Lamar Odom is my favorite current Laker. I like just about all the players on the team, and (fan) love all the important ones, but LO is the one guy on the team I really identify with. Like Lamar, I consider myself to be in possession of a highly varied skill set. Like Lamar, I am willing to do whatever is asked or required of me when working as part of a team. I stay calm and centered and try to keep things light in important situations. And, like Lamar, my effort isn't always consistent, but you can bank on my being there when you really need me. Lamar Odom is basically a basketball representation of my life.
There is no better evidence of the merits of Lamar Odom than what we have seen this season. He is certainly playing better than he ever has in a Lakers uniform, and he might well be having the best season of his career. You could make a case that he's been the best, and more shockingly, the most consistent, player on this star-studded team. In the month of December, it hasn't even been close. He has clearly been the Lakers best player as the team has struggled through this early-season funk. His reward for continued success in the face of team adversity? A spot on the bench for last night's win against the New Orleans Hornets.
To be fair, that is an overly dramatic representation of events. Lamar has always been headed to the pine at some point this season. It's always been a question of when, not if. Still, take a second to think about it. The guy is playing as well as he ever has, and has remained consistent for longer than I can ever remember him doing, and Phil Jackson still feels comfortable "demoting" him for the good of the team. How many players would be OK with that? How many would simply go about their business without any need to have their pride massaged? How many players would respond by continuing to be just as dominant off the bench, as Lamar was in going for a game high 24 points on 10-15 shooting?
If his play prior to last night didn't clue you in, let that game be all the proof you need that Lamar Odom is the perfect role player on a championship team. That, my friends, is what I call ironic, because LO has become the perfect role player by playing a role for which he is hardly perfect.
Lamar has been one of the best 6th men in the league since the day PJ decided a twin towers pairing of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum was preferable to start games off over 2 seasons ago. How could he not be? He doesn't just have starter talent, he has All-Star talent. Aside from Manu Ginobli (who's time coming off the bench was purely a novelty, he was his team's 2nd best player), no sub in the league has or had a talent baseline as high as LO's. However, he has never been the best 6th man, because, to date, he has only possessed 1/2 of the mentality of a great bench player. The first half, accepting a role as a non-starter without an injured pride, Lamar has in spades. The mentality that Lamar lacks, what keeps him from being the best 6th man in the league, is the aggression that should naturally come with being the best player on the court.
When Lamar Odom is playing with his bench mates, against the other team's bench players, he IS the best player on the court. There isn't a sub in the land that can match him talent for talent. Despite all that, the Lakers' bench unit as a whole has been below average over the past few seasons, and a major reason is because Lamar often lacks the mentality to demand the ball and attack unrelentingly, even when it is in his team's best interest to do so. The man can do anything you want him to do, but failing to be consistently aggressive has always been his biggest flaw. Consider all the other great 6th men in the league, guys like Jason Terry and Jamal Crawford. All of them have an aggressive mentality and all of them provide a scoring spark. Lamar can do that, he did it last night, but all too often, he hasn't played with that kind of aggressiveness and the bench, and the team, have suffered for it.
If you look at the past 10 years, the guy who has won 6th Man of the Year has consistently been that aggressive, potent, offensive spark. Check out the above table, listing each season's award winner and their corresponding usage %. Usage is a measure of how many of your team's possessions you use (via shot, turnover, or assist) while on the court. Aside from one huge outlier, in Corliss Williamson, the player who has won the award has always used up a good deal of his team's possessions (while the player is on the court). In some ways, this is the tail wagging the dog, as a higher usage rate will translate to higher scoring, so it's very hard to win the award as a gap-filler (the role Lamar has tradionally played). However, it also clearly communicates that a perfect 6th man is a guy who can take the lead as the "star" of the 2nd team, and no matter how many times Lamar might lap the bench field talent-wise, he's always struggled to consistently be that guy. This is evidenced by the fact that Lamar's usage in his first two years off the bench is lower than anybody's on that list, save Williamson. He used 18.1% of his team's possesions in 08-09, and only 17% in 09-10.
That's why I'm so hopeful of a breakout bench year for Lamar Odom this season. As stated previously, I can't remember ever seeing LO be consistenly aggressive for such a long period of time as he has done this season. His usage is a bit higher than the past two years at 18.4%, and he has put those numbers up as a starter, which means he's been competing for possessions with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol as much as with Steve Blake and Shannon Brown. Consider that the last full year he spent as a starter, partnering first Andrew Bynum and then Pau Gasol in 07-08, his usage was only 16.5%.
There's a decent chance this is all fool's gold. Lamar has certainly done it to us before, he's gone on a stretch of domination so strong that we can't imagine a world in which he can be stopped, only to slip away into obscurity again, leaving us as junkies fiending for another fix of Lamar's god mode. Passing judgment on Lamar's ability to continue his aggression from the bench after one game is certainly a fool's errand. But I can't fight that hopeful feeling that something within Lamar has finally changed. Maybe his successful summer run with Team USA made the difference. Maybe being the emotional leader of a championship team finally released some untapped star power that no one, not even LO himself, knew he had. Maybe he can finally look around the court, see the nine other bench players out there with him and know, just as we know, that no one out there can stop him.
Maybe, just maybe, the Lakers' perfect role player can finally be the perfect fit for his role.