Greg Oden. (AP file photo)
Even before the season tips off, the biggest story is: Can the Miami Heat win a third straight title?
There are various subplots wrapped around that question. For instance, can LeBron James win another Most Valuable Player award? Can Dwyane Wade’s knees take the grind of another long season and deep playoff run? Are the Heat more of a Big Two than a Big Three? How big a loss is Mike Miller? Who can finally stop the Heat?
And following an auspicious preseason debut last Thursday, you can even add this, can Greg Oden help the Heat/ /live up to his potential/reprise Bill Walton circa 1986?
After being selected the top pick of the 2007 draft by the Portland Trailblazers, Oden in a scene eerily reminiscent of – who else -- Bill Walton, sat out his entire rookie season with a knee problem. Only Walton played in his first few years and led Portland to the NBA title in 1977 before succumbing to a series of knee problems that cut short his career.
I keenly watched Oden make that run with Ohio State (only to be stopped by Joakim Noah’s Florida Gators in the NCAA Finals) with Mike Conley Jr. during his one glorious year with the Buckeyes. And I remember thinking to myself when Ohio State won the Big Ten, “This must have been what it was like to watch Bill Russell when he was at the University of San Francisco.” Oden was tall, mobile, athletic and powerful. He looked frightening; a game changer.
But as timeless, a basketball truism there is, there is only one Bill Russell.
I thought that Oden would be a monster in the NBA and become the league’s most devastating center since Shaquille O’Neal left Louisiana State. Instead, he’s been limited to 82 games since being drafted. That’s the total number of games every team plays in one season spread out in five disappointing years.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Oden has played the fewest numbers of games for top picks in six years with 82. Walton is second with 223 while LaRue Martin chalked up 271 and David Robinson 314.
Incredibly, Oden, Walton, and Martin were all top NBA picks BY THE PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS while the San Antonio Spurs tabbed Robinson. Martin was the top selection in 1972 while Walton was take number one two years after.
Days after Oden underwent his third microfracture injury, an exasperated Portland waived the seven-footer. Third!
What is microfracture surgery? In my understanding, it is a procedure where the surgeon makes us of precision and purpose-built tools to arthroscopically access the knee. Small pressed holes are made on the knee and the bone marrow and stem cells are stimulated to build fibrous cartilage that will help the knee. It is preferred to complete knee replacement.
In Will Carroll’s article for the Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10, he listed 18 NBA players who underwent microfracture surgery after suffering a knee injury. The list includes John Stockton, Anfernee Hardaway, Brian Grant, Kerry Kittles, Eduardo Najera, Chris Webber, Allan Houston, Adrian Griffin, Jamal Mashburn Matt Harpring, Pat Garrity, Jason Kidd, Zach Randolph, Kenyon Martin, Amar’e Stoudemire, Rashad McCants, Sean May and Oden.
Of that list Hardaway, Harpring and Martin underwent the procedure twice. Oden is the only one thus far to go through three operations.
Due to advances in medicine and surgical procedures, many players are now able to make comebacks. However, Carroll’s research shows that every player’s shooting, scoring and minutes played averages go down. They are robbed of their explosiveness and athleticism. Two other players – Terrell Brandon and Bob Sura – never even went back to the NBA.
It is because of this fact that league general managers are often loath to sign players who underwent microfracture surgery.
Nevertheless, you cannot fault teams for still hoping against hope that a player like Oden call pull a Bill Walton and give a team one good year for a run at a NBA title.
Walton, in his first of two years with the Boston Celtics, defied time and his multitude of injuries as he played like a possessed man in 1986. He won the Sixth Man Award that year as the Celtics won the last of the three titles of the Larry Bird era in Boston.
In many ways, Walton’s success with Boston was mimicked by other teams looking to land that big man to provide quality minutes and similar impact. The Los Angeles Lakers found great success in getting Mychal Thompson to backstop Kareem Abdul Jabbar. In 1987, the ascending Detroit Pistons acquired center James Edwards from the Phoenix Suns and he gave them scoring and rebounding from the five-spot after Bill Laimbeer went to the bench for a rest. With Edwards, the Pistons went to three consecutive NBA Finals winning two from 1989-90.
During the 1990-91 season, the Chicago Bulls broke the mold without a dominant force at the center position.
This year the Heat are hoping that lightning will strike twice for three. They signed Oden to a one-year contract and the seven-footer saw action last Thursday against the New Orleans Pelicans where he dunked and hauled down two rebounds in four minutes of action.
If the Oden experiment works (ala Walton in 1986), it will be a huge coup for the Heat organization. If it doesn’t, then this could possibly be his last stop.
Ironically, Oden’s first official points in the NBA came against the Heat on November 12, 2012.
While the makings of a Miami dynasty are the bigger story, I believe that Oden, if healthy and successful this season, will be one of the feel good stories of the year. He is – for lack of a better term – the underdog in the league’s top dog team. And I am rooting for him to succeed.