Question: Are we unfair to Lamar Odom?
Do we ask too much, expect too much, grow too frustrated when we watch him play, wondering all the while why No. 7 isn't living up to what we just know he should be: one of the greats, the next Pippen, the purple-and-gold Robin to Batman Kobe?
Answer: Yes, to all of the above. We are unfair to Lamar Odom, and that's too bad because it's something that keeps him from being fully appreciated.
Odom is the Lakers' great enigma, perhaps the most perplexing, confounding, frustrating player in the NBA. One moment he's brilliant and daring (Lakers vs. Utah, second-round playoffs, 2008, with an 18.2 scoring average). Next moment he's, well, he's out there on the hardwood sort of fumbling about, timid and unsure (Boston, NBA Finals, also 2008, 13.5 scoring average partially propped-up by garbage-time jump shots).
We look at that 6-foot-10 body, at his pterodactyl wingspan, his vast portfolio of skills, and think: "Perennial All-Star." Then we find that in nine years Odom has never been to an All-Star game but a journeyman like Wally Szczerbiak has and our first reaction is that this is utterly maddening and pretty much a waste of great talent.
It's not only us. This preseason, the Lakers have certainly appeared frustrated.
We're a few days from season's start and here's a quick rundown of training camp: Oddly, perplexingly, in the last year of his contract, a year in which he needs to come as close to his potential as possible so that his next contract will be a fat one, Odom comes to camp out of shape. Phil Jackson then says Odom may end up coming off the bench this season. The two trade barbs. Jackson: Odom looks as if he's curling, not playing basketball. Odom: Jackson must be out of his (insert phrase unsuitable for publication here) "mind."
More recently, Jackson begins to play nice but does not let on about whether Odom will be a starter.
For his part, Odom -- possibly because he knows it doesn't pay to rock the boat during a contract year, but also because he's as good a dude as you'll find in the NBA -- plays the role of front-line soldier: "You know, I can't control that," he says of the possibility of playing as a reserve for the first time in his career. "That is one thing I won't lose sleep over or toss and turn over. I'll just go out there and play hard. Manu Ginobili doesn't start and everybody knows how important he is for that team."
So there you have it, tension, as there always must be, in Lakerland. Rumors have swirled that the Lakers would trade Odom if they could find the right deal. Hopefully, those rumors aren't true because the players you hear about in a trade are names like Vince Carter or Shawn Marion. Carter and Marion and others of their ilk are fine players in the right system -- but not in the move first, pass second, shoot last, system the Lakers employ. Not for a team that needs rebounding. Odom is good for doing all of this.
We all need to take another look at Lamar Odom and reorient our thinking.
Yes, he frustrates us. Maybe because we figure that if we had his talents we'd dominate the league with unending ferocity. I asked Derek Fisher to describe Odom. The first thing he noted was his teammate's humility. Odom is "generally in that mind-set of trying to do what is best for the team and sometimes that means holding some of your own stuff."
All fine and dandy and true enough, but face it, wouldn't most Lakers fans be happier if all Fisher said were something like, "Lamar Odom? The dude is a stone cold assassin."
OK, so he's not quite an assassin, probably never will be. But here's where I've come to on this: We're too hard on Lamar Odom.
If we've got a problem with him, the problem isn't really him so much as it is us . . . the fans, sometimes his own organization, the reporters and columnists (Note: me being right up there because I'm pretty certain that watching him, and always thinking he should be taking over, has helped cause my male-pattern baldness).
The problem is how we view Odom, how we want him to be something he is not: the guy who comes to camp in shape instead of using camp to play into shape, the constant All-Star, the stud we can count on at all times and most particularly when the going gets rough, the second option after Kobe, not the fourth.
Fine, Lamar Odom isn't that guy and after nine years, he probably never will be. Is that so bad? Not when what we have in him is a terrific player who has the rare gift of multiple skills -- passing, shooting from medium range on in, rebounding and dribbling. Sometimes he can lead a team but most often it seems he fits well into the role of supporter, content with what he has become.
These, if we think about it, are rare qualities that we sometimes lose sight of because, when we think of him, a little too often we're addled with general frustration and perplexity.
Should the Lakers trade him? No.
Should we fault them if he stays all season and they fail to bring him back next year? No.
But those days are far off now, an entire season, possibly a championship season looms. Hopefully Odom will be a nice, solid part of it. Hopefully, in the tight moments of the most important games this year, he'll soar.
Hopefully, instead of binding ourselves in frustration, this year we'll alter our expectations and begin appreciating Lamar Odom for what he is.