During the 2007 NBA draft, the Portland Trail Blazers made Greg Oden the first overall draft choice. Since then, Oden has played in a grand total of 82 games, last seeing the court on December 5, 2009.
As tumultuous as his career may be to this point, Oden would be a low-risk signing for a contending team to make.
According to Jeff Goodman and Marc Stein of ESPN, Oden, an unrestricted free agent, has cut his list of potential signing spots down to five teams: the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs. The Heat and Spurs have reportedly emerged as front-runners.
Per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Oden has added the Atlanta Hawks to the mix and will decide upon his potential destination next week.
Regardless of where he signs, all eyes will be on Oden's decision.
It might be surprising to see a player who has been out of the NBA for nearly four calendar years garner this type of attention. With that being said, Oden was expected to become the next great NBA big man, taking the reigns from Shaquille O'Neal as the most dominant interior presence in basketball.
Even if he fails to reach his previous level of expectations, Oden has every tool necessary to succeed in his comeback bid.
Never About Athleticism
Oftentimes, the No. 1 overall draft choice is heralded for their elite athleticism, whether they play along the perimeter or work the interior. In Oden's case, however, the praise was not for his explosiveness, but instead the versatile skill set and powerful frame that made him such a dominant force at Ohio State.
As a player coming back from multiple leg-related injuries, that makes this fact quite important—Oden's game was never about athleticism.
Coming out of college, Oden measured at 7'0" and 257 pounds with a 7'4" wingspan. As a freshman at Ohio State, Oden used those gifts to dominate the game, averaging 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 28.9 minutes of action.
In his final collegiate effort, Oden dominated Al Horford, Joakim Noah and the Florida Gators' vaunted front line for 25 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks on 10-of-15 shooting during Ohio State's 84-75 national championship game loss.
During his time in the NBA, Oden posted career averages of 9.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 22.1 minutes of action, shooting 57.7 percent from the field. Making a living down low, Oden proved that his game was all about brute force and a developing offensive game.
While his days as a world class contributor may be over, Oden is a fundamentally sound enough player to return and provide valuable minutes to a contender.
Countering Small Ball
The rise of the "small-ball" approach is grossly overstated, as the Miami Heat's success appears to have created a false image for the direction of the entire league. For evidence, note that seven centers were selected to the 2013 All-Star Game, with Chris Bosh serving as the lone beneficiary of the small ball approach.
If that's not a strong enough image, Roy Hibbert absolutely decimated the Heat during the Eastern Conference Finals, exposing their absence of a true center and nearly leading the Indiana Pacers to a series upset.
With this in mind, it's hardly surprising to see six NBA franchises, including four expected to make the playoffs in 2013-14, targeting Oden. Grantland reported in December of 2012 that Oden had lost nearly 30 pounds, which comes after he hit 284 in his most recent season. By that math, Oden would return to the NBA as a 7'0" big man with a frame of roughly 250 pounds.
Who wouldn't benefit from that type of presence?
Oden will still be able to pick his man up in the post, which creates defensive value off from the opening tip. His ability to serve as a help-side defender may be hindered by his past injuries, and Oden's low-post game could be rusty, but there is a realistic possibility that he ends up being a taller, more offensively capable, Kendrick Perkins.
Last time I checked, that's an attractive piece to bring aboard.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the pursuit of Oden's services is the fact that he will not be receiving a lengthy or expensive contract. Instead, Oden's comeback attempt will likely be made in a similar, albeit more cost-efficient, manner to Andrew Bynum's.
A two-year deal with a team option for the second season.
If that is to be the case, then there truly isn't any risk at all to bringing Oden on board. Even if Oden is to face the injury bug in 2013-14, a bulk of the money will be non-guaranteed and the franchise to bring him on board will determine whether he returns to their team in 2014-15.
In turn, the only question worth asking is how much each team would be willing to spend in non-guaranteed money?
If Oden is offered a long-term deal, which is highly unlikely, we may have another conversation on our hands. Until a team makes such an outlandish offer, however, the assumption is that Oden will be making his comeback on a non-guaranteed contract that favors the team signing him.
With the balance of world class upside and minimal financial risk, signing Oden is as safe a reach as any franchise could possibly make.