Lamar Odom handles return to the bench with grace
Lakers forward Lamar Odom summoned Coach Phil Jackson over to hear the news.
In hopes that a quick lineup shuffle would spark the Lakers out of a three-game winning streak entering their game Wednesday against New Orleans, Jackson informed Odom he would return to the bench and Lakers center Andrew Bynum would start in his place. It's not exactly surprising this would happen. Jackson had maintained all along this would take place once Bynum recovered enough from his off-season surgery on his right knee because Odom's versatility made him more of a moveable part than Bynum's length and deliberate pace. It was just surprising it would happen this soon considering both Jackson and Bynum didn't expect he would be ready for at least a couple more weeks.
But Odom's reaction suggested otherwise.
"It was expected because that's his spot," Odom said of Bynum. "That's his spot and that's his role on the team. It's not like there was a competition for a spot last year or the year before when he decided to start Drew. That's the way it is and that's what I expected as soon as I got back to full strength."
Odom's indifference isn't all that surprising. He's accepted and excelled in a bench role with the Lakers for the last three seasons. His immediate response, however, truly shows how Odom's selfless attitude helps make any changed role seamless. He responded that night by scoring a season-high 24 points off the bench on 10 of 15 shooting, making a three-pointer to end the third quarter and a nifty putback after he wrapped the ball around his back.
Hoopdata shows he's dangerous at the rim (74%), shots from within 10 feet (57.9%) and from three-point range (54.6%). And Odom's official return to the bench after playing with the unit in spurts all season has made, to Matt Barnes, the Lakers look like they possess "the deepest bench in the league."
But all of those qualities wouldn't be on full display unless Odom embraced being a moveable but valuable part. Jackson argues Odom's willingness to accept any role provides "the difference in championship teams" because it helps the Lakers absorb Bynum's injury better, maximizes Bynum's specific skill set in needing a size presence early in the game and sends the team the right message.
"It takes a particular mindset from a player to be able to do that," Pau Gasol said. "To go from the starting lineup to the bench and still be very productive and understanding of why it's for the best of the team -- he does that extremely well."
Odom demonstrated that go-with-the flow mentality when he had a recent conversation with his cousin. When talk veered into his starting role, the two couldn't help but laugh considering the more serious problems Odom has encountered, including the deaths of his grandmother, mother and infant son. Compare that to Odom's current situation: He's contending for a third championship ring, describes his current game as "sharp" after spending time with Team USA in the 2010 FIBA World Championships, posts consistent performances for a team that's played inconsistently, is happily married to Khloe Kardashian and even has a reality TV show lined up with her this spring.
What's the sense in fussing about whether he starts or not?
"I would say I think about my career as a basketball player, I've been a starter since I was 6," said Odom, who's still averaging between 29 to 35 minutes per game in the last three seasons. "Being coachable is something that I pride myself on and doing whatever it takes to make the situation comfortable and to win and to be happy I'll do whatever it takes. I'm in a position where I can win and I'm happy. I still get to play basketball how I like it."
This is how Odom likes to play basketball, in ways that make it hard to define him as a player. Focus on how he provides coast-to-coast dunks and layups and you overlook his ability to fire outlook passes on those same sequences. Focus on how his post presence takes pressure off Gasol, widens the floor for the backcourt and gives him space to post up or hit a mid-range jumper and you overlook his ability to direct the offense up top and hit outside shots. Focus on his ability to seamlessly fill in for Bynum's absence and you overlook the instant chemistry he forged with the second unit in Barnes, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown.
"Either way, he's going to give you what he's got," said Bynum, who's also credited Odom for helping him handle his emotions. "He's just that kind of guy. Whether or not he's starting, he'll go out and do what he needs to do. [He shows why] you can't have anybody being a bad apple."
He's demonstrated that selfless mindset in many ways. Odom doesn't expect others to follow his lead in playing such a role because it's simply one that fits him. He acknowledges his goal in wanting to earn an NBA All-Star nod and the league's sixth man of the year award, but relishes more of the process of pursuing the goal rather than worrying about actually attaining it. When relayed to Odom that many of the Lakers, Team USA, Chicago Coach Tom Thibodeau, former Laker Jerry West and former Laker James Worthy all highly compliment his game, he expresses appreciation for the gestures but values more the friendships that come along with that bonding.
This attitude has surely reflected the personality fans and teammates have loved in Odom for quite some time. But his recent embracing of a role he knows well off the bench further illustrated how it can pay immediate dividends.
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Photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom, right, shoots over New Orleans center D.J. Mbenga during the Lakers' 103-88 victory Wednesday. Credit: Chris Graythen / Getty Images