Allow me to steal a phrase from Russell Westbrook for this one.
If you’re Thunder GM Sam Presti, why not go after Greg Oden in free agency next summer? Why not take a chance on the one-time center sensation whose promise has faded because of faulty knees?
It would only be the greatest low-risk, high-reward maneuver we’ve ever seen Presti pull. And there have been plenty, most of them beyond question of the high-reward variety. We saw it with the near signing of C.J. Miles and the eventually rescinded trade for Tyson Chandler. We saw it with the successful signing of Nenad Krstic and the completed trade for Thabo Sefolosha. And, most similarly, we saw it with the flyer Presti took on Shaun Livingston, who nearly four years after a near career-ending knee injury still is navigating his full-time comeback.
Oden, the Blazers announced Wednesday, will soon undergo his second microfracture surgery, this time on his left knee. He missed the entire 2007-08 season following the same procedure on his right knee. And suddenly, with this latest news, Oden’s days in Portland seem to be done.
The Blazers decided against offering Oden a contract extension prior to the Nov. 1 deadline, making him the first No. 1 overall pick since Kwame Brown who failed to receive a new deal following his rookie contract. Although Oden is scheduled to be a restricted free agent next summer, giving Portland the right to match any offer a team throws his way, there are already reports that the Blazers might decline to retain those rights. Which of course makes perfect sense. Former Thunder assistant general manager Rich Cho, the new GM of the Blazers, has no reason to keep Oden. His selection was on former Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard’s watch. Now, it seems the sooner Cho can wipe his hands of what’s become a sad, if not embarrassing, set of setbacks the better.
Oden will forever be known as the bust who was taken ahead of Thunder star Kevin Durant in the 2007 draft. But the longer Oden stays with the Blazers, the more that troublesome truth will define his career, while also hanging over the Portland franchise. It’s time both parties parted ways.
And what better place is there for Oden to escape Durant’s shadow than Oklahoma City? Rather than toil through life as the answer to a trivia question, Oden could redefine his career by joining forces with Durant and perhaps someday compete for championships alongside him.
It’s not like the Thunder couldn’t use even a marginally healthy Oden to aid its quest for a title. Nenad Krstic, Cole Aldrich and Byron Mullens, the Thunder’s current cast of centers, certainly won’t fool anyone into thinking they’re championship caliber. Even if Aldrich reaches his full potential, which could be a Kendrick Perkins clone but probably is closer to Joel Pryzbilla, and Byron Mullens touches his ceiling, which at best is Tyson Chandler but realistically might be closer to Spencer Hawes, the Thunder could use another serviceable big man down the line. Mystery man Tibor Pleiss is waiting in the wings. But the 7-foot-1 German the Thunder selected 31st overall in June appears to be more of a Mullens clone, a player whose strength is more offense-oriented as opposed to rugged defense.
Enter Oden, who when healthy has shown flashes of defensive dominance. OKC could have as many as five roster spots available next summer. Krstic, it seems, will not be re-signed, and the same likely can be said for Mo Peterson and Daequan Cook. Nick Collison is in the final year of his deal but is proving to be indispensable, while Royal Ivey is non-guaranteed for next season. Surely, the Thunder can find a place for Oden.
Consider this. Oden, who turns 23 in January, is only one year, 10 months and 20 days older than Pleiss, who is still viewed as a sizable project. And Oden has appeared in only 82 regular season games since 2007. At the end of his fourth year, he will have played the equivalent of one NBA season. That inexperience suggests two things; he still has plenty of room to grow in this league, and there is plenty of mileage left in those legs, regardless of how crummy his cartilage might be.
The Thunder, meanwhile, is in great position to be patient with Oden. No pressure would be on the big man to provide a big impact. Not next season. Maybe not ever. If Oden could contribute 20 minutes a night, which is about his average over his 82-game career, OKC would have another interior defensive presence to complement its talented stable of scorers. All Oden would need to do to justify his signing is grab, say, six or seven rebounds, block about two shots and finish the occasional dump off or putback. Tons of big men stick around well into their 30s for providing precisely that. Oden has always looked like a 35-year-old. Maybe it’s time we all realize that his best shot at salvaging his career is learning how to play like one.
But the big question is how much money can Oden command?
In a league of second and third and fourth chances, you can expect several teams to bite on the bait that is a player who was billed as a once-in-a-generation center. We’ve seen it so many times, especially when it comes to big men. After failed stops in Washington, Los Angeles and Memphis, Brown still got a two-year, $8 million deal from Detroit in 2008. And this summer, Minnesota ignored how Darko Milicic wasted space in Detroit, Orlando, Memphis and New York and signed him to a four-year, $20 million deal. So somebody is going to throw some cash at Oden.
But how much is too much for the Thunder?
I don’t know how far OKC will be under the cap next season. Nobody does since the rules of a new collective bargaining agreement are still in the balance. But Oden is worth taking a considerable chance on. It’s not my money, but I’d jump at a deal starting at $2 million per. I’d probably go as high as $3.5 million per and strongly consider a $4 million annual salary over, say, three years. Maybe that’s too much. Maybe that’s not nearly enough and a franchise like New York outbids everyone to make Oden the latest in a long line of overpaid centers in a Knicks uniform.
But, if I’m Presti, Oden would definitely be in my sights next summer.
As Westbrook would say, ‘Why not?’