Miami Heat v Indiana Pacers

Greg Oden waits for lucky break that may not come


CHARLOTTE — The man sitting at the end of the bench knows he is not going to play. The warm-up jacket and pants will not come off. So he just sits, plaintive look on his face, and he watches with an expression that almost never changed. His long legs stretch out almost into the court. Every now and again, someone in the stands will point at him.

“That guy,” a friend will say to a friend or a parent will say to a child, “was once the first pick in the NBA Draft. He was going to be the next big star.”

Yes, Greg Oden was the first pick in the NBA Draft. Yes, he was going to be the game’s next big star.  Yes, he had everything — size, strength, balance, a defensive presence, a sense of the game. Yes, yes, yes, he was all those things, his future was unlimited … but that was many injuries ago. MANY injuries ago.  Nostalgia and regret often mingle.

Now he sits here on the end of the bench. Sure, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has told him to be ready to get in there, that all players must be ready if the Heat is going to repeat as champions again. Oden doesn’t say much but he says he will stay ready.

He also knows that LeBron James continuously makes the point that the team’s depth — and specifically having Greg Oden on that bench — will play a huge role in these playoffs at some point. Oden says he will be prepared for the moment.

Greg Oden also knows that he is not going to play.

Sometimes there is nothing left to say except life is unfair.

* * *

Let’s start with the end because it is easier to pinpoint. We know the exact date. The end for the Greg Oden experiment came on March 26, 2014. That was the day that every hope and illusion about this latest comeback shattered.

Everybody wanted that comeback. For him. He deserved it. Oden had missed almost four years of basketball when Miami signed him for the minimum before the season began. He deserved good things.

And this looked like a good setup. Nobody expected Greg Oden to suddenly be the superstar everyone expected six or seven years ago. But, in the least, he looked like potential Kryptonite for Indiana’s big man Roy Hibbert. You will remember that last year the Heat had a ferocious seven-game series with Indiana and they could do nothing at all with Hibbert, who averaged 22 points and 10 boards for the series. It didn’t matter what Spoelstra tried, the Heat did not have a Hibbert answer.

Well Greg Oden is a 7-footer, 250-plus pounds, he could pound on Hibbert and weigh on him and foul him and frustrate him. Sure, if Oden recaptured some of his lost talent, everyone would cheer. But, at the least, he could slow Hibbert.

That dream ended on March 26. The Heat had slowly worked Oden into the lineup. From the start of the new year, they put him in a few games for five- and six-minute stretches just to get him some time on the court. Ten days before the big game against Indiana, they put him in the starting lineup. He flashed a few positive signs. He scored six, grabbed three rebounds, blocked a couple of shots at Cleveland. He made both his shots and blocked two more against Memphis.

And on March 26, he started against Indiana — a homecoming for Oden, who went to High School in Indianapolis. Everyone was watching this time. And … lets just say it did not go well. If it had been a fight, they would have stopped it. Well, in truth, they did stop it. Hibbert did everything he wanted for six minutes, Oden was utterly helpless, and after six minutes Spoelstra could not watch anymore. He pulled Oden and did not put him back in … for three weeks.

In fact, Oden has played in just one game since the end — 13 uninspired minutes in an entirely meaningless game against a putrid Philadelphia team. He has not played again. The official explanation for Oden’s disappearance was that he has had “back spasms.” He undoubtedly has had back spasms. But …

“Terrible,” Oden told reporters after the Hibbert game. He knew. He was heartbroken. This haunted pro basketball career of his just won’t ever let Greg Oden breathe.

* * *

In the beginning, Greg Oden was the franchise. He was the next in line of dominant NBA centers after Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and Shaq. He was big, he was strong, he was balanced, he worked hard, he blocked shots, he was the man. When you asked around the NBA about the first pick in the 2007 draft — the choice being manchild Greg Oden or scoring machine Kevin Durant — about seven out of 10 said Oden.

Why Oden? Well, some thought he was a SAFER pick. Durant was viewed as a one-dimensional scorer. Oden had a bigger game.

Some thought he was the WISER pick because he had already filled out. People forget: Durant made news shortly before the draft because he couldn’t bench-press all seven Harry Potter books (actually it was 185 pounds he couldn’t press) and scouts could just imagine him getting backed all the way down to the beer concession stand. Oden meanwhile looked like he was 10 years older than his age, even as a freshman he looked like a man going back and playing with the college kids, and there was no need to imagine who he would become.

And some though he was a BETTER pick than Durant because great centers tend to lead teams to championships while great scoring forwards often do not.

Of course, there were counterarguments; there were some people who passionately believed Durant was the right choice. But in the end, Portland did what most teams would have done with the first pick and took Oden. There was some irony here; Portland brought a special history to the draft having already taken an injury-prone center (Sam Bowie) over a college super-scorer (Michael Jordan) and had never quite lived that down. But, hey, that could not happen again, right?

Before Oden played his first NBA game, he had microfracture surgery on his right knee. Before his first game. He missed the entire 2007-08 season. While Durant poured in points his rookie year, the Bowie-Jordan comparison was being made ad nauseam.

It should be noted: The story was certainly not in stone yet. It was just one injury, and one thing that Portland loved about Oden was his dedication and work ethic. Before he entered his surgery, he reportedly told Portland GM Kevin Pritchard again and again how sorry he was for letting the team down and how desperate he was to come back. “We picked the right kid,” Pritchard told reporters after that surgery. “He cares about this organization.”

Oden came back in 2008. In his first game – HIS FIRST GAME – Andrew Bynum landed on his foot and he missed two weeks. But then Oden started to show the promise. In his fifth NBA game, he scored 22, grabbed 10 boards, blocked two shots. He became a starter in Game 9, and while he was inconsistent — rookies will be inconsistent — he had bright moments. He grabbed 13 boards against Detroit. He had a double-double at Washington. Fifteen rebounds against the Clippers. Sixteen points 10 boards against Toronto.

On January 12, he went to Chicago and dominated — 17 points, 13 rebounds. Milwaukee couldn’t stop him — 24 points, 15 rebounds. He blocked six shots against the Knicks. Yes, finally, it was coming together.

And then, just as he started to feel good, he bumped knees with Corey Maggette. This time he cracked the patella in his left knee. He was out for more than a month. But the bigger problem was that he now had some trouble with BOTH knees. And that, any big man will tell you, is a bad, bad sign.

In December of the next season, Oden fractured his left patella. Everyone said it had nothing to do with the earlier injury but, at this point, it didn’t matter. The guy just could not stay healthy. He was out for another season. Oden announced that this time he wasn’t coming back until he was ready, until he was fully healthy and ready to deliver on his promise.

One year later, instead, he announced that he was having microfracture surgery on his left knee. That put him out for another year.

The next year, he ha a couple more knee surgeries, putting him out for another year.

Then he said he needed a year to recover and be fully healthy.

When the Miami Heat signed him before this season, he had played in just 82 games in five years. He worked insanely hard to come back, time after time, he didn’t deserve all those setbacks. But, as the line in Unforgiven goes, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” And you know the end already.

* * *

Two or three weeks ago, people were openly questioning the Heat — they were playing pretty lousy. But in the NBA, nothing really matters until the playoffs and the Heat was the only team to sweep its opening round series. The champs suddenly look healthy and rested and they are enjoying watching the best teams in the East flounder and their own path open up.

Miami not only looks healthy now, it looks overstocked. The end of the Heat bench is loaded with guys you know even if you are only a mild NBA fan. There’s Shane Battier, the 35-year-old defensive specialist who has played a huge role in the Heat’s previous two championships. There’s Udonis Haslem, another major player in the championship runs, who every now and again goes into games and cannot be stopped. There’s Rashard Lewis, once one of the top scorers in the NBA.

The truth is, the Heat can’t use them all. The NBA is a game of match-ups, a game of rhythm, and Erik Spoelstra is not bluffing when he says he needs everyone to be ready. There could come a moment for any of them.

But … probably not for Greg Oden. For one thing, the man he was probably brought in to stop — Roy Hibbert — is in the middle of a nightmare playoffs and his Pacers could get eliminated as early as Thursday. For another, Oden’s body just won’t let him be the player he might have been. He’s just 26, but his knees are 50, and while Kevin Durant will probably win the MVP Award this year, Greg Oden will probably not leave the Miami bench.

Oden says he will keep waiting though. He says he has not lost hope. That might be the most miraculous part of all.

Luke Walton is NBA Coach of the Month despite zero official wins

Luke Walton
Leave a comment

If you were going to name the Western Conference Coach of the Month for November, there was only one choice to make — the coach of the undefeated Golden State Warriors.

So congratulations Steve Kerr, since he gets the credit for those 19 and counting wins… er, wait.

The NBA announced it has given November Coach of the Month award to Luke Walton, the interim Warriors’ coach who has guided the team while Kerr is recovering from back surgery. The league also announced Cavaliers’ coach David Blatt as the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month.

As the NBA explained earlier in the day, they see the Warriors as still Kerr’s team — he was the architect who put in the systems and built the foundation, while Walton is just living in the house for a while. Walton is a housesitter. So the fact the team was undefeated under Walton is moot, he gets no credit for the wins, they all go on Kerr’s resume. But Walton can win the Coach of the Month award for guiding the Warriors a league-best point differential of 15.4 points.

This was expected, but now it is official.

He could win it again for December, unless Steve Kerr decides to come back

Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan tied NBA record with 22 missed free throws Monday

Leave a comment

DeAndre Jordan tied his personal best with 12 made free throws Monday night against the Trail Blazers.

But that’s not what anybody is talking about with Jordan’s trips to the free throw line Tuesday.

So you don’t have to do the math yourself, Jordan hit just 35.3 percent of his free throws. When the Clippers pulled away with a mini-run in the fourth quarter, Blazers coach Terry Stotts responded with hack-a-Jordan, and Doc Rivers refused to take him out. The result was nine intentional fouls and trips to the free throw line in less than two minutes.

It was ugly to watch.

The purist’s answer here is “if he hits his free throws this never happens, so learn to shoot them.” That’s the camp Adam Silver is in, and it’s his voice (and that of the other owners) that matters. There is no appetite around the league to change the rule, even though more and more players are being subjected to it.

I would argue that fouling intentionally off the ball in the first place is outside the spirit of the game — it’s not playing basketball — and unsportsmanlike. I think it’s bad for the sport, much worse than missed free throws and a dragged out game. I would like to see any time there is an off-the-ball foul the aggrieved team having a choice of free throws or the ball out-of-bounds.

But I’m in the minority. The rule isn’t changing soon. Which means Jordan — or Dwight Howard or Rajon Rondo or someone — is going to get the chance to set a new free throw futility mark soon. That will be fun to watch.

Rumor: Houston seeing if there is trade market for Ty Lawson

Ty Lawson

While it does happen — and the ones that do happen tend to be bigger names — December is not a time the NBA does a lot of trades. Team GMs are always willing to talk, listen, and get a feel for the market, but it’s not until after the first of the year — and closer to the February trade deadline — before the market picks up momentum.

But there are always trade rumors, and the well-connected Steve Kyler over at had an interesting one — the Houston Rockets might be open to moving Ty Lawson.

The Rockets have been sniffing around the league for deals and there is a belief among other teams that Lawson could be had in trade, and had cheaply. Lawson is owed $12.4 million this season with the final $13.21 million of his deal being fully non-guaranteed.

As the Rockets search for ways to change, there is a belief that Lawson could be the first Rocket player moved. But given how poorly Lawson has played in Houston and his troublesome off-the-court history, it’s hard to imagine that Lawson alone is going to yield much in return. But as teams start to get desperate, Lawson does have a career assist average of more than 6.5 assists per game and averaged 9.6 per game last season for the Nuggets.

The Rockets are 10.4 points per 100 possessions better this season when Lawson is on the bench rather than starting. Lawson and James Harden — both of whom need the ball in their hands to be most effective — get outscored by 9.3 points per 100 possession when they are paired.  Pair Lawson with Dwight Howard and the Rockets are -11.4 per 100.

The Rockets clearly need to shake things up, and firing coach Kevin McHale and bringing in J.B. Bickerstaff has not been the answer. They have serious effort issues, which leads to real locker room chemistry questions. If they move Lawson, with that salary they should get a player of some value in return. If a good team loses a point guard to injury, Lawson could be a viable alternative.

Moving Lawson would be no magic bullet for Houston right now, but don’t be shocked if you hear a lot Lawson rumors as the trade deadline nears.

LeBron James on not facing Kobe Bryant in Finals: “I didn’t hold up my end”

Kobe Bryant, LeBron James
1 Comment

It was the matchup everyone wanted to see — LeBron James and the Cavaliers against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the NBA Finals. You can be sure the suits at ESPN/ABC wanted to see it.

Never happened. It felt like it would in 2009, but LeBron and the Cavs ran into a Magic team they could not defend and fell short. Kobe vs. LeBron never happened on the NBA’s biggest stage.

LeBron blames himself he said Tuesday, as reported by the Akron Beacon Journal.

“I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain,” James said of 2009, when the Cavs were upset by the Orlando Magic in the conference finals. “I know the world wanted to see it. I wanted it, he wanted it. He held up his end, I didn’t hold up my end and I hate that. I hate that it didn’t happen.”

LeBron was phenomenal in that series, but this was a team he could not carry all the way. In Game 1 he had 49 points on 20-of-30 shooting, plus dished out eight assists, and pulled down six rebounds — and the Cavaliers still lost. LeBron had a 59.1 true shooting percentage for the series despite a ridiculous 38 usage rate. The problem was his teammates had no answers for Stan Van Gundy’s offense with Dwight Howard in the paint and four shooters around him, plus Hedo Turkoglu playing the best ball of his career off the pick-and-roll.

Bottom line, LeBron you shouldn’t blame yourself. I’d say blame Cavaliers management, but clearly you did a summer later when you took your talent to South Beach. At least you ultimately learned to forgive.