What would have happened if Lamar Odom had left the Lakers last season?
Lamar Odom and Mitch Kupchak sat together last August at a news conference. It had taken nearly a month for the two to reach this point, but there was finally an agreement. Odom would remain with the Lakers for the next four seasons, worth $33 million, with a player option for the final year. The Lakers would keep a player whose versatility made him a key component of the Lakers' 2008-09 championship season.
Despite the prolonged negotiation period and Odom describing the Miami Heat's pursuit of him as "aggressive," one Western Conference executive told me "neither the Lakers nor Lamar Odom had any choice in this matter. Lamar Odom was not going to leave millions on the table to move to Miami. Los Angeles wasn’t going to allow one of their key pieces to walk away this summer when the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic made moves to get better this summer. The Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t allow themselves to get worse, which would happen if they lost Lamar Odom and his versatility.”
Even if the prolonged negotiations may have meant nothing, as the source indicated, I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened had Odom indeed gone to the Heat. It wouldn't just have been a matter of the Lakers losing a valuable component. As the source told me in more drastic terms: "The Lakers would no longer be the favorite to win the NBA title and the Western Conference championship. ... Without Lamar Odom, the Lakers would be one Kobe Bryant sprained ankle away from being a bottom-seeded team and not making the playoffs.”
1. The Lakers would have missed Odom's presence.
The Lakers and their fans may not feel as strongly about Odom these days as when he re-signed with the team. Odom finished the season in disappointing fashion, averaging a playoff career-low 9.7 points per game, including 7.6 points per game against Boston. His performance even prompted someone in the organization to tell The Times' Mark Heisler that the Lakers were considering dumping Odom's salary. Despite Odom's inconsistency, his departure would have exposed the Lakers' weakness even more.
Although Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum showed an ability to co-exist on the floor, Odom's absence would have put further strain on both players, particularly in the postseason. Bynum played through the torn cartilage in his right knee for most of the postseason and provided a valuable presence, but he needed the supporting cast. As for Gasol, Odom's absence would have exacerbated Gasol's fatigue level. Gasol's performance may have impressed Lakers Coach Phil Jackson enough to earn Gasol the team's MVP award, but he likely wouldn't have been as effective had he needed to play even more minutes.
And then there's the bench. It was easy to predict the bench would mix in dazzling performances with maddeningly frustrating ones, but it became difficult to predict when exactly that would happen. Because of Odom's talent and leadership, he helped the Lakers' reserves forge an identity even if it didn't always trickle down to the rest of the bench. His absence would have increased the reserves' problems, with possibly drastic consequences.
2. Miami wouldn't have the Super Team.
Had Odom gone to Miami, the Heat wouldn't have had as much cap space to work with in developing the Super Team. At the time, ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported the Heat was offering Odom a five-year deal worth $34 million with a player option after three years, which would be worth the Heat's entire midlevel exception.Consider the terms the Heat reached in acquiring LeBron James, Chris Bosh (both of whom signed matching six-year, $110.1-million contracts), Mike Miller (five years for $25 million) and Udonis Haslem (four years for about $20 million) and in retaining Dwyane Wade (six years for $107.5 million). Though all the players accepted pay cuts, it's unknown whether they would have been willing to make even more concessions. And that could have given James and Wade even more reason to go to the Bulls. As for Bosh? Well that whole Bosh-for-Bynum trade rumor may never have come to fruition, but the Lakers would at least have had more cap space to pursue him.
Had Odom bolted for Miami, the Lakers would have been more likely to make a trade before the Feb. 18 deadline. If they didn't find an offer to their liking, they would have had more money and a need to engage in the 2010 free-agency sweepstakes.
3. Ron Artest would have experienced more problems with the Lakers.
The lasting images of the 2009-10 season include Artest's surprisingly calm and effective Game 7 Finals performance, his emotional reaction aferward and his legendary press conference. Of course, all that was followed by a rap single, parties and prolific tweeting.
Had Odom not been with the Lakers, it's possible Artest would have experienced more of a learning curve. Jackson said during the postseason that Odom was Artest's "guardian" because they grew up together in New York -- he joked that it was like "the deaf leading the blind." Certainly the fact that they knew each other as kids helped Artest to feel more comfortable when he joined the team.
"It's important to let a man be a man," Odom said during his exit interview when he was asked to characterize how he helped Artest get adjusted to a new team. "Ron beats to a different drum. So what. We all do. Especially when he's playing basketball, he's in his own zone. It was fun to be around and see him integrate himself on this team."
4. Kobe Bryant wouldn't have aggravated his left ankle.
When Philadelphia forward Elton Brand landed on Bryant's left ankle in late January, Bryant immediately played through it and thought it wouldn't be a big deal. When Odom accidentally stepped on Bryant's ankle a week later, he hobbled up and down before leaving the game. Although Bryant returned later on and even suited up against Denver later in the week, the sprained left ankle eventually became too much to bear.
After playing 235 consecutive games, Bryant sat out five games, including what would have been his 12th All-Star appearance. Obviously, the Lakers didn't want Bryant to miss any games, and remaining on the sideline would have ensured Bryant would play in his 1,000th contest before Derek Fisher. But the injury also presented a few positive developments.
The Lakers' team chemistry and effort actually sharpened during Bryant's absence, showing the team was no longer totally dependent on Bryant. A pattern emerged in which Bryant took over games when his teammates were passive and his teammates becoming frustrated with Bryant carrying the team. But the team mostly played together after Bryant's absence, suggesting it propelled the Lakers to start playing as a unit.
5. Odom wouldn't have injured his left shoulder.
After dunking over Boston guard Ray Allen on Feb. 18, Odom nursed a left shoulder sprain for the rest of the season. He had predicted the injury would limit his shooting percentage and rebounding, but he followed through on his vow that he'd never use the injury as an excuse. He also played through most of the postseason with a sprained right knee, an injury that increased his fatigue.After shooting 51.3% in February, Odom's numbers dipped in March to 45.3%, increased to 52.8% in the regular-season games in April and then dropped to 46.9% in the playoffs. Surely, Odom's injured shoulder contributed to his inconsistent shooting numbers, as did his tendency to lose focus.
Odom had spent his first five postseasons averaging 16.8 points per game, but he finished the 2010 postseason posting only 9.7 points per game. His performance improved each series, from the Lakers' first-round matchup against Oklahoma City (7.8 points, 6.8 rebounds) to their semifinals series against Utah (9.5 points, 10 rebounds) and their Western Conference Finals matchup against Phoenix (14 points and 11.8 rebounds), but his numbers dipped drastically in the NBA Finals against Boston, to 7.6 points and 6.6 rebounds. His performances against Boston prompted Jackson to suggest during the series that Odom needed an electrode to provide a spark.
Nonetheless, Odom never used the injury as an excuse and experienced a maturation process in absorbing injuries. All in all, Odom may have had a healthy shoulder had he joined Miami, but he'd have one less ring to wear on his finger.
6. Odom wouldn't have married Khloe Kardashian.
Not too long after Odom re-signed with the Lakers, he met celebrity Khloe Kardashian and married her about a month later. It's conceivable the two could have met in Miami. But he likely wouldn't have met her at one of Artest's parties had he not been with the Lakers.
That marriage has had a trickle-down effect, increasing Odom's celebrity profile, endorsement deals and securing him his own reality-TV show. Perhaps that would've been a good thing for Odom's performance last season. "It's a work in progress," Odom said of juggling his responsibilities.But think of the other consequences.
You never would have seen Odom and Charles Barkley sing about Taco Bell's $5 box. You may never have heard Odom say, "Get out of my way, Saturn!" You may never have heard about Odom and Kardashian discussing their sex life. And you probably wouldn't be TiVo-ing their upcoming reality show. And another thing: Where else would Odom have found true love had he not met Khloe?--Mark Medina
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Photos, from top: Lamar Odom, with the Lakers' Mitch Kupchak, gets ready to sign his new contract. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times. Odom tries to get his hands on a rebound that the Celtics' Kevin Garnett has already claimed in Game 5 of the 2010 NBA Finals. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times. Miami may not have had a Super Team, including LeBron James, had Odom joined with them last year. Credit: Hans Dery / Reuters. Photo: Kobe Bryant helps soak Ron Artest after the Lakers' championship win. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times. Bryant grimaces after teammate Odom accidentally steps on his ankle during the Lakers' 99-97 victory over Charlotte in February at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times. Odom gets a slam over Suns guard Jason Richardson in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times. Odom and Khloe Kardashian. Credit: Jason Merritt / Getty Images