Greg Oden wants to make it in the NBA. Even after a tortured career in Portland after being picked No. 1, Oden’s promise is still strong enough three years after last appearing in an NBA game that some teams are lining up to sign him, according to an ESPN report. It’s not as much of a risk as one might think: A team can sign him for multiple years, allow him to train with supervision of a team’s medical staff, and bring him back to the court slowly, free of any timetable.
Unlike in Portland, where the specter of the investment Portland sunk into him loomed, there’s no need to rush him back because there are no more expectations for Oden. Wherever he ends up, Oden won’t be signed with the attitude of being a difference maker; he’ll be signed with the attitude of buy rock-bottom low, sell high. If Yao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas‘ spate of foot injuries didn’t drive them away from the court until many years, maybe it’s not such a bad idea for Oden to return despite three microfracture knee surgeries.
IT’S INTRIGUING BECAUSE…
A rebounding-and-defense only role, like an Erick Dampier or Theo Ratliff or Marcus Camby, is a fast road to NBA anonymity, but it keeps you in the NBA. ESPN named Miami as a team most intrigued by Oden, and after seeing the team cycle through backup centers such as Eddy Curry, Jamaal Magloire and Dexter Pittman since 2010, it’s not hard to know why. It’s easier to laugh at the shortcomings of a Dampier or Ratliff or Joel Przybilla, but their contributions’ biggest advantage — consistency doing the unloved tasks a winning team requires — isn’t easily dismissed. After his knee surgery in 2010, the second knee surgery, I wrote why such a role would be perfect in a story for Dime No. 63.
Given his druthers, he’d have a post-op highlight reel akin to Blake Griffin. However, a player in the mode of Marcus Camby could be more of a target. The former No. 2 pick overcame injuries and returned to be NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2007; then held together Portland’s lineup last season by putting up 7.0 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game after a late-season trade from the Clippers.
“If he doesn’t make that jump to be a dominant big in the League, then a Marcus Camby type of player,” say Conley when asked about Oden’s ceiling when he returns. “Those are very, very good players that people need to win games. It wouldn’t be a downgrade or anything.”
His rebounding and defense are why I’m not turned off by the idea of an Oden comeback. Between the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons Oden was one of only eight players to play at least 10 minutes per game and have a total rebounding percentage of higher than 20 percent, joining Camby, Dwight Howard and others. And in 2009-10, he averaged more blocks per 36 minutes (3.4) than turnovers (2.8).
His natural gifts of finding rebounds and playing a physical brand of basketball are two traits that won’t go away after three years. So great are those skills that they limited opposing centers to shooting just 48 percent close to the basket against Oden in 2009-10. That was his shortened 21-game season that saw opponents struggle to a PER of 13.2 against him, below the league average of 16.0. Meanwhile, Oden thrived with a PER of 25.9 — an incredible difference of 12.7.
IT’S WORRISOME BECAUSE…
Success in everything in basketball is predicated on foot speed, so Oden’s knee injuries put a giant, blinking, neon disclaimer on his skillset. And that lack of foot speed would seem to be most marked in his ability to score. Of all his skills to decline the most after three years away from NBA basketball and his history of knee injuries, I expect that aspect of his game to have eroded the most. Still … Oden had a serviceable jump shot outside the post once, too. In 2009-10 he shot 55 percent between 10-15 feet, according to Hoopdata. That was as far out as he ventured in either of his seasons in Portland, but it bookended his 68 percent shooting at the rim, a very solid number even before it’s taken into account he wasn’t fully healthy doing it. Portland scored 8.5 points per 100 possessions more when he played in his 21 games in 2009-10 and 8.3 points more the season before. Impressive numbers, no doubt, but they are numbers I’m the least confident in he could replicate in a comeback. Oden’s ability to get himself in position to rebound or keep a defender from cutting across his face to the ball isn’t a concern as much as his ability to get his own shot — whether it’s from two feet or 15 feet. I’d love to be proven wrong and the numbers show he had these skills to do so at one point, but now? I’m greedy for at once saying all he would have to do is rebound and play defense, then jump to saying his offense is a reason to doubt him, but it’s a concern.
Second: Will Oden allow himself to get past the hurdles he creates for himself? In the notable interview with friend Mark Titus in May for Grantland, Oden openly discussed his drinking problem in Portland. It’s just one part of his immaturity that worried me while he was in Portland and, to an extend, worries me still. I worry he’s worried about the wrong things. When he was working out to return from his first microfracture surgery, it was reported he lifted too much in his upper body, to the point it affected his shooting and made him too top heavy for an injured knee to support. That and the PR gaffes make me wonder if he’s found a focus he didn’t have while a Trail Blazer.
I hope he’s found it, because I want to see him come back to the court and see what he truly can do. Finally.
What do you think?
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.