Greg Oden is back on the NBA court, but to see him play basketball again borders on surreal. (Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
• Even for NBA junkies, there's something unmistakably odd about watching Greg Oden play real, honest-to-goodness NBA basketball again. It's a bit foreign, lacking in the electric familiarity that comes in seeing cherished athletes make their long-awaited returns. David Roth captures that experience perfectly in a piece for SB Nation, traveling through the experience of watching Oden, the path of his interrupted basketball career, and -- oddly enough -- the strange world of basketball trading cards:
Oden is still just 25 years old, but those first eight inconsequential minutes with the Heat -- and even his less effective minutes in his second game back -- were a reminder mostly of how much Oden the player had disappeared into abstraction during his time away. It's to the point where Oden doesn't even necessarily come up in the discussions of first overall picks who busted. He's in a special category and is imagined most vividly now in those familiar still photos, grim-faced in some purgatorial gym, limping through the period between the last injury and the next one.
...There is a chance that Greg Oden could play like Greg Oden again. While it would be something like miraculous for his old athleticism to emerge from the wreckage of three microfracture surgeries and one entire presidential term spent away from a difficult game, miraculous has -- in the relatively recent past -- been a word regularly used to describe Oden. It would be a singular and unique achievement, but he has been a singular and unique player.
But it's likelier that, if he can play long enough and well enough, we'll get to know a new Oden. When Oden's body first started to break, it became clear that he would not be the sort of first overall pick who gives fans what Kevin Durant does -- the fantasy of athletic effortlessness and grace without flaw, without range or limit. It's worth remembering that Oden was, when he was whole, absolutely that good, and his abilities made the game seem every bit as easy and light as Durant's do. But then it's worth forgetting about that, because Oden's future in basketball, if his body finally allows him to claim it, is as a more complicated and human thing. He is and likely will remain a player who shows us not how easy this difficult game can look, but who reminds us how surpassingly difficult it can be. As strange as it must have been for Oden to "get big," circumstance and fragile flesh have made him small.
• Kyle O'Quinn hasn't logged all that many minutes against quality competition this season, but seems to do good, helpful things for the Magic whenever he takes the court. Over at Orlando Pinstriped Post, Ty Lashbrook makes the case that O'Quinn should see more regular time in a playing rotation that's already quite crowded.
• Nothing can stop Josh Smith...from gunning toward the worst three-point shooting marks in NBA history.
There are entire quarters when he’s the fifth option within Indiana’s killer starting lineup, only getting to fly when he captains bench-heavy units that have largely been very successful. He has used up just 19 percent of Indy’s possessions while on the floor, a low number for a well-rounded perimeter ball handler, and his Player Efficiency Rating is just a hair over the league’s average. He’s solid defensively, but Indiana’s real star is its team defense, and George and Hibbert should get the bulk of the credit for that.
It’s hard to look at the heavier burdens Afflalo, Wall, and Millsap carry — and their superior individual numbers — and pick Stephenson over them. He wouldn’t be a crazy choice, especially given that he’s a better defender than the Afflalo-Wall-Irving group of guards, but he misses the cut here.
• Prior to revealing his own All-Star selections, Dan Feldman of ProBasketballTalk investigates the criteria for selection itself:
Parsing DeMarcus Cousins and Tim Duncan illustrates the dilemma. Cousins has had a better season so far, and he’s risen his game while Duncan’s production is slipping. But is Duncan merely preserving his energy for a playoff run, or is he too old to play as well as Cousins has? If the answer is the former, Duncan would be my All-Star choice. The latter, Cousins.
Kyrie Irving and Arron Afflalo provide another example. Irving started the year relatively poorly, and his season-long statistics are still weighed down by those early games. But lately, he’s shown the true player he is – a player that’s better than Afflalo, who has produced consistently between Irving’s extremes. An All-NBA debate between the two would be close, but an All-Star discussion is not. Irving has a clear edge.
• There's some much deserved praise for Shaun Livingston's defense in this wonderful breakdown of Brooklyn's new starting lineup, which as Devin Kharpertian explains is more "longball" than small ball.
• In case you happened to miss it, you might want to get caught up on Kevin Durant's explosive scoring performance against the Blazers on Tuesday night. Not to play spoiler, but at some point his eyes begins hovering, his eyes start to glow white, and he's surrounded by rapturous winds.
• A word (or 1200) on the play of Norris Cole, and the more abstract value of point guard defense. To whet your appetite:
As executives, coaches, players, writers, and statheads have tried to gain a better understanding of NBA defense over the last few years, there has emerged a line of thinking that point guard defense is either not important at all, or at least not as important as big man defense. For his part, veteran Heat wing Shane Battier strongly disagrees. “I would say it’s the most important [part of defense],” Battier said before that game against the Knicks. “You can figure out everything else, but defense starts with the point guard. Norris has been a great anchor for us up front. When you can get the ball handler to initiate an offense from further out than they’re used to, it affords the wings, it affords the big guys an extra second on defense, and that’s often the difference in a possession.”