Commentary

With Odom thriving, so are Lakers

Originally Published: June 7, 2009
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Lamar OdomDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesLakers forward Lamar Odom, in the last year of his contract, is aiming for his first ring.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Welcome to Correlation Corner. The Lakers have won three consecutive games for the first time in these playoffs. Lamar Odom has had three consecutive strong games. Lamar Odom is a free agent after the season. As the Wu-Tang song asks, can it all be so simple?

Everywhere you turn in these NBA Finals, people are waiting to counter your thoughts, critique your analysis, throw salt on your storylines. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy dismissed the notion of jitters for the Magic in their first Finals game as "simple cliché psychology." Kobe Bryant said trying to win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal means "nothing" to him. Maybe it is asking too much to crawl into the minds of other men and study their fears and inspirations, but does anyone really want to deny the motivation of money in a capitalist society? Isn't that more tangible than nebulous terms like "legacy"?

In his past three games, which have gone down as the Lakers' three best performances of the playoffs, Odom had 19 points and 14 rebounds in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, 20 and eight in Game 6, then 11 and 14 in Game 1 of the Finals. Money-making time, right?

"That's just being a competitor," Odom said. "Me being a free agent, that will happen after this is all over. That's just the business of basketball. I'm here right now. This is the time to seize the moment."

Man, another simple solution dashed. No one's cooperating with the agenda here.

If Odom turns out to be a valuable part of a championship team, that should have some financial implications, either with the Lakers or elsewhere. If nothing else, the Lakers should view him as insurance for their recent $58 million investment in Andrew Bynum. If Bynum is injured or ineffective, Odom can always pop back into the starting lineup, where he plays well with their other high-salaried big man, Pau Gasol. Odom made $11 million this season, plus another $3 million from a prorated trade kicker. It's doubtful he'll get that much in annual salary again in this economic climate, with teams saving up for 2010 and the salary cap dropping.

Here's why we can believe Odom when he says it's not about the money: He isn't playing like it. Other than a one-time remark to a reporter, Odom didn't chafe at Phil Jackson's decision to bring him off the bench this season. He has bounced in and out of the starting lineup, adjusting seamlessly, adapting his ever-fluent game to the personnel around him on the court. His averages in the postseason: 11.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. He's taking an average of nine shots per game.

"If [money] was the case, I would just shoot; I would try to get 20 points," Odom said. "Right now, it's not really what's important. What's important is for us to win the championship. Everybody's happy after that."

Sometimes it takes another player to appreciate just what it's like to compete under these circumstances. Lakers guard Derek Fisher went through it in 2004, losing his starting job to Gary Payton before leaving the Lakers to sign with the Golden State Warriors.

"This may be your last big free-agent contract," Fisher said. "You want to maximize it. Now you're in this limited role. It is a tough spot to be in. When you're on a championship-caliber team like we have, it makes it easier for you to accept your circumstances."

So much has been made of Kobe's burning desire to win this championship. You don't think Odom, at age 29, wants one badly as well? Now he's three victories against the Orlando Magic from making it happen.

"This is it," he said. "I've been playing basketball for a long time."

He broke it down, from AAU to high school at Christ the King in New York; college in Rhode Island; and a decade in the NBA with the Clippers, Heat and Lakers.

"For my family, for my friends, everybody that grew up around me, this is big," Odom said. "This is what it's all about."

[+] EnlargeLamar Odom
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images Lamar Odom is asserting himself in the paint, with 11 points and 14 rebounds in Game 1.
When Odom is active on the boards and finding ways to score, the Lakers are a much better team. Odom fluctuates like the old stereo equalizer lights. (Whatever happened to those, anyway?) When he's bad, so are the Lakers. See his two points in a 99-87 loss at Houston and five points in a 120-101 loss in Denver.

The ups and downs have frustrated Lakers fans, just as the team's inconsistency throughout the playoffs has drawn scorn from analysts around the country. Odom blames his own problems on the back injury he suffered midway through the conference semifinals against Houston. He averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds in the Utah series, then dropped to 8.3 and 8.9 versus Houston, when he was playing with swelling that Bryant described as "half a volleyball" on his back.

"I fell from three feet in the air," Odom said. "I could hardly move. Before that, I played well against Utah and Houston. I hurt myself, but I went out there and played. I didn't make any excuses. I did what I had to do. My numbers weren't the same. I didn't expect them to be."

One thing that makes it hard for Odom to find consistency is that the Lakers don't run many plays for him in their offense. Bryant gets first crack at it, or the Lakers go to Gasol in the post. Fisher and Trevor Ariza are more likely to benefit from Bryant's drive-and-kicks.

The Lakers even isolated Luke Walton against Orlando's Courtney Lee on back-to-back plays in Game 1; you'd have to go through hours of Lakers clips to see an instance of Odom getting consecutive isolation plays. Odom's opportunities come in transition, off offensive rebounds, on breakdowns.

You don't hear complaints about touches, and you don't see him forcing shots.

"Lamar has been magnificent," Fisher said. "And I think that's why good things are happening for him. If anybody believes in the basketball gods or whatever, he has paid his pittance to them."

We'll see whether he gets paid in return.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.