LOS ANGELES -- Vinny Del Negro smiles, then laughs as I ask him about Lamar Odom.
He’s been hearing the same questions about Odom from me since October.
But for the first time he is actually able to laugh when he’s asked about how Odom has changed.
“Have you looked at him?” Del Negro said. “He’s lost 12 pounds. He’s going to lose more. He’s working. You’re going play better. You’re going to move better. You’re going to get more confident. You’re going to feel like yourself again. That’s what he’s doing.”
A quick look at the box scores might not show it, but perhaps the biggest difference in the Clippers during their five-game winning streak is the improved play -- and physique -- of Odom.
After scoring just 4 points during the Clippers’ recent four-game losing streak and getting only 2 rebounds in three of those games, Odom has scored at least 4 points and grabbed at least 5 rebounds in the Clippers’ last five games. On Saturday, he scored a season-high 8 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in the Clippers’ 117-99 win over the Phoenix Suns.
“He knows how to play,” Del Negro said. “He’s diving on the floor. He’s working. He’s coming. I’m telling you, he’s coming. I’ve seen him play for 15 years. He knows how to play. It doesn’t just go away unless you want it to. He wants it and I believe in him and I’m going to keep pushing him.
“I’m going to keep making him work and he’s going to keep doing work. His teammates support him because we know that he gives us an element that we need.”
Odom also knew this turnaround would come. He wasn’t sure exactly when it would happen, but he knew there would come a point this season when he would finally began to look and play like himself.
“It takes time,” Odom said. “I had so much time off that sometimes as an athlete you slow down. So it’s important for me to just keep getting after it in practice and putting the extra work in so I’m comfortable all over the court and comfortable with my defense and making moves and coming out of them. But luckily I’m on a great team that’s really deep and I can help in other ways. I don’t always need to score.”
One of the biggest visible areas of improvement for Odom has been his physique after losing 12 pounds. He’s aiming to lose an additional 5 to 10 pounds after coming into training camp weighing 260. Odom missed the last five games of the preseason and nearly three weeks of practice as he dealt with knee problems associated with being out of shape. Even when he returned, he didn’t make much of an impact. He averaged just 1.6 points and 2.8 rebounds the first month of the season. This month Odom is averaging 5.7 points and 7.3 rebounds. He has a grabbed 30 rebounds over his last four games, including a season-high 11 over the Dallas Mavericks three days ago.
“My body and my mind are starting to attach again,” Odom said. “That feels good.”
When Odom, who has been sensitive to the number of jokes he has heard in relation to his weight, was specifically asked if that meant getting in better shape, he shook his head.
“If that’s what you want me to say,” Odom said. “My body is catching up to where my head is at.”
However Odom wants to describe it, his improvement has added to an already deep Clippers team. His last four games have been better than any he had during his forgettable 50-game stretch with the Mavericks and are the best he has had since last April, when he won the Sixth Man of the Year award with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“L.O. is finding that rhythm,” Chris Paul said. “He’s so valuable to our team because he just knows how play on both ends of the court. He knows how to space the court, he knows how to roll, and he’s aggressive on ball screens, which catches a lot of guards off guard.”
Paul and Odom grew tight during the Clippers’ preseason trip to China, exchanging war stories and talking strategy on the plane and bus rides. Paul wanted the Clippers to go after Odom in the offseason if he was available, remembering the battles the two had when the Lakers played the New Orleans Hornets in the playoffs two seasons ago.
“I remember when he was on the Lakers, I would come off screens and he was a problem,” Paul said. “That play [on Saturday against the Suns] when he almost stole it and dove on the ground is a good example. Guys think he’s just up there, but he makes you think about him. I’ve been saying that as he continues to get more comfortable, it’s going to be scary.”
Even when Odom isn’t in the game, he has taken on a leadership role in the locker room and on the bench, similar to what Chauncey Billups has brought to the team. For all the jokes about Odom’s weight and time in Dallas last season, he is still a two-time NBA champion and has done more in the NBA than just about anybody else on the Clippers. He will often pull Blake Griffin aside and give him advice during games and practices.
“Never being around him, I didn’t really know he has a tremendous basketball IQ,” Griffin said. “He sees the game very well. Listening to him and bouncing ideas off of him, he always comes to me and says something and is always giving me encouragement. He’s helped tremendously even when he wasn’t able to be on the court.
“He’s got his confidence now. You can tell he’s feeling better and better in every practice and every game. He’s huge for us.”
It’s a role Odom enjoys playing now as he sits in the middle of the same Clippers locker room he did when he was 19, remembering back to when he was just beginning his career 13 years ago.
“Some people say, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ and forget what experience does and how much it helps,” Odom said. “Basketball is like life, and experience matters.”