If there is a more enigmatic NBA player over the last three seasons than Lamar Odom, I certainly don't know who it is. Two seasons ago with the Lakers, in his 12th NBA seasons at the age of 31, he had a career year and won the NBA's Sixth Man Award. After then getting upset over being included in the aborted Chris Paul trade, the Lakers traded him to the Dallas Mavericks for nothing. During his partial season in Dallas he was arguably the worst player in the league (certainly the worst one making over $8M). In fact, he was so bad that the Mavericks asked him to stop showing up to work.
So when the Los Angeles Clippers traded Mo Williams for Odom in the offseason, returning Lamar to the franchise that originally drafted him 13 years earlier, it was clearly a risk. It was universally acknowledged that at a significant portion of Odom's struggles in Dallas were mental; he hadn't gotten his head right since the Lakers first tried to deal him, and he simply wasn't in the right state of mind to play basketball. But there was no guarantee that any of that had changes when he arrived at the Clippers' training facility. Besides, at 33, even if his head was right, his skills might have diminished as well. No one really expected Odom to be as good as he was during his Sixth Man Award season with the Lakers, nor as bad as he was during his lost season in Dallas. But those parameters left a huge gray area in between.
Some alarm bells went off when Odom showed up to training camp overweight, but from his first couple of plays in pre-season anyone who had watched him last season could tell this was not Dallas Odom. In Dallas Lamar simply didn't care -- but he was clearly motivated, perhaps for redemption, from the earliest stages of this season. Once he had played himself into game shape, Odom became the first big off Vinny Del Negro's bench and invariably the second closer in the front court playing alongside Blake Griffin in the fourth quarter of tight games.
Odom is rebounding near career high levels. His per 36 minute average of 10.3 rebounds is second on the team only to DeAndre Jordan, and also represents the second best per minute rebounding of his career. He's also been terrific on defense. He is always in the right spot, his rotations are impeccable, and he's one of the best pick and roll defenders among NBA bigs. His floor game has always been great, and he continues to do many things to help the team, from outlet passes to assists to deflections, he impacts games in many ways.
Having said all that, if one were inclined to criticize Odom's season or the trade that brought him back to the Clippers, it wouldn't be very difficult to do. In a league that is obsessed with points, Odom has continued to be terrible scoring the ball. He is averaging a career low 3.9 points per game, but that hardly tells the story. This is a player with a career average of 13.5, whose lowest per game scoring average in his first 11 seasons in the league was 10.8 points per game. Suddenly he could make two baskets per game?
A combination of factors have contributed to Lamar's career low scoring numbers. For one thing, he's playing career low minutes as well, but that doesn't come close to explaining it. After all, his also at a career low in per minute scoring. He's certainly struggling to make shots, shooting .397 from the field on the season. The only reason that's not a career low is because he was so completely dreadful shooting the ball when he was in Dallas. But the single biggest reason that Lamar Odom rarely scores is that he rarely tries to score.
Among NBA players averaging at least 20 minutes per game this season, Lamar has the second lowest scoring average in the league, ahead of only Reggie Evans. Clipper fans watched Evans last season, and the difference in offensive skill between Evans and Odom is night and day -- yet Odom is scoring only slightly more than the one trick pony that is our old pal Evans. Again among players averaging 20 minutes per game, Lamar is in the bottom 10 percent of the league in shot attempts per minute. But what's even more striking is free throw attempts. Another former Clipper and one trick pony, three point specialist Steve Novak, is the only NBA player who gets to the line less frequently than Odom. On his career, Lamar takes more than 4 free throws every 35 minutes. He's taking 0.8 free throws per 36 this season -- one fifth as many.
Which all indicates that Lamar has not been looking to score this season. When he gets the ball on the offensive end, he first looks to pass. Second, he looks for a pass he can make. Then, he tries to pass. On the season, he has been shooting as a last resort.
Which is particularly strange when you think about the second unit of which Odom is an integral part. Clearly Jamal Crawford is option one on the offensive end for that unit. But beyond Crawford, you could make an argument that Odom should be the next option. As a sixth man for the Lakers, his role was to help carry the offense when the starters weren't in the game, and he really should be helping Crawford do the same thing for the Clippers. Instead that unit relies on points from Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe. But Barnes and Bledsoe get a lot of their points in transition, and when that unit is forced to run a halfcourt set, Odom really should be the option after Crawford. Instead, he's one of the least offensive-minded players in the league this season. So far.
Saturday night against Utah, Odom took a season-high 15 shots and scored a season-high 18 points. During the fourth quarter alone he was 5-8 for 11 points. Odom stayed in town during the All Star break to work on his shot, and perhaps the Utah game is an indication that he has new found confidence in it. It's just one game of course so one shouldn't get too optimistic, but the very fact that he shot the ball 15 times would seem to indicate that something is different in his mindset.
And while his season shooting percentage has yet to crack 40% -- which is terrible -- the trends at least are encouraging. Odom started the season so dreadfully ineffective from the field that he dug a very big hole for himself. In the first 14 games, Lamar made just 9 of 42 field goal attempts, just over 21%. In the 51 games since then he's shooting 43% from the field -- not great, but better than 39%, and twice as good as 21%. In 11 games in the month of February he's shooting almost 48% from the field -- now you're talking about more than acceptable shooting percentages.
Odom has always been a key to the Clippers season and he's been terrific in many ways. He's a good fit on the team, and an upgrade over the likes of Evans and Kenyon Martin from last season. But as good as he's been, he clearly hasn't provided as much scoring as the Clippers both want and need from their third big. If that can change during the last couple of months of the season and heading into the playoffs it will have a major positive impact.