Monday, November 8, 2010 4:20 p.m.By Ron Thompson
Thankfully, this week's entry finds me ignoring my instincts to analyze either the Wizards' recent outings or Mike Shanahan's unfortunate criticism of Donovan McNabb. So, let's shift from east to west and evaluate someone whose career I have often wondered about until pretty recently.
Los Angeles is filled with people who some consider hot enough to power southern California simply by their presence alone. To varying degrees, many there draw attention for their status, or merely for the company they keep. Some get publicity for both. That might include Lamar Joseph Odom, the 11-year NBA veteran and Lakers power forward. He has two championship rings since joining them in 2004. He's also married to one of Kim Kardashian's sisters, which hardly leaves him lacking media coverage. But lately, Odom has shown signs of deserving more credit for his wider roles toward the Lakers' legacy, which invites this question: Is he the latest star emerging over L.A.?
Recent years have brought quite a few fireworks over the City of Angels. To review, in June 2004, after winning three rings with the Lakers, head coach Phil Jackson quit amid growing public feuds between stars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Coinciding with the departure was Jackson's memoir, which pondered his successes and criticized his star duo. That July, the Miami Heat took O'Neal in exchange for a future draft pick, Brian Grant, Caron Butler, and Odom. The 6'11' forward entered the league with L.A.'s Clippers before joining the Heat, and brought a career scoring average of sixteen points to the Lakers. When Odom arrived at their camp, hopes for another title were as bright as the California sun. But soon, sudden personal challenges, a new coach, a smaller squad, and uncertainty over Bryant's future in L.A. (which was later resolved) signaled a cloudy forecast.
Odom's first two seasons there saw his numbers fluctuate, partly due to a shoulder injury. His third season ended with the accidental death of his son, Jayden. The ensuing years brought still more adjustments: Odom would pour out triple-doubles despite racking-up more injuries, and remained a reliable rebounding threat while occasionally substituting for 2005 draft acquisition Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol, who joined midway into the 2007-08 calendar. Odom once seemed slated as a foreman for L.A.'s reconstruction projects after the O'Neal era. Yet despite his downsized role, he has remained; and even underscored; a vital contribution to a squad focused on expanding its championship dynasty. His offensive- and defensive contributions have been inverted over the years, with more recent emphasis paid to rebounding and defending than scoring, though that ability remains. So, what happened? It seems Lamar Odom has nearly perfected that much-beloved, feared, and indispensable role of "the sixth man."
At the start of the 2008-09 season, three years after returning as head coach, Phil Jackson officially tasked Odom to back-up Bynum and Gasol. Where he largely returned to the bench for breaks as a starter, Odom soon spent tip-off studying plays and opponents from the sidelines, waiting for a nod, whistle, or scream from Jackson to relieve a teammate. That year, Odom started less than half of the Lakers' games. But if it ever grated on his ego, neither he nor his performance showed it much. In his first season as a substitute, Odom averaged nearly eleven points and eight rebounds, notably less than the previous year, but still a fruitful effort. During that same period, Bynum averaged fourteen points and eight rebounds, trailing Gasol's average of nearly nineteen points and ten rebounds. Measured against their efforts, the onetime starter was beginning to make somewhat comparable impact as a reserve.
Odom's three-point shooting also improved in the two years since becoming a back-up. Those factors have undoubtedly joined his hustle, increased enthusiasm, and court-awareness toward helping the Lakers take two of the past three championships, while also distinguishing him as an occasional go-to performer. It was that expanding portfolio which moved the Heat to try luring Odom back with an impressive multimillion-dollar contract, and star guard Dwayne Wade to note "We want him back home." Wade's hopes were dashed in 2009 when Odom re-signed with the Lakers for a deal potentially worth 33 million;more than half of that guaranteed.
Odom's contract extension is proof that he represents a valued piece of the Lakers' success'maybe in this season more than last. At 31, he is nearly a year older than Bryant but almost equal in pursuing second-chance points. Odom is nine years older than Bynum, yet is helping lead the Lakers' run at another 'three-peat' while Bynum recovers from yet another surgery. Lamar Odom's agility on the perimeter and his ability to get to the rack cannot be overstated. His attentiveness while waiting along the sidelines to relieve a teammate is instructive for professional- and college players alike. So too were his recent observations: "We have great chemistry right now.
This is one of the outcomes of keeping a team together, keeping the pieces together. When one guy falls down, another guy can just step up." As a reserve or starter, Lamar Odom has repeatedly shown an admirable capacity to step up and stand out among the bright lights over the City of Angels. Granted, in years past, he has sometimes demonstrated a casual attitude toward the game that has frustrated even this analyst. But it seems Odom has largely turned over a new leaf. Who knows? If he at least maintains his current average of fifteen points and eleven rebounds, he could be credited with helping extend Bryant's championship role in Hollywood, too.