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Curiosity Abounds About LO-for-RJ

A Daily Babble Production

As was mentioned in this space earlier this week, the turn from confidence to angst in Los Angeles in the span of half a month has been truly remarkable. 

Two weeks ago, the Lakers were primed to take care of the Celtics with ease, but even if they somehow didn't, this team as currently constructed was ready to rule the league for several years to come.  Now, less than a week after the conclusion of the Finals, the blame game is in full swing in La La Land, and the loser thus far appears to be Lamar Odom.

The 28-year-old forward is headed into the final year of his contract and though he wasn't statistically terrible in the Finals, he has continued to frustrate those in LA with his trademark inconsistency.   That being said, he's also coming off the best season of his career.

So label me intrigued -- particularly from the Lakers' perspective -- by The Star-Ledger's Dave D'Alessandro's suggestion that the Nets and Lakers will talk seriously this summer about a swap involving Odom and Richard Jefferson.

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It's an interesting dilemma -- to the point that I'm unsure how to lean on this one.

The case for dumping Odom is simple enough.  As immensely talented as he is, he has a widely held reputation of disappearing in big games and crunch time.  Beyond that, Odom is obscenely inconsistent.  In the last two series of the year, he put up shooting performances of 8-for-11, 7-for-10 and 8-for-11 but also had showings of 3-for-12, 2-for-9, 2-for-11 and 2-for-8 -- a good microcosm for the inconsistency that often extends to parts of his game beyond just his scoring efficacy.

With Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum penciled in for the four-five spots, Odom would be expected to play out of position at the three.  While this certainly has the potential to work out as a killer giant front-court for the Lakers, there's no guarantee that Odom will be comfortable playing out of position.  Further, one of the biggest weaknesses exposed on this team in the Finals was the small forward spot.  The likes of Vladimir Radmanovic and Luke Walton don't have the skills to match up with most of the big-time swingmen in this league.  Most contenders have at least two capable scorers at the swing spots, and Kobe Bryant can only guard one of them at a time.  Bringing in a better defensive three with the ability to match up with many of the league's bigger swing scorers would be huge for this team.  With his length and decent quickness for a big man, Odom might be able to fill this role, but it's no guarantee.  Certainly, having a natural three would be a more comforting thought for Lakers fans.

Between Odom's inconsistency, his expiring contract and the team's expected front-court set-up for next year, a deal would seem to make a lot of sense, particularly one for Jefferson.  Though RJ has three years left on his contract (thus requiring other pieces along with Odom in order to make a deal work), he turns 28 today and is right in the midst of the prime of his career.  Jefferson is a lengthy 6-foot-7 forward who plays hard at both ends of the floor and would at least be a serviceable defender at the three and certainly an upgrade over the status quo.  He is also developing into a big-time scoring threat, having averaged more than 22 points per game last season.  Jefferson could be a very nice complement for a front-court already featuring Gasol and Bynum.

But "featuring Gasol and Bynum" is where some of the doubt here should come in as well.  Bynum hasn't played since January 13 and has already suffered numerous setbacks in coming back from injury.  Further, he is a youngster who showed good promise in 2006-07 but has really played exactly one half-season of very good basketball in this league, which came this year before he got hurt.  There are no guarantees of either when Bynum will return to the court or how well he will regain the effectiveness that he had found this past season. 

The Lakers are rightfully concerned enough to hold off on offering Bynum a contract extension until they see how he looks in training camp, and this only makes Odom's presence all the more valuable.  With the possbility that Bynum won't be as helpful as many are projecting him to be for next season, having a bona fide starting power forward in Odom on hand would be an important safety net for the Lakers.  He could slide right back into the four spot (and move Gasol back to the pivot) if Bynum were for some reason incapacitated, and having Odom start at the three with a healthy Bynum would give the Lakers a scary-big front-court.  While there is plenty of risk to this approach, there is also the possibility that Odom will have just enough quickness to create nightmares for opposing scorers and to continue to utilize his excellent passing skills to make him dangerous as a point forward of sorts offensively.  Further, if Odom were to be traded, the Lakers would be in big trouble in the front-court in the event of future health issues for Bynum.  Ronny Turiaf simply isn't a starter in this league at this point in his career.

The other question is how good a fit RJ would be in the Laker line-up.  Though he's certainly a more capable defender and scorer than the Lakers currently at the three, it's worth noting that Jefferson has also become a high-volume shooter.  He scored 22.6 points per game but took 16.2 shots per outing in order to do it (46.6 percent shooting), and it isn't likely that there will be room for him to put the rock up with such regularity alongside Kobe Bryant.  In fairness to Jefferson, he played on a bad New Jersey team on which he had to shoot the ball a lot last season, and earlier in his career, he was far more content to shoot the ball in the range of 12 to 13 times a game, and he did it with far greater efficiency.  In 2003 and 2004, RJ shot 50.1 and 49.8 percent respectively.  Perhaps he could get back to those numbers by getting good looks from playing alongside Kobe Bryant, but it bears remembering that Kobe hasn't spent much time playing next to other big scorers at the swing spots in his career.  It is also worth noting that Jefferson isn't a standout on the glass (his rebounding has dropped precipitously over the last two seasons, and he ranked just 28th among small forwards with 4.2 per game last year) or as a passer.

There you have it; the cases are made on both sides.  Inconsistency, contract status and defensive questions at the three suggest moving Odom for a player like Richard Jefferson.  Andrew Bynum's health concerns, the possibility of a monster front-court and the questions about just how much RJ would bring to the table in LA suggest holding off.

Gut feeling in the first week of the off-season is that Odom won't finish the summer as a Laker.  But whether that would be the right decision remains quite open to debate.

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