Greg Oden’s NBA comeback will be launched on South Beach.
Oden told ESPN.com on Friday night that he has indeed chosen the two-time defending champion Miami Heat as his new team, capping a monthlong recruiting process which culminated with Oden spending this entire week making his final selection from a list of six suitors.
Referring to Miami, home of the two-time reigning champions, as the “best place” and “best fit” after years of knee troubles, Oden will report to the Heat on Monday and, according to sources close to the process, sign a two-year deal at the league minimum with a player option for Year 2.
The contract will pay $1.03 million in 2013-14 and $1.14 million in 2014-15 if Oden picks up that option. The 25-year-old has earned nearly $24 million in salary since being drafted No. 1 overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007 but has appeared in only 82 career NBA games because of his many knee troubles.
Oden chose the Heat over San Antonio, Dallas, New Orleans, Sacramento and Atlanta, teams that — with the exception of the Mavericks — all sent representatives to Indianapolis last week to watch him work out in person. He called officials from each of the finalists Friday night to inform them he was headed elsewhere.
In a Friday night phone interview after ESPN.com reported that he had chosen the Heat, Oden described the mental toll from his time out of the league as a lot of “ups and downs.”
“With more downs,” Oden said.
He’s not sure yet, further, how soon he’ll be ready to play in actual games, saying that he hopes to lose even more weight after slimming down to his current 275 pounds.
“I could be ready to go but it’s still a work in progress,” Oden said. “My minutes and amount of playing time and all that is going to have to be monitored.”
Oden said it was a “big deciding factor” that Heat officials made it clear to him that he “wouldn’t be needed as much early in the season” as he works his way back from more than three years out of the NBA.
“When I had a conversation with Coach [Erik] Spoelstra and hearing how much he knew about the training stuff that I was already doing, it kind of made me feel like they know what’s best for me,” Oden said.
Oden added: “I’m not going to sit here and say I’m 100 percent. I am moving [well] and I am feeling good, but I have a lot of work to do.”
In addition to the push from Spoelstra and Heat president Pat Riley, who began recruiting Oden in the spring, Oden said Heat star LeBron James recruited him via text message. Sources said Cleveland, Boston and Memphis, in addition to the other five finalists, all expressed interest in Oden since free agency began July 1, but those three teams declined to make a formal offer.
New Orleans, sources said, was one team that offered at least twice what Miami was offering for next season. But Oden scoffed at concerns that he’s needlessly thrusting himself back into the spotlight instead of launching his comeback with more of an under-the-radar franchise.
“[The Heat] are in the spotlight, what can I say?” Oden said. “But for them to come after me with all the stuff I’ve been going through — for them to think I can still be an important piece of their team — I’m really excited about that. The scrutiny … that’s going to be there with any team I signed with. I just want to play.”
Asked about his expectations for the coming season, Oden added: “I want to be able to finish the season healthy. [After] everything I’ve been through, I want to be able to say I played the game and I had no problems.”
Signing Oden will cost the Heat roughly $2.6 million in luxury tax after the coming season and nudge their overall projected tax bill for 2013-14 to just under $19 million based on a $101.5 million payroll. But Miami is cautiously optimistic that adding a rejuvenated Oden to the re-signedChris Andersen – after the bargain acquisitions of Shane Battier and Ray Allen before them — will address their size issues after longstanding concerns about their team rebounding and rim presence defensively.
The reality, though, is that Oden hasn’t played in an NBA game since Dec. 5, 2009. And he underwent his third career microfracture knee surgery as recently as February 2012.
Over the first 21 games of the 2009-10 season, Oden averaged 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game before succumbing to injury again. He said Friday night that he never imagined making an NBA comeback until last October.
“That’s when we started back from the bottom,” Oden said. “That’s when I said, ‘Let’s go, this is it, this is going to be my give-it-your-all [last stand] to try to get back on the court.”
Mike Conley Sr., Oden’s primary agent and a gold medalist in the triple jump at the 1992 Olympics, said: “After three years of not playing, getting himself all the way back to play the sport at such a high level, he’s a hero in my book.”
Said BDA Sports’ Bill Duffy, another of Oden’s main advisers: “As he gets his bearings and learns more about his body and his diet and all those things, we’re still hoping that this can be a Grant Hill- or Zydrunas Ilgauskas-type story where [Oden] gets past all the injuries and hopefully has the successful career he was always hoping to have.”