Typically, when we examine a free agent's value, as we have for a number of players in our Free Agent Stock Watch series so far, we'll make an educated guess about his next contract based on his performance heading into free agency. So when a player hasn't actually seen NBA action in nearly three and a half years, evaluating his recent on-court production becomes a little trickier.
That's the case for Greg Oden, 2007's first overall pick, who hasn't appeared in an NBA game since December 2009. A layoff that extensive generally means we won't ever be seeing the player in an NBA uniform again, particularly when his absence from the Association is due to injuries rather than, for instance, playing overseas. But Oden is still only 25 years old, and has his sights set on a return to the NBA for the 2013/14 season.
Given Oden's history of knee problems, his health has to be the first factor taken into account when we consider whether he'll even land a contract this summer. Having undergone multiple microfracture surgeries on his knees, Oden is still working his way back into playing shape. If he can't get healthy, an NBA comeback will be impossible, but for our purposes, let's assume (and hope) his rehab continues to progress well, without any setbacks.
Despite being out of the league for years, a healthy Oden would still likely draw plenty of interest around the league. Even this season, as rumors swirled that Oden was considering signing immediately in order to rehab with NBA team doctors, we heard plenty of clubs linked to the 25-year-old. The Heat, Cavaliers, Spurs, Bobcats, Mavericks, and Celtics were among the teams rumored to be kicking the tires.
That amount of interest seems to suggest that Oden wouldn't necessarily have to settle for a minimum-salary contract if he's healthy. In fact, his decision to wait until the summer rather than signing a multiyear deal this past season suggests to me that he and agent Mike Conley Sr. will be seeking more than the minimum. During the season, many of Oden's preferred suitors, such as the Heat, were only able to offer a minimum contract, whereas those teams should have more cap exceptions available in the offseason. Miami, for instance, will have the taxpayer mid-level exception at its disposal.
Perhaps paying someone with Oden's injury history more than the minimum salary seems like an unnecessary risk, but as we've seen before, former No. 1 picks continue to make out well on the open market even after it seems like they're destined to be busts. Kwame Brown, for example, has never been more than a passable backup, but after the lockout he received a $6.7MM salary from the Warriors. After missing most of the 2011/12 season, he still managed to land a multiyear deal worth about $2.9MM annually from the Sixers.
Brown has been healthier than Oden, to be sure, but he no longer has the ex-Blazer's upside. Oden has played in a full season's worth of games in his NBA career, recording 9.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, a .577 FG%, and a 19.5 PER in 82 contests (22.1 MPG). It's probably unlikely that he'd match that production after such a lengthy layoff, even if he were injury-free. But it's not hard to imagine at least one NBA team talking itself into rolling the dice on the Ohio State product, perhaps as a cheaper alternative to another risky free agent big man like Andrew Bynum.
As Oden and his agent search for a new deal this summer, there will be plenty of uncertainty and apprehenesion surrounding the former top pick. If he's healthy though, I could see Oden landing a deal similar to the one Brown got last summer — a two-year contract worth between $2-3MM annually with a second-year option. That would make Oden a nice value if he could provide even 10-15 good minutes per game, and wouldn't be a disaster for the team if he couldn't stay on the court.
It would be a great story for basketball if Oden makes it back to NBA relevance in '13/14, so I'll be rooting for him as he continues his rehab and searches for a contract this summer.