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Greg Oden, Andrew Bynum and why cost is the important factor in risk

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Running an NBA team is largely about managing risk. Where you draw the line often determines how high your team will fly. In Greg Oden's case, the risk is minimal because the cost is minimal.


Our own Michael Levin had a fantastic piece on Wednesday regarding the lessons of Andrew Bynum as they pertain to Greg Oden. The crux of the position is that Levin, once a devout supporter of second chances for Oden, has learned from The Bynum Experience that relying on a return to health is a fool's errand. A passage:

If you asked me a week ago, I would've topped every team's offer for the right to employ Greg Oden. But Bynum changed me. There's no "if he gets healthy..." anymore. "Healthy" is an abstract idea. "Arthritis," "microfracture," "swelling" -- that is his life now.

Sometimes you can't untangle the Slinky. Sad as it is, sometimes you just gotta walk away.

The thing with risk, though, is that it's a trade-off. Jaywalking is a risk: you are paying the risk of injury (whatever the difference in potential injury is between using a crosswalk and not) for shorter travel time. Skydiving is a risk: you are paying some chance (0.5 percent? 0.005 percent?) of slamming into the Earth at 120 miles per hour for the thrill of the experience. Signing Greg Oden is a risk: you are putting out salary that could be going to another player for the chance (0.5 percent? 0.005 percent?) that Oden will remain healthy and regain his elite status.

When the Sixers took a risk on Bynum, it was a huge risk primarily because the cost was just incredible. An All-Star in Andre Iguodala. Two rookie-deal prospects in Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless. The added salary burden of Jason Richardson. Bynum's own massive salary. The opportunity cost of what the team could have instead gotten with all those assets. (Also, I supposed we could add in Doug Collins' sanity, though that probably wouldn't have been helped much either way.) It didn't work out. In fact, it went horribly wrong, because Bynum couldn't play.

The Blazers took a risk in 2007 by picking Greg Oden No. 1 overall. The cost was picking another player, like Kevin Durant. Kevin Pritchard and the Portland front office were more comfortable with Oden's potential as an NBA player, despite the injury concerns, than they were with Durant. (And let's not forget, there were major concerns with Durant, as well. Namely, his ultra-skinny frame.) Teams have doctors to assess medical risks; the Sixers looked at Bynum when that trade went down, and the Blazers looked at Oden in 2007. And the teams made the risk decisions they did.

The same thing happened a month ago, when the Sixers traded a 23-year-old All-Star, Jrue Holiday, for a prospect who is recovering from a serious injury, Nerlens Noel, plus a future pick. The Sixers' new front office investigated and made a risk decision. Sam Hinkie feels the potential of Noel and the future pick (and the Sixers' own likely-to-be-more-valuable pick) to be much better than Holiday. The potential benefit, he decided, was bigger than the potential risk.

Getting back to the Oden Slinky: the cost isn't much. The most he's going to get in salary at this point is the mini mid-level. There are not a whole lot of other usable big men at that price point out there. The back-up plan for one team in the Oden mix is Cole Aldrich. Oden will, like Bynum in Philly in 2012-13, draw some attention and maybe some pressure and angst from the fanbase the first time he's in a suit on the bench. But the team that picks him up won't have given up an All-Star, $15 million in salary or any of that.

Bynum hurt Philly so much because he was an all-in bet. Oden is two chips at a low-limit table. Oden is jaywalking across an Old West dirt path. He's skydiving from the top bunk. There's just not much risk at this point because there's not much cost.

And in fact, in a salary cap league, finding gems with low monetary and asset costs is a huge part of the game. Drafting studs late in the first round and in the second? Low risk, potential for high reward. Signing cheap players who are fighting long histories of injury but are dedicated to making it in the league? Low risk, potential for high reward. Picking up a couple of prospects and picks by trading a star you're going to lose anyway (as the Magic did with Dwight Howard in the Bynum trade)? Low risk, potential for high reward.

The high-risk decisions -- taking Oden over Durant, giving Brandon Roy $80 million, trading major assets for Bynum, trading Holiday for Noel and a pick -- are the ones you fret over, you analyze, you fret over some more. The low-risk decisions like giving Greg Oden $3 million ... those are nothing. If that Slinky can't be untangled? Oh well. Move on to the jigsaw puzzle that may or may not be missing a handful of pieces.

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