Adjusting My Perception of Lamar Odom

I've never been a Lamar Odom fan.

I've also never been sure why exactly that is.

Sure, his numbers have always been respectable and better than my perception of him usually accounts for (15.6 points, 8.9 boards, 4.4 assists per game, 45.9 percent shooting from the field), but somehow, that has never been enough. 

Maybe it has been an issue of expectations. We're talking about a 6-foot-10 lefty power forward with visionary passing skills, a shooting touch, the ability to handle the ball, strength, quickness and toughness inside.  This is a guy with the all the physical tools to be an absolute star in this league, yet he never has been.

Or perhaps he has simply been cast in roles that didn't suit him.  Serving as the second banana to Kobe Bryant at age 25 -- the year after Shaquille O'Neal left town as first banana, no less -- wasn't a role for which Odom was adequately prepared.  He doesn't yet have that killer mentality needed to be one of the top leaders on a truly contending team, and he certainly didn't when he entered his new role in 2004.  Of course, it also bears noting that Odom has never played on any team that was all that successful prior to this season either.

But, at the risk of stating the obvious, worth remembering is this:  Not being a star or one of the top two players on a championship contender doesn't make you a bad or overrated basketball player.   In light of the season he is having, his new role and the last few weeks in particular, it is time for Lamar Odom to get some recognition in this space for being the very good basketball player he is.

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In many regards, the pressure is off the guy they call LO in LA.  No longer is he charged with being the overwhelmed Robin to Kobe Bryant's Batman.  No longer does he need to be a star on a night to night basis in order for this team to succeed. No, with Pau Gasol in town -- and even prior to that, with Andrew Bynum beginning to break out prior to his injury -- Lamar Odom just has had to do what Lamar Odom does best: a little bit of everything.

It shows.  With Odom playing what appears to be more relaxed basketball, he is also playing what might well be the best basketball of his career.  A lifetime 45.9 percent shooter from the field, including 31.5 percent from deep, Odom has cut down big-time on his three-point attempts, heaving it up less than twice a game from beyond the arc this year.  Instead, he is doing his work inside and from mid-range, and he is doing it more effectively than ever before.  Odom is shooting the ball less than at any other point in his career (10.6 field-goal attempts per game) and hitting as often as ever.  The 51.6 percentage from the field and 57.3 true shooting percentage are easily career highs.

The offensive production isn't limited to Odom's scoring efforts either.  Though his figure of 3.4 assists per game is well below his career average, Odom's passing skills are a crucial part of the Lakers' offense.  He sees the floor with excellent vision for a power forward, and his size allows him to thread tougher passes over or around most defenders with relative ease.  Odom can dish well from the blocks, the high post and the perimeter, and though it may not always show up in the assist totals, his passing skills are a critical to successful ball movement in the City of Angels. 

Meanwhile, Odom is having the best rebounding season of his career (10.6 per game, just his second time in double figures), and as of late, he has been giving the Lakers endless second chances.  Odom has seven straight double-doubles, and over the course of March, he has been pulling down four rebounds per game on the offensive end alone.  Speaking of March, LO is averaging 16 points and 13 boards for the month and doing it on an astounding 57.1 percent shooting to boot.  In his last two games in particular, Odom has been the man, going for 19 points and 22 boards and then 23 points and 21 boards in the two ends of a home-and-home with Golden State.  Those 23 points on Monday included the lay-up that put the Lakers ahead to stay in the final ten seconds of overtime.

But it isn't just the points and rebounds.  Odom is taking care of the ball, as his turnover ratio is at a career low, a figure made even more astounding by the fact that Odom is shooting the ball less than ever.  His usage rate is also at a career low, and his scoring and assists (though down slightly) have stayed close to his career averages, demonstrating just how efficient Odom has been all season.  Further, he is the most versatile piece of the Lakers' sixth-ranked defense, using his length and speed to help control both the interior and perimeter for the Lakers depending on match-ups.  It is no surprise that his team is 4.3 points better per 100 possessions defensively with Odom on the floor than they are without.

Indeed, Odom's foul shooting is still questionable (he shoots less than 70 percent from the stripe and always seems to be a lock to go 1-for-2 at best late in close games), and he hasn't become the dominant scorer many thought he would be coming out of Rhode Island in 1999.  But with a new and improved cast of studs around Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, LO isn't being asked to be a star anymore.

Which, oddly enough, has only made it easier for him to produce like one.

Star or not, Lamar Odom is a fine ball player.  Perhaps it's just taken me far too long to realize it. 

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