This is a race between the tortoise and the snail, this contest of determination and rehabilitation between Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden, celebrated yet brittle big man trying to overcome the same, big, annoying problem.
They're not trying to beat each other as much as they're trying to whip science and their own crummy luck. Combined, they've had 14 knee operations of various degrees and procedures, and when you add up all the missed games, it comes to more than six full seasons.
But this season feels different, looks different and, to hear both centers, will be different. At least they hope. Bynum is with the Cavaliers and back on the floor; he'll play Friday in Philadelphia, most likely to plenty of boos. Oden is with the Heat and still waiting to get on the floor, an opportunity that will come soon, just not soon enough for him.
The tortoise and the snail. Bynum has sprinted (and we'll use that word loosely here) to an early lead with four games played to Oden's zero. Who will win? More importantly, will either or both of them actually finish the race?
There's plenty of support, mostly for Oden, who has suffered the most, and some for Bynum, except from those Sixers fans still blaming him for a lost, horrible season and a big trade that backfired. Bynum is only getting 12 minutes a night as he continues to shake off rust while preserving his body for the long haul, and those 12 minutes against the Sixers might seem like 12 days if the response from the crowd gets as ugly as expected.
"They'll probably boo, but that's their choice," said Bynum, who doesn't understand why he's being blamed for being hurt all of last season.
Oden would actually love to get the business from an opposing crowd. That would mean he's on the floor and dominating the other team and having the kind of career many, including himself, expected when the Blazers drafted him No. 1 overall and ahead of Kevin Durant. Instead, Oden continues to break his sweat on the Alter-G treadmill and other devices designed to strengthen his legs and by extension, his resolve. He has been through a lifetime of bad spills made even more shocking when you realize he's just 25.
"I'm getting better," said Oden recently and reluctantly about a touchy subject. "The organization has given me great support."
The highlight for Miami this season happened weeks ago, when Oden grabbed an offensive rebound, powered in a dunk and slapped the backboard for effect, all in a preseason game in New Orleans. It was his first NBA action since December 2009 and although it didn't count as an actual game, the four minutes of playing time he received drew more emotion from his teammates than any real game so far.
"I can run," he said. "I was just happy to be back on the floor. For the past three years, I haven't been able to do that. I couldn't say that."
Oden didn't get too excited, though, because he knows all too well about the highs and lows of rehab, how one day can be the polar opposite of the next. That's why he and the Heat are being very tortoise about this. While those outside of the organization may wonder why Oden hasn't been activated this season and suspect the worst, the truth is the Heat really don't need him now and he doesn't need to take any risks, however small.
"We're training him right now," said coach Erik Spoelstra, explaining why Oden continued to rehab even while Chris Bosh missed a few games to attend the birth of a son. "He can get a ton more work in our facility. That's the priority right now. There's nothing alarming about this. He'll be with us when it makes sense."
The grand plan, the one that's a best-case scenario, is Oden rehabs until the holidays, then gets scattered playing time until the All-Star break, then becomes a full-fledged member of the rotation and gets his reps in before the playoffs. There, Oden helps Miami snuff the most threatening big men in the East, namely Roy Hibbert and Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah, which is why the Heat signed him last summer.
The person with the biggest problem with that plan might be Oden, strictly from a patience standpoint. Remember, this is someone with just 82 games to his resume since being drafted in 2007, someone who endured three microfracture surgeries in a sport where it's challenging to overcome one such surgery. Spoelstra said Oden bugs him about playing "every day" but says Oden also understands the baby-step process must be followed, for the sake of his future, however long or short it may be.
"He's been great with it, he understands," Spoelstra said. "We mapped out a very detailed plan for him in August. We're not going to panic or try to fast-track it for other people's interests."
Oden says he hears people rooting for him almost regularly, which seems right. His story touches the human spirit and digs out the compassion in your soul, whether you're a basketball fan or not. How much more must the guy suffer? That lies at the core of the issue, really. Oden, at this point, is just trying to salvage what he has left. He didn't enjoy a long and lucrative NBA contract that seemed almost a forgone conclusion when he was drafted, nor has he celebrated an NBA title, like his Heat teammates.
In other words, Oden hasn't had a head start like Bynum, and therein lies the difference between the two centers.
By the time he joined the Sixers two summers ago in a trade designed to awaken a flat franchise, Bynum owned a pair of championship rings, had been an All-Star and banked nearly $75 million. Once he arrived in Philly, though, Bynum was damaged goods, and a pair of surgeries spelled doom for him the entire 2012-13 season. Not only did Bynum's body cost the Sixers a possible playoff run, to get him they surrendered Nik Vucevic, a promising young center, in the process. The sight of Vucevic soaring to the top of the rebounding chart last season turned fans bitter toward the organization and, by extension, Bynum. Just this Wednesday, Vucevic scored 30 points with 21 rebounds against the Clippers and is busy proving he's the real thing.
The Sixers used Bynum as an excuse to strip the club this summer and essentially prepare for the 2014 draft lottery (although they might be better than anyone anticipated), and Bynum signed a free agent contract with the Cavs.
"It wasn't my choice to get rid of me," Bynum said, unapologetic for how it turned out in Philly. "I don't feel bad at all."
Like Oden, Bynum would rather not discuss in detail about his knees or the past or anything related to the two. He plays with a pair of heavy braces beneath his knee pads, which literally serve as NBA life support for a player with his history. He admits to feeling "little, sharp pains" during his limited playing time with the Cavs but so far, no setbacks.
"Nothing too bad," he said.
He's in a no-lose situation, really. Bynum has already scored the big contract and championships and is playing with house money at 26. The Cavs have Anderson Varejao at center, and even Tristan Thompson can play the position for a few minutes -- so Bynum feels no pressure, not like he did in Philadelphia. In a league that's desperate for size, Bynum knows he can go another five years as a backup if his body holds up.
One center will be booed Friday and claims he won't care. Another center would love to hear anything inside an NBA arena, and when he does, it will undoubtedly be cheers. The race between Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum could set world records for slowest time to the finish. In this particular case, it's all good if both are able to cross the line. Then they can both declare themselves winners.