Obstacles abound for Oden return

Greg Oden, who hasn't played since 2009, has a lot to weigh before choosing his next NBA team. Tom Lipman

He hasn't played in an NBA game in almost four years. He's had five surgeries on his knees, including three dreaded microfracture procedures. He's not in great shape, and he's not even playing five-on-five, at least publicly.

And yet teams just can't help themselves. There's no "if" when it comes to Greg Oden's return to the NBA. It's "when," and that very well could be this week, according to sources.

After hosting several teams -- which included the two that met in June's NBA Finals, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, and other possible playoff teams such as the restructured and renamed New Orleans Pelicans -- for workouts in Indianapolis last week, Oden, now 25 years old, is close to a decision.

"Whenever you see somebody that big move well you can't help but get excited about what he could be," said one team official who has been tracking Oden.

"He needs to get in better shape but that will come," said a coach who attended a recent workout. "He does look pretty good."

"He's not that far off microfracture [surgery]," a team executive said in regard to Oden, who last had the procedure in February 2012. "He still has a way to go to getting his knee where it needs to be, but there are possibilities."

Oden certainly has the talent. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft, Oden has averaged 9.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 82 career games. In 21 games in 2009-10, he produced a player efficiency rating (PER) of 23.14, the eighth-best mark in the NBA.

But no player has ever been able to come back after the kind of knee trauma he has endured in his six-year career. Most likely because they would have given up by now.

The Heat, though, remain hot on his trail. The two-time champions have been looking for size ever since they formed the Big Three four years ago. They've tried veterans near retirement (Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Jamaal Magloire), midseason buyouts (Erick Dampier and Ronny Turiaf), second-round prospects (Dexter Pittman) and amnesty releases (Chris Andersen). Oden would fit into the reclamation project category, a route they tried with Eddy Curry. Among the seven signees, only Andersen has worked out, and the Heat are concerned he may not be enough as they try for a three-peat.

The Heat barely got past the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, and the Pacers made great strides in upgrading their bench this offseason, including their recent trade for Luis Scola. The Chicago Bulls are a lingering threat thanks to their size and the return of Derrick Rose. And the Brooklyn Nets suddenly have a pair of All-Stars leading their frontcourt in Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett. The East has gotten bigger, and the Heat may need to match that size if they hope to win the conference for a fourth straight year.

But it's not just the injuries Oden is dealing with. In a Grantland story last year, Oden spoke of a drinking problem he developed while rehabbing in Portland, even using the word "alcoholic."

According to sources, teams were well aware of that even before his admission, as well as his issues with depression that sometimes affected his rehab. Oden also addressed that in the Grantland interview, saying that at times he had holed up in his house because of the scrutiny.

There has surely been vetting of Oden's physical health, especially after so much finger-pointing between him and the Trail Blazers, but teams have assuredly checked on his mental state as well.

His role next season is a topic of discussion, too, one that was likely broached with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra when the two had lunch after a workout in Indianapolis last week.

The Heat don't need a starting center who will play 30 minutes, but they sure could use a 7-footer who can bother the likes of Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez and Joakim Noah in certain situations, and Oden has always been able to defend.

Oden, who has already made about $23 million in his career, has said that money will not be a driving factor in his comeback, that fit and comfort level will be important. But that doesn't mean there won't be a limited bidding war.

The Heat have financial concerns, as evidenced by the recent release of Mike Miller to save on luxury tax payments. They have their $3.2 million midlevel exception available, but using all of it would cost around $10 million if tax penalties are considered. They would like to offer Oden a veteran's minimum contract at about $1 million and have developed quite a reputation of getting free agents to accept less.

But other teams such as the Spurs, Pelicans, Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings have portions of their various midlevel exceptions available to use on Oden that could pay him significantly more than the minimum.

That's a lot to weigh for a player with just a season's worth of games on his résumeé. But it also speaks to the type of player Oden can be if healthy.