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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Phil Jackson on Lamar Odom: "He's Not Playing Basketball"

Am I overreacting by suggesting that the biggest issue facing the L.A. Lakers this season is finding the proper role for Lamar Odom? Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson is less than thrilled with what he has seen from Odom thus far:

"I just got through telling him that this is really basketball now. He looks like he's either curling or doing some other kind of sport. He's not playing basketball. The first shot he took (in the first preseason game, a 99-90 loss to the Jazz) was a three-pointer in the middle of the third quarter? That was pretty interesting."

Jackson also hinted that the experiment of having Odom handling the ball out front instead of Kobe Bryant or Derek Fisher--a disaster in the making--may mercifully be over.

Assistant Coach Kurt Rambis, who was the acting Coach during the preseason game, said that Odom's performance was "fair to middling, maybe poor" and added that Odom "didn't seem focused out there." Rambis also noted that even if Odom does OK on the offensive end of the court there is also the issue of him being able to defend smaller, quicker wing players.

As I said in June, moving Odom to a wing position is not going to work. Assuming that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are healthy and productive they will start at power forward and center respectively and Odom will have to come off of the bench. If he cannot handle that mentally or perform up to his usual standards while not being a starter and having his minutes reduced somewhat then the Lakers will have to seriously look at trading him, preferably for a legitimate starting small forward.

The complicating factor in all of this is that the Lakers still have to determine for sure exactly what they have in Bynum. There are still reasons to be concerned about his conditioning and he has yet to prove that he can play at a high level for a full season--that does not mean that I don't think that he can do so but he still has to prove that he can. The Lakers don't want to trade Odom for a small forward and then have Bynum come up with an injury or go through a slump.

Meanwhile, though, with Bynum, Gasol and Odom all currently healthy and available, Jackson faces the delicate, awkward task of putting together the most effective player rotation while at the same time not turning Odom--who is in a contract year and does not want to come off of the bench--into a disgruntled distraction. Make no mistake, the Odom situation is the number one concern for the Lakers right now. The coaching staff realizes this, even if many analysts, fans and casual observers do not.

Can the Lakers still win 55-60 games even if this situation festers throughout the season? Yes, they can, because they have the best player in the NBA and the best coach, plus they have a very good second option in Gasol. However, if this problem is not resolved during the season it could be their undoing in the playoffs, when the importance of every game and every possession becomes heightened. Just think back to the 2000-01 Portland Trail Blazers; they did not have an MVP-caliber player like Bryant but 1-12 their roster was deeper and more talented than the current Lakers' roster is. In fact, their roster was too deep and it was overstocked at certain positions, particularly power forward. The front office foolishly accentuated that problem by acquiring yet another forward--Detlef Schrempf--down the stretch, a move that merely exacerbated the problem of allocating minutes so that everyone would be happy while at the same time not disrupting the team's rhythm on the court. The year before, the Blazers came within one bad fourth quarter of making it to the NBA Finals but in 2001--after starting out 27-10, including a 10 game winning streak--they faded badly down the stretch and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Lakers' current problem with Odom is not nearly as severe--and the Lakers do not have as many head cases as the Blazers did--but the Lakers do need to get everyone settled into their roles well before the stretch drive of the regular season and certainly before the playoffs begin.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:39 PM

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