Greg Oden waits for lucky break that may not come

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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.

Celtics’ draftee Robert Williams overslept introductory conference call

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For a guy who slid way down the draft board due to serious concerns about his motor and work ethic, this is not the start Robert Williams wanted with the Celtics.

The Texas A&M center was selected 27th by Boston, but he chose not to go to New York for the draft itself and stayed home in Louisiana to watch it with family. They apparently had a good time, because his introductory conference call with the media started an hour late on Friday, and Williams admitted he overslept.

From Chris Forsberg at ESPN:

“Right after the draft, I actually ran to my aunt’s house and went to sleep because I was so tired from everything,” Williams said Friday afternoon in a call that took place an hour later than originally scheduled. “When I woke up, my sister woke me up, she said, ‘You have a conference call.'”

Williams later noted that it was, “a good night’s sleep after a busy two days.”

The Celtics blamed this on a miscommunication and the one-hour time difference between Boston and Louisiana. They let it slide.

Williams could be the steal of the draft. Could be — if those he can prove all those concerns about his motor and effort level to be false.

Williams has the skills to be an elite NBA defender, and despite his up-and-down efforts in college he was a defensive and rebounding force. His NBA game is going to be as a rim and paint protector on one end and a rim runner finishing alley-oops on the other. Think DeAndre Jordan style of big. The difference: thanks to a lot of work by Jordan (and some smart coaching by Doc Rivers to restore his confidence) Jordan fulfilled his potential. Can Boston get that out of Williams? Will Williams himself to work?

If they do, this is a steal for the Celtics.

If not, well, missing on the No. 27 pick in the draft is not going to set back their contender arc.

Cavaliers GM on LeBron James: ‘We want to respect his space’ during contract decision

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — With one deadline looming on his future in Cleveland, LeBron James has been in contact with the Cavaliers through his representatives.

Following the NBA draft on Thursday night, Cavs general manager Koby Altman said he has had positive discussions with the three-time champion’s group. James has until June 29 to tell the team if he will pick up his $35.6 million option for next season or become a free agent.

“We continue to have good dialogue with his management team,” Altman said. “I think LeBron has more than earned the right to approach his contracts the way he does. He’s done that before, so this is nothing new for us. We want to respect his space during this process and I continue to have really good dialogue with his management team as he goes through that process.

“That’s probably all I can say at this point regarding him, but we don’t take him for granted. We love him, this city loves him. He means the world to us and this franchise.”

James led the Cavs to their fourth straight NBA Finals this season, carrying a team that endured injuries and a roster overhaul at the trading deadline. Cleveland was swept by the Golden State Warriors, and following Game 4 the 33-year-old said he would weight family concerns and his desire to win more titles into his decision.

James has signed several short-term contracts since returning to the Cavs in 2014 after spending four seasons with Miami. After the Cavs won the championship in 2016, James signed a two-year contract with an option for this season.

The Cavs can offer him a five-year, $209 million deal this time. It’s possible James could choose to sign a one-year deal again with a player option and go through the free-agency dance again next summer.

To look more appealing to James, the Cavs need to upgrade their roster and they took a significant step by selecting Alabama point guard Collin Sexton with the No. 8 overall pick. Sexton averaged 19.2 points as a freshman and he addresses the club’s biggest need – a playmaker to fill the void left when the Cavs traded All-Star Kyrie Irving last summer.

Altman hopes Sexton’s arrival will make the Cavs more attractive to James.

The 19-year-old lacks professional experience, but Altman pointed out that James dealt with that issue this season.

“He went through it this year a little bit with some of our young guys, especially in the playoffs,” Altman said. “What’s amazing, he talks about this all the time – the best teacher is experience. And our young guys got some really good experience this year. And while it wasn’t consistent throughout the playoffs, each guy had their moments. And we went through two Game 7s and got to a Finals, and that experience is a huge teacher for those guys.

“So that experience is amazing for them and their confidence level as they approach next year. And then Collin, we got to get there with experience as well. But like he (James) says, experience is the best teacher, and we gave those guys a great experience over 30 games and into the playoffs and into the Finals, and what does that mean for us moving forward, I think it’s all really positive.”

Report: Lakers tell LiAngelo Ball he will not be invited to Summer League team

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LiAngelo Ball was never going to get drafted Thursday night. He simply is not that good (something I heard from every scout I talked to that saw him play).

He did get invited to work out for some teams before the draft (including the Warriors and Lakers). Impress there and the next step is an invite to play on a Summer League team. I don’t know if the middle Ball son impressed enough in workouts to earn an invite, but I do know he had an extra hurdle to climb — and a big one to most teams — because organizations do not want to deal with LaVar Ball and that circus.

That includes the Lakers, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

It will be interesting to see if another team is willing to give LiAngelo Ball a roster spot in Las Vegas. I would be shocked if a G-League team or two does not make him an offer for next season — for them, the marketing and publicity would be worth the hassle. How well he plays is secondary.

If a player is as talented and has the potential of Lonzo Ball, teams will put up with a lot. The Lakers organization has its frustrations with LaVar (to put it kindly), but they like Lonzo and what he could become (the team just played better with him on the court last season). Yes, Lonzo has trade value, too, but they’re not opposed to keeping him, depending upon how this summer shakes out. They can ignore the dad for him.

LiAngelo simply isn’t the level of talent where teams will tolerate the circus around him.

The big question for me is LaMelo Ball, the youngest of the three brothers, who was considered a top prospect for colleges a couple of years ago (and had committed to UCLA). How has being pulled out of his high school and playing low-level European competition in exhibitions in Lithuania impacted his standing? Something to watch over the next few years.

Just know LaVar Ball is never giving up the dream.

In surprise to nobody, Carmelo Anthony reportedly will not opt out of $27.9 million

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Carmelo Anthony is going to take the money. Who could have seen that coming?

Not that we should blame the man — anybody else in his shoes (including you, dear reader) would do the same thing. Anthony is contractually owed $27.9 million next seasons, and while he can opt out he knows if he did the open market would not pay near that much. So the man is going to take the cash, which was expected but Marc Stein of the New York Times is making it official.

Carmelo Anthony does not intend to opt out of his current contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder, according to a person familiar with Anthony’s decision.

Anthony has until Saturday at midnight (Eastern) to exercise the option that would make him a free agent July 1 — provided he were willing to walk away from the $27.9 million he is owed next season. But he is planning to let the deadline pass quietly and keep his current contract in effect, according to the person, who was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.

The Thunder are in a bind.

It became clear in the playoffs that at this point in his career, Anthony’s defense and ball-stopping offense are just not a fit with this Oklahoma City roster. He played 194 playoff minutes with the Thunder and had two assists. Last regular season, 32.5 percent of Anthony’s offense came from isolations or post ups, and he scored less than 0.9 points per possessions on those — his numbers aren’t awful, but they’re not good enough to  make up for his poor defense. (Stats via Synergy Sports.)

That’s why Anthony saw his minutes and role shrink in the postseason — but he said after the Thunder were eliminated (in the first round) he did not want to accept that role and fewer touches next season. He said he wants to get back to playing his way. (Stop laughing, Knicks’ fans, it’s not polite.)

The Thunder may try to trade him. Good luck with that. There is going to be limited to no market. With that salary they are going to have to throw in a serious sweetener to get other teams to bite (and/or take on a worse, longer contract in return).

Anthony is not likely to take less in a buyout to get out of town.

Nobody should blame Anthony here — he is taking the money is is contractually owed. The Knicks gave him this contract, the Thunder traded for it. But OKC is backed into a corner with this move and has few options.