star numbers, so he didn’t live up to expectations that he could develop into the game’s next great center, or even the dominant defender he was in college. But that’s no longer the goal. If Oden can simply get to the point where he can play 20 minutes per game in a backup role and play a tangible role in helping the Heat win another title, that might be enough.
“[Oden] wanted two or three things,” the source explained. “A great organization, a chance to come in and feel his way around, and win at a high level.”
“He still thinks he has a chance to be a very good player,” the person continued. “If there is a chance, he wants to try.”
The source went on to discuss Oden’s history of being on successful high school and AAU teams, and in his one-year college stint, leading Ohio State to the NCAA championship game. That type of performance won’t be expected from Oden in Miami, especially early in the season, as the plan will be to bring him along slowly.
“Practice three days on, one day off, maybe 12 minutes a game in the preseason,” the same source suggested of an effort to get Oden back into the swing of things, though it was stressed that it was an idea based on personal opinion from observing and talking to the 7-footer, without specific knowledge of the Heat’s actual plan. “Then, maybe 20-25 minutes after the All-Star break.”
Featuring only one real center in Chris "Birdman" Andersen, the midseason acquisition who made a positive impact in the playoffs and was rewarded by being re-signed this summer, Miami has utilized All-Star Chris Bosh in their small-ball approach, with blue-collar veteran Udonis Haslem being the only other big man to make his presence felt. Even with force of nature LeBron James capable of picking up the rebounding slack when he slides over to power forward and the likes of Shane Battier making contributions at the position by being able to stretch opposing defenses, the Heat’s frontline pales in comparisons to the likes of the Bulls, Pacers and Nets, their prime competition in the East.
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Just having Oden’s size and shot-blocking ability, once favorably compared to all-time great Bill Russell, to combat the aforementioned players, would provide a major boost to the Heat. Despite three major knee surgeries, after observing Oden work on his game this summer, the source believes that the center still possesses the ability to play at a high level, if he can overcome the mental hurdle of being back on the court.
Oden’s workouts were “tapered” to the player’s conditioning and rehabilitation process.
“[The workouts] didn’t go long, didn’t put him tough positions,” the source explained.
“If he dunks and can't land the right way, he'll hang on the rim until bodies get out from under him,” the person continued, describing Oden’s “apprehension.”
“The last three workouts, he wanted to do full-court stuff,” the source went on to say. “[Oden looked] really good, but obviously a little tentative.”
That said, the source, who compared Oden’s amateur career to Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing’s, was very impressed by the level of talent, something that was never questioned during Oden’s development as a younger prospect.
"I'm in awe [watching Oden work out]," the source gushed, describing how the center even showed off his range, knocking down several consecutive mid-range jumpers in drills. “[Oden is] more skilled than Dwight [Howard].”
Besides the Heat, Oden was also pursued by the likes of Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans and Sacramento -- as well as San Antonio, the other participant in June’s classic Finals series -- all teams that might have had greater expectations and eventually, demands on what he called an “old body,” at only 25. But by signing with the Heat, Oden will be on the league’s marquee team, but because of the presence of James, the back-to-back reigning MVP, and even Wade, if the organization’s gamble doesn’t pay off, he won’t be considered the scapegoat.
Although Miami’s reputation as a party city is a slight concern -- given Oden’s 2012 interview with Grantland.com which cited his issues with alcohol in Portland -- it’s clear that his NBA comeback is motivated by his love of the game, especially since his own doctor suggested that he simply live as a “regular person” after his last surgery.
“It’s good to see guys where they're taking control of their careers,” the source explained.
If, in the process, he can increase the Heat’s three-peat chances by battling Noah, Hibbert and Lopez, all of whom have reached the All-Star status that was predicted for him, even for a handful of postseason minutes, maybe the word “bust” won’t be the only way to describe Oden’s professional career. Of course, that’s a big if.