The Sacramento Kings are going to have a lot of cap space whenever the NBA lockout ends (tonight, Monday, February, October 2012). The free agent class for 2011 is pretty weird. There are some players that fit the Kings' purported needs, at least in the frontcourt. With DeMarcus Cousins in place, many (myself included) want the Kings to bring in a defensive-minded, efficient center ... but one that's a little younger (at that price) than Tyson Chandler. Marc Gasol fits the need beautifully, but the Grizzlies will make it difficult if not impossible to pry him away. Nene is another good fit, but is the same age as Chandler (29) and will also be pricey, and is said to be looking for a contender. The drop-off at "defensive-minded, efficient center" is huge from that point on.
But there's a particular dude -- the contemplative fellow above -- who fits the mold, might fit the price point and has enough question marks (massive, doom-bringing question marks) to scare most teams off. He is Greg Oden, and he is the center I want the Kings to chase.
Oden has played all of 82 games in four season -- that's right, just 25 percent of possible regular seasons -- and six playoff games. That's bad. He's had multiple microfracture surgeries, a broken patella, the broken wrist. His most recent microfracture surgery was 11 months ago. He just ran for the first time since that surgery within the last couple days. He might be ready to play in January.
These are problems. The Blazers picked up a lucrative qualifying offer on Oden that could cost the team $8 million for a season in which he likely won't be ready until midseason ... just so they'd have a chance to match any contract offer he likes. But make no mistake: the Blazers know as well as anyone that you can't look at Oden apart from his injuries.
When he is on the court, thoough, in those magical and rare moments: he is pretty awesome.
In those 82 career games, he has a PER of 19.5. His True Shooting percentage is .613. His offensive rebound rate is an outrageous 15 percent, and he's one of the better defensive rebounders in the league at 25 percent. He blocks 5 percent of all opponent shots taken when he's in the game. He's basically exactly as advertised coming out of Ohio State: a defensive master, a monster on the glass and an efficient if non-bombastic pivot on offense. (Oh, and he was 20 and 21 in the seasons in which those stats were amassed. He is now 23.)
But what a bet it is to gamble on him actually making it onto the court, especially when you can't see his recovery before extending the offer. To offer Oden enough money to potentially pry him away from Portland, you'd have to bet the bulk of the team's hard-earned salary cap space this summer on a guy who hasn't played in two years, and who had his second microfracture surgery a year ago, and who won't be able to get on the court for another three months. It's just a huge gamble.
There are, however, some ways in which the gamble can be mitigated:
* The amnesty clause reportedly being negotiated into the NBA lockout deal will, according to Marc Stein, be valid for up to two years. The Kings don't have a great amnesty candidate right now. The extended period of use helps, because the Kings could in theory take on a nasty contract to get a real gem, then use the amnesty clause on the nasty contract. OR ... the Kings could bring in a big risk like Oden, try him out for a (half-)season or two, and cut their losses. The existence of the extended amnesty clause is a huge mitigation of the gamble that is inherent in Oden.
* Thanks to the amnesty clause and the Kings' continued youth, if Oden doesn't work out by next season, the Kings can "re-acquire" their cap space for a better free agent class. Holding an amnesty clause (assuming it ends up as described by Stein) during this free agent period is basically like having the ability to turn any free agent's contract -- for cap purposes -- like a contract that includes team options after Year 1 and Year 2.
* The league allows insurance to be built into contracts, which can mitigate that risk of wasting actual money (as opposed to just cap space). One assumes that if Oden were forced to retire next summer, the Kings' owners wouldn't have to pony up the full amount of his contract due to an insurance policy.
If it were my money and job -- it is decidely not, on either account -- I'd drop a three-year, $30 million contract on Oden's doorstep. That allows you to keep Marcus Thornton, gives you room to extend either J.J. Hickson or Jason Thompson in a year's time and let's you roll the dice on a former No. 1 pick.
The Blazers could match that. Maybe Oden would get something larger from the Pacers or Timberwolves. (A man who knows the Blazers better than anyone told me he thinks the Blazers would match up to five years, $50 million. !) But to me, that's a risk worth taking. Oden and Cousins, with Tyreke Evans in the backcourt? That's a helluva core ...
... if Oden stays upright. I will understand fully if you think that is a longshot. And I understand fully why the Kings won't touch a deal like this with a 6-foot crutch. Paul Westphal clearly has a role in personnel decisions now, and Paul Westphal clearly wants players who can make a difference right now. Oden can't even play until maybe January, and even then has as much real, live NBA experience as DMC. Oden's not a fit for Westphal, and you can't blame Westphal one bit: his job has been on the line since the day he was hired, and at this point, he desperately needs an improved win-loss record. There's no way the Kings chase Oden, not with the dynamics of management and the need to win. There's no way.
But a guy can dream.