It’s an open secret that New Orleans intends to make an offer to free agent center and former number one overall draft pick Greg Oden this week starting at about $3 million per year. The first question is whether Oden would sign in New Orleans, instead of with the Spurs, Heat, or a dark-horse team willing to handsomely compensate him for his talents. The Heat are a particularly interesting option, as Miami offers a role for Oden in which he can block shots and rebound to his heart’s content without being an offensive focus while giving himself a legitimate chance at a ring.
In any event, no one outside of Oden’s camp seems to exactly know Oden’s priorities for selecting his next NBA home, and I won’t be breaking out the mystic Crystal Ball of Homerism. But for the purposes of this piece, let’s assume Oden lands in New Orleans.
The second question now, of course, is whether this is a cagey move to pick up a still-young defensive center, or a waste of resources on a broken-down wreck. Considering the glaring lack of medical background on my resume, I am going to punt on that question, and instead attempt to answer this: what would a healthy Greg Oden mean to the Pelicans?
When I assess draft picks that have not lived up to their initial billing, a pet peeve is the overuse of the word “bust.” To me, bust has a very specific meaning—a guy who was drafted in a slot he ultimately lacked the talent or motivation to justify. This definition excludes two other common types of draft selections frequently labeled as busts: 1) the legitimate player who is drafted into a system where he is either buried behind veterans or not given the chance to use his particular skillset, and 2) the legitimate player who can’t stay healthy.
Greg Oden is the latter. The quasi-mythical figure known as Healthy Greg Oden was a beast in Portland, averaging 16.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per 36 minutes during his injury-shortened 2009-2010 campaign. This is not Kwame Brown, Michael Olowakandi, or a number of other highly-regarded big men who ultimately did not have the capability to be more than journeyman NBA players. Those are the numbers of a still-raw player, but with even modest progression, All-Star consideration seemed inevitable. Then, of course, Oden’s body began to betray him, over and over again.
The X-factor hanging over all of this is whether the current version of Greg Oden can even begin to replicate those numbers. Oden hasn’t played in an NBA game since 2009. He has undergone three microfracture surgeries, which can have a devastating effect on a player’s athletic abilities (Cue Knicks’ fans shaking their heads about Amare Stoudemire). So any conjecture about what kind of player he may be when he finally returns to the NBA is, at best, uncertain—he may just physically not be the same guy he was before. However, even at 70% effectiveness, Oden could easily contribute alongside or ahead of the likes of Jason Smith, Jeff Withey, and Greg Stiemsma.
Oden’s fit into the New Orleans rotation is another question mark, although there is undoubtedly room for him. It seems that the long-term vision in New Orleans would be a starting frontcourt of Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis, which as I profiled here, has the potential for offensive dynamism with the notable trade-off of having no one equipped to handle a legitimate post threat on the defensive end. Oden could be the answer to this problem, serving as a solid rotational big on most nights and featuring more prominently when matchups require a staunch post defender. This would hold down Oden’s minute totals, and keep down the mileage amassed over the grind of a full season. As a bonus, this may serve to assuage another weakness in Oden’s profile—his prodigious foul rate. Oden averaged 6.5 fouls per 36 minutes during his sole relatively healthy season in Portland in 2008-2009.
Signing Oden is a gamble, but Dell Demps and company have already caste the die. On a deal with a guaranteed first year and perhaps a team option or two, the downside is limited, while the upside for the team is potentially considerable. While the machinations required to free the requisite cap space aren’t totally clear, if Demps is able to maneuver into a situation in which giving such a deal is financially feasible without a major relinquishment of on-court assets, Oden could be an excellent addition.