The Return of Greg Oden

by Couper Moorhead

On a night when the Miami HEAT lost to the Washington Wizards because they couldn’t put together a complete 48 minutes of basketball, it took just eight minutes and twenty-four seconds for Greg Oden’s season to become a success.

"Marking success for me is walking onto a court and just walking off healthy," Oden told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick in October. "No matter if it is one minute or two minutes. My dream is to be able to play basketball, and if I can go out there and do it, run up and down, and come off the court again healthy, that's goal one.”

When you haven't been on the court during a regular season game since December of 2008, getting on the court and leaving it healthy is a major accomplishment in and of itself. Though we don’t need to spend much time talking about perseverance and overcoming adversity, what Oden has gone through is enough to make many good people quit, and he didn’t. Miami was down nearly thirty points when Oden entered midway through the second quarter, but watching him grab the first offensive rebound he saw and throw it down was as special a moment as you’re likely to see this time of year.

Now the team’s real work begins. Despite different support staffs aiding Oden’s recovery over the years, rehabbing a serious injury will always be an isolating experience. People can tell you what you need to do, but nobody can make you wake up and spend hours upon monotonous hours doing the same exercises. There’s no more eye contact as your teammate shoots you the look that says, ‘Hey, here comes a pass’. You just stare at the weights and they just sit there, waiting to be picked up. Rehab is a different sport.

While the HEAT will continue to bring him along slowly, Oden gets to play real, honest-to-goodness basketball again. He gets to be on a team again. To pass. To rebound. To make shots and miss them. To go into the locker room after the game and laugh about something because it’s something he was a part of. Players get to play with Oden again, and the coaches get to figure out how to use him.

“He has no pressure. Whatever he can give us, he’s going to be a plus,” LeBron James said.

Offensively, it should be a quick transition. Oden’s post game was evolving during his time in Portland, but for now he’ll likely be asked to fill a role similar to Chris Andersen – though there was an interesting possession wherein the HEAT set up an Oden seal-off with triangle passing in the same way they do for James and Wade, but that’s a topic for another day. That means he’ll be working the pick-and-dive with LeBron James, as we saw on Oden’s second dunk of the night, and the rest of the HEAT’s playmakers to suck the defense into the middle of the floor. And away from the ball, he’ll space the floor along the weakside baseline, waiting for the right time to cut into the paint for a catch-and-finish.

“It's good, it's natural,” Chris Bosh said. “He plays well, he's very talented – we all know that. We can just simplify the game [for him], we're good players, and we don't have to make it complicated. I think we'll be able to plug him in fairly easily."

The other end of the court could call for a little more tinkering. Oden is a natural defender, and subjectively he was moving and changing directions better than you could expect of someone coming off multiple knee surgeries, but the HEAT have the next couple of months to determine how best to maximize his abilities.

It’s too early to say exactly how Spoelstra will use Oden as there will be plenty of experimentation provided Oden continues to play, however intermittently. Wednesday night in Washington gave us a glimpse of what might be, however, and it would mark quite the shift in philosophy.

Basically, Oden was employing the Indiana scheme.

This wasn’t quite as exaggerated as Roy Hibbert actually refusing to leave the paint on a pick-and-roll 25 feet from the rim, but it’s the same idea we’ve seen for years. By hanging back below the initial action, Oden draws the ballhandler, who sees all the free space in front of him, into the mid-range jumper zone of efficiency death. And if the attacker deigns, Oden can get in position and ‘catch’ the attacker, forcing either a contested shot or a pass.

It’s the tiniest of small sample sizes right now, but for the first go-round the shift to a more conservative defense worked. The HEAT had allowed 11-of-14 shooting to the Wizards through the first 17 minutes of the game – albeit with some of those makes coming in transition off turnovers – but with Oden on the court for eight-plus minutes the Wizards only attempted two shots in the paint. Oden took away the paint, and gave up something the HEAT are fine with giving up.

And by clogging the paint instead of committing two players to the ball on the perimeter, Oden prevents his teammates from getting over-rotated on the back-end. Everyone stays responsible for their primary assignment.

Theoretically, it’s easier to adjust to this style of defense from what the HEAT normally do (though they already play this style of defense sporadically) because it primarily means scaling back and concentrating on positioning and closeouts, not thinking two or three help rotations ahead all the time, but it would still be asking the team to be able to switch things up on the fly. One scheme with most lineups and a completely different one when Oden is playing. It’s not unrealistic, and a hybrid system like that could help the HEAT’s defense along during the regular-season doldrums, but it isn’t something that would happen overnight.

All of this will matter if Oden can gradually take on more of a workload, but for now it’s all speculation. Oden did what many thought he would never do again in playing professional basketball again, and the next step is to simply do it again. One more game, and then another game after that. Just as Andersen experienced when he was signed last year, Oden will have to become a reliable asset. With reliability comes minutes, with minutes comes familiarity and with familiarity comes trust. Then we’ll start to see what this all could mean.

For now, Oden is on a team again. Not just in name, but in experience. Five years later, he’s back to being a basketball player, and that has to be a hell of a feeling.

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