Fact: Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Whew! Glad to clear up that debate. But here's a new one:
With L.A. trying for one goal this season, to win an NBA title, Bryant isn't the X-factor. Neither is Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum nor Derek Fisher. Rather, that distinction goes to Lamar Odom.
It's simple really—and this is true regardless of whether Bynum is in the lineup or injured: When Odom is at his best, the Lakers are the best team in the league. Better than their Western Conference rival Spurs. Better than the defending-champion Celtics.
And as they showed Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, better than the Cavaliers.
Even when No. 24 isn't feeling right.
While Bryant was vomiting before the game and chillin'—literally—during it, Odom was lifting L.A. almost single-handedly, making the Lakers the first team to win in Cleveland this year.
The Cavaliers will have to settle for a 23-1 start at home.
But back to Odom. If Phil Jackson actually had some hair with color remaining, it would likely turn gray quickly because his 6-foot-10 power forward's performances define hot and cold.
One night, he'll attack the basket with his long frame, he'll grab all the key rebounds and he'll intimidate opposing players trying to score on him. The next night, he'll be unassertive offensively and get into foul trouble.
Against the Cavs, the nation got to see "Good Lamar." He was all over the floor, taking control of the offense with Bryant in no mood to pull an M.J., a la Game 5 of the 1997 Finals.
Plays ran through Odom. Rebound after rebound were snatched out of the air by Odom. The game was won by Odom.
The veteran finished L.A.'s 101-91 victory with 28 points on 13-of-19 shooting, grabbed 17 rebounds and blocked a shot.
But the most telling number is that when Odom was on the floor, the Lakers were +9 points. Check that final score again—he was the difference.
And Odom could be the difference between another season that ends just short of the Lakers' ultimate goal or the first post-Shaq title for Bryant.
Yes, even as a bench player.
If Bynum returns healthy and retakes his place in the starting five, Odom will return to his sixth-man role. But don't think that diminishes his importance.
Just look at the Spurs' dynasty of the past 10 seasons. They definitely wouldn't have won at least the past two titles without Manu Ginobili coming off the pine, sparking them with highly difficult shots and hustle plays.
Every championship team needs a difference-maker off the bench. Odom, L.A.'s second-most talented player, could be that guy for these Lakers.
As good as Gasol and Bynum are, they don't touch the ball nearly as much as Odom. That's because even with his size, he's a good ballhandler and he's strong when he takes the ball to the basket.
Odom is a guy whom you can give the ball to on the perimeter and let him create. Especially when Bryant is out of the game (or sick), Odom is needed to do such a thing.
He also possess a great ability—and athleticism—to rebound. Between their three big guys, the Lakers should be able to dominate games by outrebounding opponents. And nothing is more deflating than playing 20 seconds of good defense only to have to face another 20 seconds.
Odom gave the Lakers plenty of extra possessions with seven offensive boards Sunday against a strong Cleveland front line. Sans Bynum, the Lakers tied the Cavs with 42 boards apiece.
We all know how Bryant can take over a game.
In Cleveland, his very talented teammate picked up the slack.
It's something Odom is capable of doing on a consistent basis—starting or not.
It's something his team will need if it wants to have an L.A. parade come June—sick Kobe or not.
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