The world was a different place the last time we saw Greg Oden play professional basketball. Bin Laden was still alive and hiding, Tim Tebow was the best quarterback in the country, no one heard of an iPad and a teenager named Justin Bieber was only a mild curiosity.
Speaking of which, the world's tallest Bieber fan was at the singer's concert the other day in Indianapolis. Wasn't Oden destined to be a sensation, just like the Bieb? What has he done since Dec. 5, 2009, his last appearance on an NBA floor? (Answer: not much.) And what can anyone expect when Oden returns this fall in what could be his final chance to reclaim his career?
He's almost like a modern-day Bill Walton, except Walton at least had a few solid seasons and two championships before his wheels went flat. Oden has appeared in only 82 games and missed a possible 410 because of knee issues. He was the first pick in the 2007 draft; 11 players taken after him in the first round have already come and gone from the NBA.
Oden is only 25 years old. That might be the most astonishing thing about him. He's still young enough that a handful of teams are chasing him this summer, willing to take a chance at a minimal cost in what seems like a low-stakes gamble. Whether he has the knees of a 60-year-old former catcher is the question, and that won't be answered until Oden gets through a reasonable stretch of games without dialing his doctor. He hasn't even worked out for anyone yet.
"His condition, his mindset, it's the best it's ever been," said Mike Conley Sr., Oden's agent and until further notice, Oden's spokesperson. "To sum it up, he's anxious to get started. He can't wait. He's been working hard, working toward this moment, this season. He has a very positive outlook."
But even Conley, as he sells his client to the Spurs and Heat, among other teams, concedes nothing is guaranteed. Oden has had two microfracture surgeries on his left knee and one on his right. One microfracture surgery has slowed down Amare Stoudemire; Oden's had three, plus surgery to repair a broken kneecap. More than a few teams have wondered if Oden has some sort of congenital condition which will cause him constant trips for checkups or additional surgeries.
That said, besides his age, he's a 7-footer with natural shot-blocking ability and a presence in the paint. At the very least, couldn't Oden be a valuable backup, a role player who could make a difference on a contender? What's the risk in giving him the minimum for one season?
None, actually. But this is an odd situation where the player will choose the team, not vice versa. For one, Oden has already banked nearly $45 million from the Blazers, which makes money more of a secondary concern, at least in the short term. His priority is getting in the right situation and playing for the right coach. Like any good rebounding big man, Oden believes in proper positioning, which could eventually pay off in the long haul.
"The most important factor is finding a place that's conducive for him to be healthy and come along slowly," said Conley. "A place that doesn't need him to make an impact right away. He wants to play and contribute, but there's certain a way to do that."
Oden is high on the Spurs because of Gregg Popovich's pattern of preserving his best players. Pop is famous, and infamous, for giving Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili extended rest, once even keeping Duncan out of a game completely because the future Hall of Fame forward was "old." As a result, Duncan looked fresh and rejuvenated once the playoffs began.
With the Spurs, Oden could get spot duty behind Duncan and Tiago Splitter and be allowed to progress at a slower pace, and being with a contender would be a bonus. He has spoken with the Spurs twice already.
There's also the Heat. Miami doesn't rely much on big men other than Chris Bosh because the ball is dominated by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Besides, the Heat gave Chris Andersen a one-year extension, which would allow Oden to get by on 15-20 minutes without feeling pressure to contribute much more than that, in terms of playing time and production.
Finally, the Pelicans are a strong finalist for Oden because they have Anthony Davis and rookie Jeff Withey, both shot-blockers.
"We also talked to several teams before the summer," said Conley. "And now, new teams are cropping up."
What can anyone reasonably expect from Oden, even if his knees hold up? In his last extended stretch with the Blazers, he showed some of the inside power game (averaging a double-double at one point) that made him the most sought-after big man in the draft since Dwight Howard. Oden's game is built on defense and rebounding. He has soft hands but doesn't demand a major role in the offense. And he could run the floor, at least before the surgeries.
Also, keep in mind this league is so starved for functional big men that the Cavs gave a guaranteed $6 million to Andrew Bynum (after choosing him over Oden) and the Spurs extended Splitter for $9 million a season.
After his most recent surgery, in February of 2012, Oden has kept a low profile, rehabbing at St. Vincent's, a therapy center in his hometown of Indianapolis, and playing in limited pickup games at Ohio State, where he went to school for one year. Those who have witnessed him play said Oden moves fluidly, but pickup games and NBA games are completely different animals.
And as for his medical rap sheet? Conley said: "Every team wants every bit of information possible, and it's all available to them."
Gone for three and a half years, Oden is about to come out from hiding. It's hard to disappear completely when you're a 7-footer who was once projected to be a franchise player and the next dominant big man. Whether he ever reaches those expectations may not really matter, at least not right away. At this point, after multiple surgeries and two false starts and being out of sight and out of mind, all Greg Oden wants to do is take the next step, and hope his foot doesn't find a banana peel.