Whoever would have guessed that it would not be the bitter, utterly pointless NBA Lockout ’11 that would have me intellectually churning and chewing my relationship to basketball like malfunctioning washing machine, but Dallas Maverick’s forward Lamar Odom?
Back in December, during one of David Stern’s most troubling and flagrant abuses of power in a long line of flagrant abuses of power, the NBA’s commissioner vetoed a trade that would have sent Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol to New Orleans for Chris Paul and other NBA floatsam at the eleventh hour (for reasons still unclear, though pertaining to a competitive balance Stern has, up to that point, shown no interest in creating). The Lakers’ betrayal of Odom by completing this transaction – along with the tepid congratulations the front office offered Lamar’s after winning the 2010-11 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award – scarred Odom, an already mercurial and sensitive player, to such a degree he wouldn’t return to practice. He was subsequently traded to Dallas for, essentially, a netful of Spalding game balls and a musty box of New Balance shoelaces.
Lamar arrived in Dallas and, to put it simply, proceeded to play like absolute shit. Not a defendable brand of shit either. Make no mistake about it. This was shit that cannot be blamed on arriving out of shape – though, on all counts, this played a factor – difficulty acclimating a very unique game to Carlisle’s more free-flowing offense. No, it was the kind of shit that can only be reproduced by a child whose been called in from playing, hours before he’s ready to come in. Lamar is sulking. Visibly and openly. In my life of watching basketball I’ve never seen someone so childishly unhappy.
The statistical difference from last season to this one is remarkable. In the 2010-11 season Odom’s statline was 14.4 PPG 8.7 RPG 3.0 APG on .530/.382/.675 splits compared to the 2011-12 season’s 6.9 PPG 4.3 RPG 1.7 APG on .354/.248/.592. It isn’t just a matter of reduced minutes either, although his workload has been chopped by 11 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes he’s 16.1/9.7/3.4 vs. 11.7/7.3/2.9. It doesn’t get better.
In fact, it’s gotten so bad, Odom was assigned to the D-League for a game in March (though he never ended up playing) to get back in game and, (oh my god) “mental” shape.
In my memory, an NBA player, a reigning Sixth Man and two-time NBA Champion has never ever been demoted to the minor leagues because he’s sad he’s no longer close to the ocean. It’s an historical achievement, although one of which he should be ashamed.
His plight is not only a pathetic one but it highlights the fundamental strangeness of the relationships we have with athletes. By this I mean: Can we seriously get pissed at these guys for not playing up to our standards?
I can’t decide. On one hand we have a man who was transferred away from his family, his home and colleagues to work with the same people who ended his season last year. But on the other, he’s overpaid – comparative to the doctors, special education teachers and pilots, etc. – and, in a sense, is an entertainer, meaning he’s a public commodity so to speak. Though I try to intellectualize myself to a higher and less proprietary reasoning, I can never re-shape the notion that I’m indirectly and directly contributing to the fame of NBA and NFL and NHL players and I’ll be goddamned if they shirk their duty (entertaining me) because they miss their old team.
There’s always the option of not watching the games, or paying attention to the nine other players on the floor, many who are far less talented and dynamic than Odom; players who are interested in actually playing and (hopefully) winning, but I’m a sucker for self-antagonism and can never take my eyes off the doughy man with the downcast eyes and slumped shoulders shuffling around the court like Eeyore.
It’s his right to feel how he feels about where he works and how much it sucks to be away from the city where he has live for the bulk of his playing career (Clippers from 1999-2003 and Lakers from 2004-11). And if his employers see fit to coddle him and emotionally nurse him through a deep sulk and if they are able to mitigate the negative value he brings to the score and team morale and just the cohesiveness of an offensive system, then who am I to complain? Maybe, like the Mavericks are surely hoping, he’ll eventual snap out of it. When he’s on his game, Odom is the most valuable player on the floor. He may not ride scoring explosions but he has a knack for contributing the precise element the unit is missing at that particular time.
Put in the simplest terms I can manage, Lamar Odom is a grossly underperforming, relocated employee whose laziness irritates me. I love watching basketball, particularly when it’s played well. When I see a player like Odom, on the bench with a towel over his head, smiling at some private joke while his team gets trounced, it makes me feel like fool. I’m a fool for thinking so hard and mostly, I’m a fool for caring more about a game than the person getting paid nine million dollars to play it.