Ball Don't Lie - NBA

As you've probably guessed, I don't think they do. 

In a bit of a pleasant surprise, Johnny Ludden has Odom ranked first on his list of top free agents of the 2009 class, and it's a fair assessment. Yes, Paul Millsap(notes) can board and score better, Ben Gordon(notes) gives you the best chance for a 40-point night, and both Shawn Marion(notes) and Trevor Ariza(notes) give you a good percentage of what Odom provides.

But Lamar, as we've been told since he floated from high school to high school, college to college, over a decade ago, is a special player. And it took until 2008-09 to see the best of it, even if his per-minute, pace-adjusted stats have tailed off since he was traded to the Lakers. This guy does not get the credit he deserves. And I fear that this offseason will be the best example of this.

The quibbles are many. By the second week of next season, just like Hedo Turkoglu, Lamar Odom(notes) will be 30. He's an up-and-down player with an up-and-down game that depends on the right system, and it is also fair to say that the best possible system for Odom (Los Angeles' triangle offense, to say nothing of the pressure relief of being able to play alongside superstars) hasn't done much to quell the man's inconsistency.

At his age, it isn't going away. But at the same point, is it not so much inconsistency, as it is our own lofty expectations of a player who just looks as if he could drop a triple-double in his sleep?

No, it's inconsistency. Even his most ardent admirers will cop to that. But I do believe the reason he's so continually underrated is his ability to give up stats, for a sound offense. Yes, he was born to drop triple-doubles, but our expectations are skewed, especially if we're only looking at the box score.

In a way, he's the anti-Turkoglu. I don't mean to rip on Hedo, I dig his game and am glad he's fulfilled his potential after the last few seasons; but Hedo only contributes if he has the ball in his hands, constantly. And I'm not calling him selfish, but having the ball go through Hedo's hands means plenty of chances for scores and assists. Just about every positive result of Turkoglu's contributions ends up with a positive stat to point at.

I used to think Odom was the same way. That he needed a team that would allow him to dominate the ball. That his talent deserved it. Now, after watching him play a huge role in leading the Lakers to a championship, I know this cannot be the case.

Sometimes, as we learned with Scottie Pippen, playing the biggest role in the offense means moving the ball in the right direction early in the possession, and eliminating your chance at a nice assist or sweet bucket. And that isn't some cute way of typing "get the ball to Kobe/Michael, and get the hell out of the way, you lucky sod" without actually saying it.

No, because my fondest memories of Odom last season (and Pippen, throughout his career with Chicago) were of him running the offense with the superstar guard on the bench. Those second-quarter runs that Odom was a part of for the Lakers this year were absolute studies in how to play off the ball, how to make yourself a threat without the rock, and how to think team first. The triangle offense helped, no doubt, but it was Odom that made the sacrifice.

And he might have to make another one, this summer. Because he's a candid sort, Odom talked the payroll-weary Lakers into perfect leverage heading into the offseason. Odom did all but guarantee the team a hometown discount of sorts (because he's not actually from L.A., though he has spent all but one of his 10 NBA seasons playing in the city) by waxing honestly about how much he loves playing for the Lakers.

Toss in his impending birthday, the addition of Ron Artest(notes), and Dr. Jerry Buss' long unease with paying the sort of luxury tax he paid last season, and all the excuses are in place to collude to let Odom play for a tiny, tiny contract.

Which would be an absolute shame.

My initial take on Mitch Kupchak's tenure as Lakers GM was that the man didn't understand Phil Jackson's offense enough to pull in players needed to run the triangle. That hasn't changed much, but he has grown into a fantastic talent scout over the years, and deserves huge praise for putting together what could be a championship team, several times over.

But Artest is not a replacement. And Luke Walton(notes), who rebounds and can run the offense off the bench, is not a replacement. Together, as some superplayer, they don't replace what Odom brings.

Staunch off-ball defense. Huge rebounding numbers. Gorgeous open court passing. Steady, knowledgeable half court passing. A three-point touch. An ability to finish in the paint. The ability to take pressure off of Bryant, so that he can focus on scoring, instead of having to play both Jordan and Pippen's roles.

Best of all, Odom knows the offense. He knows how to get other people involved, within the offense. That last part is important.

It is one thing for a superstar to drive and kick it out to a shooter "to get him involved." And yet it's another thing to make an entry pass to a player, call for a screen, set another screen, and watch as a player who wasn't even involved in the play runs through the offensive set to an easy score.

That takes an involved, exacting mind. And for all the jokes we make about his unsettling dietary habits, Odom has a set of gifts that few others can boast. And certainly nobody on the Lakers can replace.

So take that into consideration, Dr. Buss. Man who spends a lot of money, but also gets a full stadium full of gold jerseys dotted throughout into mid-June. Just about every damn year. For 30 years.

Take into consideration that Odom has already sacrificed, for this team. Sacrificed numbers, sacrificed awards (this is a man who could have screen and rolled his way to a Sixth Man of the Year award), and definitely sacrificed money. Extend the man, to appropriate terms. Don't make a player whose gifts were created for this team above all, waste the final years of his career somewhere else.

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