I'm Judging Me
With Odom continuing to play the best basketball of his career (42 and 43 in two days against the Warriors) now seems like as good a time as ever to revisit something Shoals mentioned a couple months ago: the dream of what Lamar Odom could be. Now I don't feel capable providing a fully satisfactory response that question at the moment, but I do hope to at least address why the question itself fascinates me as much as it does.
Few players in the NBA inspire pundits and scribes to search for excuses for his inadequacies quite like Lamar does. "He needs the ball in his hands to be effective"; "he's better as a third or fourth option"; "he just doesn't mesh well with Kobe"; "he's not a good fit for the triangle"; "he's more comfortable on the perimeter because of his frame"; "he needs to work in the post to be efficient"; and so it goes. The debate over whether or not he'd be more productive as a 3 or a 4 (designations which, as well as I can tell, don't actually exist in Phil's system) highlights why discussions revolving around him inevitably drift towards unimaginative terms like enigmatic and confounding.
This impulse to rationalize his disappointments and to create alternate universes for his potential to reside in fascinates me, both because it's a pretty absurd thing to do and because I often find myself submitting to it myself. The consensus seems to be that he is failing to live up to some considerable potential but also that his potential is not only indefinable, but very likely unattainable. Which creates an odd tension: the gap between potential and performance typically bears with it the assumption that it could eventually be crossed. With Lamar, I'm not sure even his most ardent supporters believe he could ever actually reach the idealized perception that some of us imagine he could reach if only given an ideal scenario that none of us can really describe.
When Lamar showed up to training camp with a star etched into his hair the explanation was that his barber believed this would be his breakout all-star season. Upon hearing that I thought both, 'OK, that makes sense, there's no reason he couldn't be in New Orleans in a league where Mehmet Okur can be an All Star,' and 'That's going to be embarrassing when February arrives and he's still wearing that ridiculous star.' Sure enough, when he returned from the break, he was back to his pristinely bald head. I imagine there was quite the awkward moment between him and his barber as they were forced to finally concede that this wasn't going to be the year he made the leap.
Over the summer I wrote a fairly-derided post aimed at tearing down Hollinger's numbers, in part because they failed to depict Lamar in a positive light. Looking back on that it strikes me that most people missed how self-consciously questionable my decision was to question the system rather than the player that struggled within it. It was and is much easier to critique an equation rather than accepting that Odom just isn't capable of being as productive as I want him to be. Having an incredibly rare combination of skills, immense physical gifts, and style to spare should be a recipe for success. That Odom's freakish ability to rebound the ball in traffic on one end, push it up the floor, and finish single-handedly at the other doesn't in itself translate to victories, independently of the maturation of Bynum or the acquisition of Pau, is frustrating. I don't want to admit that retrofitted cliches like "winner's mentality" actually hold water on some occasions. I don't want to see Odom retreat into a well-paid rebounding specialist who has occasional flourishes. Conceding that talent alone isn't enough to win basketball games opens the door to the necessity of the Bruce Bowens and Shane Battiers of the world.
Even more troublesome for me personally, sentences like the one above force me to confront the fact that I have the tendency to denigrate things like desire, hustle, cleverness, and work ethic; virtues I would typically applaud in non-basketball settings. Confronting that personal contradiction isn't something I'm exactly prepared to tackle just yet though; this is still ostensibly about Odom and my desire to believe he can be (is?) a star on this stage.
This latest spurt of awesomeness, while causing me to grin from ear to ear, also has me worrying a terrible thought: what if Lamar's much-celebrated versatility is somehow directly related to his much-lamented inconsistency? As though his ability to do various things in a way that few others are capable of actually makes him an impractical player in this league. While the eclecticism of a Marion or a Rasheed works in mysterious ways, the equally irregular puzzle piece that is Odom fails to fit in for equally inexplicable reasons. This is a depressing thought that I choose to reject on emotional grounds, even if my mind is gradually coming to accept that Odom will never be the transcendent star I feel he should be capable of becoming.