In the wake of Tyson Chandler's departure, a hole has been left at the center position for Dallas. As Brendan Haywood and Chris Kaman took turns as high-priced, one-year tryouts, Chandler's absence continues to be felt in the locker room and on the court.
Well, here's another name to throw into the pile. Like Howard, he's a former #1 pick. Like Bynum, he's injury prone. And like Cousins, but unlike the other two, he's young, talented and won't cost a max contract.
Now, I don't expect a two week old article claiming Greg Oden looks great practicing by himself to send fans running to the phone to buy season tickets. And, although we know Dallas has some moderate level of interest in Oden, there are many potential obstacles to signing him; one perhaps being that Dallas' interest may, in fact, only be "moderate".
I, personally, am interested in Oden as a case study, if not also a free agent target for the center-starved Mavericks.
The casual fan, of course, knows Greg Oden as a dubious example of hype gone wrong. A cautionary tale. Maybe even a joke. Certainly, the notion that Oden was chosen over Kevin Durant is laughable, and some might think it is equally laughable to assume Oden will ever play at a high, sustained level again. But, as we look to the future, let's first look at the past:
This is the basketball-reference page for Zydrunas Ilgauskas. A first round pick in the '96 draft, the 7'3 Lithuanian made his debut in 97-98(on one of my all-time favorite teams, the "four rookies and Shawn Kemp" Cavs squad that went to the playoffs). Over the next three years, he played in just 29 of a possible 214 games, missing most of two full seasons recovering from several foot surgeries. Then, at age 26, having missed most of his early to mid 20's, Ilgauskas became one of the more consistently durable centers out there, and had a run of six or seven years of quietly efficient play for Cleveland.
This is the basketball-reference page for Sam Bowie. Like Oden, Bowie was a center taken by the Portland Trailblazers, and like Oden, Bowie is now most famous for being selected instead of the guy taken immediately after him. In the 1984 Draft, the Blazers owned the #2 pick, and already having shooting guard Clyde Drexler in the fold, they decided against taking a certain North Carolina prodigy named Jordan. Bowie had a solid rookie season, but then missed 265 of 328 games over the next four years, mostly due to leg injuries. After being traded to the Nets, Bowie had four straight years of fairly healthy, productive play, before winding his career down with the Lakers. Though Bowie never reached the heights his draft status suggested(and certainly came nowhere close to the guy taken after him), the main thing is that he finally was able to stay on the court.
Now, let's go back to Oden. Though he has played just 82 games in his career, it's enough of a sample size to at least have some idea of the level of talent. And it's massive. Oden has outstanding rate stats, with a career PER(19.5), win share/48 rate(.180), and win produced/48 rate(.205) that far outpace most of the free agent center market, and even compares favorably with the top two of Dwight Howard(career .181 win shares/48 minutes and 22.2 PER), and Andrew Bynum(career .174 win shares/48 minutes and 19.8 PER).
Oden's offensive game had not yet developed a lot, but his size, strength and underrated athletic ability(anyone remember this?) made him an efficient scorer and foul-drawing monster. And at the other end, Oden looked like he was well on his way to becoming one of the game's best defensive players, at any position. In his second, abbreviated season, Oden held opposing centers to a pathetic 13.2 PER, and posted a defensive rating of 100, which would have placed him third in the NBA had he qualified, behind Dwight Howard and Andrew Bogut.
Just for the moment, even if we do make the assumption Oden can stay healthy(and it's not a small leap to make), it's impossible to know how much athleticism Oden might have lost due to injury and the years lost waiting to play again. However, my argument was that Oden's previous trajectory was so high that even handicapped, he has the talent to be a useful player. He may have lost a lot of the explosiveness you see in that summer league video above, but he'll still be 7'0 270+ and prodigiously strong.
As I've tried to illustrate, there is precedence for the injury prone big man becoming not-quite-so injury prone later in his career. For the most part, when you're talking about talented centers who have displayed legitimate basketball ability the way Oden has, they'll find a way to at least have two or three healthy years, provided they aren't crazy or a drug addict. I don't think Oden is either; infact, although he's had a few troubles in his life, he seems like a genuinely decent person who hasn't deserved the misfortune that's befallen him so far in his career.
As it pertains to Dallas, this is exactly the type of risk the organization is going to have to take at some point if they're going to get back to true contender status before Dirk Nowitzki retires. Oden will be a "buy low" player. While he might get MLE type money based on his name and youth, that's still far below market value for a quality center. And the upside could make that sort of a contract a major steal. It would also allow Dallas to keep enough cap space ammunition to target another starter-caliber piece this year, and still have wiggle room next year when Dirk Nowitzki resigns for a more team-friendly contract. For all those advocating the signing of Andrew Bynum, are we sure this guy isn't the better risk to take?
I'l refrain from making any definitive pronouncement on the likelihood of such a signing. What we know is that Dallas is aware of Oden, and that they have a need at the position he plays. Realistically, Oden will need to be a part of a center rotation, rather than the workhorse. Dallas may be too risk averse to take the plunge, and we have already heard other teams may not be.