THE SPORTS DOCTOR- Magic glue: Lamar Odom's worth beyond measure
As the column is being written, Lamar Odom is still a free agent, but he's being actively pursued by the Heat, the Lakers (again), and any number of other teams. For months now, Odom has been hot property– but one might wonder why, especially for a man who is not now and never will be the most talented guy around.
Let's be clear– Odom is no Paris Hilton, parlaying nothing into a big fat bling-encrusted something. After his first NBA season (in 1999, when the Los Angeles Clippers drafted him fourth overall), Odom was named to the 2000 All-Rookie First Team. But it's been ten years, and Odom's best numbers came in his second year as a professional player. No, his didn't 14-karat his way to an NBA championship; he fought long and hard to become what he is.
And that's an integral part of the 2009 NBA champion Lakers– although until January he was on the bench, playing second fiddle to Andrew Bynum, a role he took up again in April. So why are L.A. and Miami battling each other for his hand? What's so special about an on-again/off-again bench-sitter?
According to a 2008 article on NBA.com, Pat Riley once described the man who hasn't seen 17 points a game in six years as "the only player who has come into the NBA who can match the ability of the legendary Magic Johnson."
Of course, no NBA writer is going to pooh-pooh one of their own, so Odom's lack of luster spins into something positive. The forward doesn't have to score points when Kobe and Gasol are on the team. Instead, he can focus on "the little things."
Like riding the bench?
Sure, Odom really showed up in the playoffs, averaging 12.3 points– third-best on the team– and 9.1 rebounds, second-best on the team, but that's pretty late in the game, so to speak. The 2008-2009 season saw him average career lows in minutes, points, and assists. Even his rebound percentage was at its worst in five years, not to mention that he started only 32 games, his fewest since 2001-2002.
So why are the Heat offering five years at $34 million, and the Lakers– despite crossly pulling two previous offers off the table– dangling somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million for four years?
Perhaps it's because Lamar Odom is worth every penny– not in a statistics kind of way, or even in a stay-off-the-bench kind of way. He'll be the first to admit that on a team with as much talent as the Lakers, "He doesn't have to be option number one, two, three or even four."
But he's still worth every dollar a team can throw at him, and if the Lakers know what's good for them, they'll get with the program.
As Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated so aptly stated, "Kobe may be the star of the show, but the beating heart of the Lakers is the ebullient Lamar Odom."
Odom isn't a star on the level of Dwyane Wade, Kobe, Tim Duncan, or Stephon Marbury, but he's something those guys can't do without: the spirit, the glue, the insides of a team. He's the guy who sacrifices shots, percentages, awards– even money– to do what's best for his team. When things are bad, even if he's on the bench, Odom makes them better. If his teammates are down, he lifts them up.
According to Sports Illustrated, before every game, the Lakers formed a circle around Odom, locked arms, and bounced. They made him the center of the team, though he wasn't captain, or anything like their best player. Why? Because when Odom told his teammates they were the best in the NBA, they believed him. You can't buy that, and when it's gone, it's gone for good. (See Mark DeRosa and the Cubs.)
When Pat Riley said all those years ago that Lamar Odom was the only player in the NBA who could match Magic Johnson's ability, he was right, but probably not for the reasons he thought. Like Magic, Odom would rather pass the ball than push for a dunk. According to a former high school teammate, Odom would refrain from shooting to make others look good, to make others happy.
And he still does. Odom's numbers are good, but they're not the stuff of superstars. Still, neither LeBron nor Shaq can bring Odom's spirit, dedication and sportsmanship to a team. Even the indomitable Kobe can't, and that's why Lamar Odom's worth is beyond measure.