greg-oden-by-bench

All the biggest dominoes have fallen in free agency this offseason. When the biggest questions left on the open market are when Nikola Pekovic is gonna give up on waiting for an imaginary team to blow away the Wolves’ $50 million offer, whether or not Brandon Jennings will sign his qualifying offer and try again next season, and what team Mo Williams will sign a minimum contract to come off the bench for, you know you’re officially in the dog days of the NBA summer, with a lot of hours to fill with non-hoops-related intrigue and entertainment. There’s only one real story left, and it’s likely to be resolved by the end of the week: Who’s gonna get to the chance to resurrect Greg Oden?

I doubt there’s ever been a free agent quite like Greg Oden before. Here you have the chance to sign a former No. 1 overall pick that never really busted as a pro — he has a career PER near 20 and according to Basketball-Reference was worth 6.8 wins in his first 82 games, about how many second-year sensation Jimmy Butler was worth in a full season last year. Unfortunately for Oden, those 82 games came over the course of two seasons in six years, and represent the sum total of the basketball he’s played thus far, with knee injuries upon knee injuries cheating him out of getting to establish himself as a pro. Now he represents a free agency lottery ticket to make even Andrew Bynum seem like a safe bet, a guy who at age 25 still has that franchise center potential sheen to him, if you can overlook the fact that he hasn’t laced up his sneaks in four years and may never be fully healthy again.

Unsurprisingly, a number of teams are interested — particularly since with his miserable track record of health, Oden probably can be landed for a minimal financial investment. At last count, it sounded like Oden was debating between a half-dozen teams in pursuit: the Pelicans, Kings, Mavericks, Hawks, Spurs and Heat, all of whom have seen Oden work out (“looks quite lean & is moving quite well,” reports Marc Stein!) and all of whom should be making their offers sometime this week, in a kind of low-rent version of the Dwight Howard sweepstakes.

I fear, however, that I already know where Oden is headed, and this Marc J. Spears tweet doesn’t help: To me, it seems all but certain that Oden is going to Miami.

The pitch that Miami can make to Oden is obvious and undeniable. They’re the two-time defending champs. They have LeBron. They have Pat Riley. They have South Beach. They have a borderline-desperate need for size and rebounding. They have enough media pressure at all times that Oden’s rehabbing can go under the radar as never being more than the third-biggest story surrounding the team at any given point in time. And after last year, they have a proven track record of veterans taking lesser or even minimum contracts to play there, and certainly looking like they have no regrets about doing so. The Heat are the gravitational center of the NBA now, and resisting their pull will take some serious effort from the former No. 1 pick.

As if all that wasn’t enough, the Heat also now have Chris Andersen. Like Oden, The Birdman was out of the league for some time — albeit for dramatically different reasons — but filled a potential need in the middle for the Heat during their stretch run last season. Once signed and slotted in, he instantly performed at a high level for the rest of the season, and a near All-Star level during the playoffs, where he led all players in offensive rating, true shooting percentage and Win Shares per 48 Minutes, hitting 18 straight shots over one stretch of games. If Oden is looking to be put in a position to succeed instantly after his long NBA sabbatical, he’ll find none more opportune than Miami, and Andersen is pretty good evidence of that.

It’s a pretty strong pitch. But as a Heat hater, I feel a certain duty to go on record pleading with Oden not to listen to it. Following a postseason where they emerged victorious but still barely scraped by in their last two series, Miami has shown legitimate vulnerability this offseason, amnestying a key postseason performer in Mike Miller and making no moves in free agency besides retaining Andersen and fellow veteran Ray Allen. With their core already aging and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh both underperforming rather dramatically in the playoffs, it seems plausible that the Heat might simply not be quite as good next year, and with the paper-thin margin of error they showed in the postseason, the slightest of regressions could be enough to prevent a threepeat.

Would signing Oden be enough to offset that regression? Not necessarily. He could sign tomorrow, get hurt again on Thursday and never play a single game for Miami, and nobody would be all that surprised. But he has the potential to offset it, and then some. If he can be 70 percent or more of the player he was for 82 games with the Blazers, that could be enough not only to keep the Heat in the drivers’ seat for championship No. 3, as Tim Hardaway predicts — and honestly, they’ll probably end up there regardless — but to give them hope for the future, and perhaps inspire the core to stay together beyond their opt-outs next season and even beyond. Not to mention the precedent it would set for future free agents in Oden’s position in years to come, assuming such free agents exist in the years to come.

Even more than potentially keeping my most-hated team vital for next year and beyond, there’s another reason I’m praying Greg Oden doesn’t sign with the Heat: I like Greg Oden. He always seemed like a chill guy. I liked his ESPN the Magazine commercials. His reaction to being told he was going to miss his rookie season was heartbreaking, as was that Mark Titus profile on him on Grantland last year where he talks about how he “pretty much became an alcoholic.” It sucks for him that Kevin Durant might go on to be the best player of his generation (or second-best, depending on where you draw generational lines) while he has to forever play the Sam Bowie, Pt. II role in Portland lore. I would wish him nothing but success on 29 out of the 30 NBA teams, and spend a good deal of time, energy and DV-R space rooting for him to find his way back to NBA relevance.

But on Miami, I just couldn’t. I’d have to root against him. Not so much that he’d re-injure himself — not even I could be that much of a hater — but that he’d be only minorly effective, that he’d maybe be a third of the player athletically that he was in Portland or Ohio State, that he might not even constitute enough of an upgrade over Udonis Haslem or Chris Andersen to avoid some kind of controversy over who gets to be the starter in Miami. And in the meantime, the fact that the Heat forced me to root against the feel-good story of the season would raise my hate for the team to a whole new level, which was already reaching some seriously unhealthy levels during last year’s Finals. If they won a third straight championship with Oden as the starting center … I’d rather the Cavs won with a suddenly totally healthy Andrew Bynum taking home MVP honors. That would be infinitely more stomachable. And I’m a Sixers fan.

Of course, this is all from my perspective, and doesn’t present any case for Oden as to why it makes sense for him to eschew being a Heatle next season. All I can really hope for is that a combination of desire to play on a more under-the-radar team (as his agent has even alluded to as possibly being a draw for Greg) and good old-fashioned greed (fine, “need for financial security”) will keep Oden from signing with the forever-spotlit and totally-capped-out Heat. But I’m not terribly optimistic — the fact that the Heat have done close to nothing else this offseason leads me to believe that landing Oden was their endgame all along, and the Heat don’t seem like a team that miscalculates on such things.

But I beg of you, Greg: Don’t do it. Don’t make me and the rest of Heat-hating America hate you. Go to New Orleans. Go to Sacramento. Go to Atlanta. Go somewhere where I can watch you getting healthy and wealthy and not want to die in the process. It’ll be good karma for you long-term, I promise.