For the Lakers, December's dominant story has been the precipitous drop in Andrew Bynum's productivity, while the last seven days have been focused (literally) on Ron Artest's head and the Christmas day fall leaving him with a concussion and memory loss, the Lakers with a hole in their lineup, and fans/observers around the NBA with an eyebrow or two in the full and upright position, ready for takeoff because. (My quick take: As a journalist, Artest's story, or lack thereof, combined with his personality and history certainly leave some unanswered questions, and I don't ever expect to get some sort of documentary definitive accounting of that day's events. But unless we learn Artest was doing something illegal or highly irresponsible- and we haven't- I'm less concerned about how he hit his head, only that he did. And honestly, if you learned Artest was kicked to the ground by his pet llama, would it be so surprising? No, you'd just shake your head, and sigh. "So like Ron to let his llama get unruly like that." Because he's Ron Artest.)
Those stories have overshadowed another important issue for the Lakers 31 games into their title defense: Lamar Odom isn't contributing at a level even close to what he brought last season. A year ago Odom was in many ways the straw that stirred the proverbial cocktail for the Lakers, both in the regular and postseasons. Even when he wasn't putting up big numbers, big things tended to happen when he stepped on the floor in ways that went beyond simple box score stats. To use one (slightly oversimplified but still instructive) example, according to 82games, the Lakers were a net 16.4 points better with Odom on the floor. 81% of the time Odom landed in the positive side of the +/- ledger.
Inconsistency, and criticism of it, has rode shotgun with Odom throughout his career. Some is deserved, some overblown (bad games for many players are just that, where an off night for Odom often gets him labeled as lazy, unfocused, apathetic, mentally weak, and so on). Odom tends to get judged not on the player he is (damn good) but the one people want him to be (a multi-faceted superstar). During my time covering the team, I've worked to avoid this sort of categorization, have probably been among Odom's biggest supporters in the local media, and spent much of last season and into the summer championing his value.
But judging even by the standards he's set for himself (and certainly by the standard I've set for him), Odom hasn't been nearly as effective this year. Not disaster levels- Odom's rebound rate is up, as is his assist rate, the latter jumping from 16.72 to 23.63- but many important figures are down. Odom detests any focus on his shots and scoring, but it doesn't change the reality. Field goal attempts, down. Field goal percentage, down. 3-point percentage, free throws per game, true shooting percentage, all down.
Like advanced metrics? Win shares are down, PER is way down, from 16.57 to 12.23, the lowest figure of his career.
If you're looking for a reason, and I figure you are, take a look at Odom's shot distribution. Again, 82games: During '08-'09, 41% of Odom's shots were jumpers. Meanwhile, 59% came close to the rim, on dunks, or tip ins. This season, that ratio has shifted. 54% jumpers, 46% in tight. Odom's hoists from beyond the arc have doubled from 1.3 to 2.6. For a 31% career three point shooter, this is not an encouraging stat.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
The Lakers have had plenty of 24 this season, but need a little more 7.
The Lakers don't need Odom to be dominant offensively, but he does need to be better than this.
So what's the deal? First of all, it's not the big Kardashian wedding. Sure, E!apallooza is a potentially rich area for fans and media alike to mine, but Odom came to camp in shape and started the season strong. Hollywood isn't the problem. Instead, it's a head on collision between Odom's overarching outlook on basketball and the realities of this year's Lakers squad. Start with the latter. L.A. has Bynum and Pau Gasol in the post. Kobe Bryant broke out a devastating Dream-influenced post game. Artest loves to bang down low, something Trevor Ariza never did. The paint is a crowded place. Odom's strength is in creating mismatches near the basket or in space en route, but he's generally deferential offensively. With so many of his teammates trying to establish themselves down low, Odom's nature says he'll cede some of his own territory, even at the expense of his numbers.
Which gets back to Odom's vision. He's always resented calls for him to shoot and score more (not without cause), and instead preached the value of a multi-faceted game, of doing the little things that make a team better, and noting correctly that aggressiveness doesn't have to mean scoring. It's hard to bag on a guy for being team oriented, and I won't start here. This season, though, his gospel has become even more pronounced. Multiple times Odom has talked up the talent level on the Lakers' roster, and how everyone they have can put the ball in the bucket. His job, then, is to make the pass, the defensive rotation, grab the rebound. To make the correct basketball play, as he likes to say.
Forget Phil Jackson, often it's Odom who seems like he's trying to operate on a higher plane.
Odom's outlook is part of what makes him so valuable, because with all their talent the last thing the Lakers need is a guy who demands 14 shots a night. Except the Lakers also need Odom to truly be aggressive in all facets of the game, not just those where he's trying to prove a point. To push the ball, to attack the rack. He needs to be a threat to score, to be impactful, and when Odom hangs out around the three point line, he's not. It's not where he can best influence a game.
Ironically, his crusade to be selfless can sometimes make him selfish. It's not that his worldview is wrong, I just think he's pulled back too much, less successfully walking the fine line.
He's hardly a lost cause. PER doesn't measure defense, and Odom remains a critical aspect to L.A.'s improved performance on that side of the floor. Odom simply hasn't been able to leave an imprint on enough games like he did last year, even in games where his points were down. His good nights over the last few weeks haven't seemed quite right. It's why his third quarter in Tuesday night's win over the Warriors glowed like it was radioactive. After a terrible first half (0-5 from the floor, no points, three shots, two rebounds), Odom was a huge factor in the third, with seven rebounds, four points, a steal, an assist, and a block.
Not surprisingly, the Lakers erased a seven point deficit and finished the frame with a two point lead. For 12 minutes, fans were reminded how drastically Odom can change games for the better.
I've always found Odom to be one of the more fascinating athletes around. How he continues to meld his personal philosophy with what the Lakers need from him game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter, minute-to-minute will be one of the larger determining factors in where they end up as a team, and is something we'll be following throughout 2010.