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Greg Oden, Phoenix Suns Need Each Other

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By Jim Weber

With the 2013 NBA Draft just over 24 hours away, the name Greg Oden has once again floated to the surface.

Although not his fault, Oden has been the most disappointing NBA draft pick of all time so far. Due to injuries, he’s played in just 82 career games - the equivalent of just one season in the league - and makes Sam Bowie’s career look Hall of Fame worthy by comparison. Now 25, Oden’s already had three microfracture surgeries on his knees (two on his left, one on his right) and hasn’t played in a game since December of 2009 (he took last season off to heal and take classes at Ohio State).

It’s been reported in the last week that Oden could sign with the NBA champion Miami Heat when free agency begins on July 1st, and the opportunity has to be enticing for the former Ohio State star. He’d live in one of the most beautiful cities in the country, play for a two-time defending champion alongside the best player in the world, fill a need for Miami and have absolutely no pressure compared to what he faced in Portland.

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But as one of the millions of people whose heart sinks every time they hear about another one of Oden’s setbacks, I really hope he ends up with the Phoenix Suns because it makes too much sense for both of them not to happen.

In Oden’s case, it’s very simple: Phoenix has by far the best training staff in the NBA. As I mentioned, there are a lot of benefits to signing with the Heat, but all of them combined don’t come close to the most important thing on Oden’s mind: Finally playing an injury-free season.

Portland’s medical staff has faced immense criticism for the way they handled Oden’s injuries. That’s why it’s of the utmost importance that Oden has no one other than Phoenix’s head trainer, Aaron Nelson, watching over his recovery. Nelson’s exploits with the Suns make him sound less like a trainer and more like a miracle worker.

First, there was Grant Hill, who played in 313 of 328 regular season games over the course of four years in Phoenix after many thought his career was finished due to complications from ankle surgery. Then there was Shaquille O’Neal, who played in 75 of 82 games in the 2007-08 season after injuries plagued the end of his stint with the Heat. And, of course, there was Steve Nash, who rarely missed a game in Phoenix despite playing there eight seasons and well into his late 30s.

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The Suns’ medical staff not only excels at helping players rehab, they are the masters of preventing injuries before they happen through their use of unorthodox techniques. No one needs this kind of attention more than Oden, who is most certainly one more devastating leg injury away from the permanent end of his pro basketball career.

The Suns need Oden as badly as he needs them but, for some reason I can’t comprehend, they have not been named among the teams interested in Oden (Heat, Cavaliers, Spurs, Celtics and Bobcats). After being a staple of the Western Conference playoffs for the last 20 years, the Suns are facing a brutal rebuilding process after missing the playoffs the last three years and finishing last season with just 25 wins.

Looking at Phoenix’s current roster is just depressing, as the only players worthy of sticking around for the long term are point guards Goran Dragic and Kendall Marshall and center Marcin Gortat. Rebuilding in the NBA takes a lot longer than the NFL, as teams routinely find themselves in the lottery for years until they compile enough talent to be competitive again.

If the Suns don’t do something drastic, they are potentially looking at another five seasons of missing the NBA playoffs in the stacked Western Conference. That’s where Oden comes in. If Nelson (below right) can work his magic on the big man, the Suns could pluck a franchise center from mid-air for a bargain-bin price. If former Ohio State star DeShaun Thomas is to believed, Oden looks “unbelievable” after giving his body time to heal.

If it doesn’t work out? They can cut Oden after one season and move on.

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Oden was playing well with the Blazers in 2009 at the time of his last injury (11.1 PPG, 8.5 RPG) and if he could become just half the player he was expected to be, the Suns will have found a major shortcut back to the playoffs.

With the No. 5 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, the Suns could potentially have a strong nucleus of Dragic, Ben McLemore, Gortat and Oden for the future (I assume Gortat would be moved to power forward, which he played part-time in Orlando next to Dwight Howard). Throw in a fifth starter for the future acquired either through next year’s lottery, a trade or free agency and there’s a shot the Suns could be back in the playoffs by 2015.

If the Suns still need convincing to take a chance on Oden, they should pop in a tape of the 2007 NCAA title game between Ohio State and Florida. They’ll see Oden treat current NBA stars Al Horford and Joakim Noah like rag dolls to the tune of 25 points (10-15 FGs), 12 rebounds and four blocks during one of the most impressive individual performances I’ve ever seen by a college athlete considering the stage, efficiency and level of competition. In the past, I’ve compared Oden’s performance that night to Michael Vick’s legendary coming-out party in the 2000 Sugar Bowl against Florida State.

There’s no doubt in my mind that if the player who dominated that Monday night in Atlanta just over six years ago had stayed healthy, he would be one of the top 10 players in the league right now. I don’t know if that’s still possible after all the time off and surgeries Oden has had, but this I’m sure of: The Phoenix Suns give Oden the best chance of finally staying healthy and reaching his potentially. As a result, they would be fools not to take a risk-less gamble on a player once compared to Bill Russell.

For the sake of both of their futures, I hope Oden and the Phoenix Suns finally realize they desperately need each other.

Jim Weber is the founder of Lost Lettermen. You can follow him on Twitter at @JimMWeber and @LostLettermen.

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