Don't be surprised if NBA executives and coaches throughout the league are quietly chanting, "Let's go Heat, let's go Heat."
There is no debating that superstar Kobe Bryant(notes) and fellow All-Star Pau Gasol(notes) lead the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. But often forgotten in the Lakers' title run last season was the versatile play of free-agent forward Lamar Odom(notes).
Odom is seriously considering Miami over the Lakers as his next destination. And if Odom opts for his old stomping ground of South Beach over Hollywood, forget about the Lakers being surefire title favorites in the NBA – and possibly even in the Western Conference.
"If he goes somewhere else, they're vulnerable," a Western Conference general manager said Wednesday. "With him, they're the favorites."
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Said one West advance scout: "I definitely would think it's unanimous in the league that if Lamar goes somewhere else, well at the very least in the West, that it gives you a glimmer of hope that even if Kobe plays great you're right there with them."
It's been said that statistics don't lie. Maybe not, but they don't often tell the whole truth.
Odom, who has never been an All-Star, averaged 11.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists for the Lakers last season – not justifying, at least on the surface, the 6-foot-10, 230-pounder's $14.1 million salary.
But Odom impacts the game in many other ways. When center Andrew Bynum(notes) was injured, the Lakers didn't miss a beat with Odom starting in his place. In fact, Los Angeles' top two lineups in terms of plus-minus last season included Odom, not Bynum.
The sometimes too unselfish Odom has the ability to shoot 3-pointers, nail mid-range shots, score in the post, bring the ball up the floor, drive to the basket and find teammates for open buckets – all without an ego.
"He can be nonchalant, non-aggressive at times," the West advance scout said. "But he adds to the team concept. He's not worried about scoring. He's a point forward. He makes extra passes. He makes plays for the team. He's talented, has length and has size. Not many power forwards can make those plays.
"His playmaking ability makes everyone better. When he makes jump shots and he's assertive, he creates mismatches for everyone."
There is a statistic that provides a true indication of Odom's value: individual plus-minus. Odom finished the 2008-09 season with a team-best +693 plus-minus – better than both Bryant (+659) and Gasol (+572). Moreover, the only NBA player with a higher plus-minus than Odom's was Cleveland's LeBron James(notes) (+871).
"It's about being able to pass, dribble and shoot," a longtime NBA assistant coach said. "[Odom] can pass, dribble and shoot. You take all three of those things away from a team and it hurts you. You're taking away a guy that can do all that."
The Lakers added forward Ron Artest(notes) while losing Trevor Ariza(notes), who departed to Houston via free agency. Artest is expected to bring toughness, versatility, defense and scoring. But without Odom, the very eccentric Artest's effectiveness could be neutralized, and there is no replacement if he is hurt.
"Everyone is fine with Artest if Lamar is there," the West GM said. "But if you don't have Lamar, it's hard to trust Artest. You don't know what he might and might not do."
Questions also surround how healthy and effective Bynum will be, and whether the Lakers would have good chemistry without Odom and Ariza.
Also missing would be length, as L.A.'s big-man rotation featured Odom and two 7-footers in Gasol and Bynum. Only the Portland Trail Blazers and the Orlando Magic could match that length, and the Lakers' effectiveness with that big lineup is one reason the Boston Celtics were so active in landing 6-11 forward-center Rasheed Wallace(notes).
The Lakers, meanwhile, wouldn't be as effective with Artest, reserve forward Luke Walton(notes) or the much less skilled Josh Powell(notes) playing in the post alongside Gasol or Bynum, and they don't have the cap flexibility to sign an adequate replacement for Odom.
"Without Odom, the Blazers would become the biggest team in the West and the Lakers would be much easier to match up with," a West scout said.
The West GM said it might be in the Lakers' best interest to seek a sign-and-trade if Odom decides to leave to ensure they get something back – possibly forward/center Udonis Haslem(notes) and injury-plagued forward Dorell Wright(notes), who were offered to Utah in Miami's unsuccessful effort to land forward Carlos Boozer(notes).
Lakers officials and Odom's representatives have resumed talking after a weeklong standoff that began when Lakers owner Jerry Buss pulled a four-year, $36 million offer that guaranteed $30 million. An NBA source said Buss was very upset that Odom did not accept the initial offer. Odom has been offered a five-year, $34 million deal by the Heat, or a four-year contract that would give him the option to become a free agent in three seasons. Odom only turns 30 this year would not have to pay state income tax in Florida.
The Lakers would like Odom to take a pay cut, but he knows what he meant to the team last season. Odom also knows that Bryant has expressed a strong desire to have him back and isn't expected to sign his extension until Odom's situation is resolved, according to the Los Angeles Times.
With each passing day, Miami and other teams are given more opportunities to figure out a way to steal Odom and severely damage the Lakers' budding dynasty. The Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic all might feel they are better than a Lakers team missing Odom, while the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs and Blazers will have legitimate shots to win the West.
"We are all waiting patiently," the West GM said. "The West teams want to see him in the East. It would make everyone feel they can win against the Lakers during the regular season and maybe in a playoff series."
- Lamar Odom
- the Lakers