Lamar Odom Flirtation a Dangerous Game for Clippers

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Lamar Odom Flirtation a Dangerous Game for Clippers
USA TODAY Sports

Lamar Odom's tumultuous offseason of personal disturbance and allegations of hard drug use may finally be nearing some good news. 

ESPN's Marc Stein reported that Odom was at Los Angeles Clippers facilities Friday, meeting with head coach Doc Rivers and team brass for two hours to discuss a possible NBA return. While it's not expected that the two sides reach an agreement anytime soon—a source described the meeting as nothing but an initial signal of interest—a person close to the situation told Stein it's more likely than not at this point.

"I wouldn't say a deal [with the Clippers] is imminent, but I'd be surprised if it doesn't happen," the source told ESPN.

Now that's interesting. While there are few who would question Odom is worthy of an NBA roster spot, the 33-year-old forward's personal issues make this a move Rivers and Co. might want to think long and hard about.

While unconfirmed—we must note that Odom hasn't failed an NBA-mandated drug test—numerous reports have surfaced claiming that Odom was deep into addiction over the past two years.

With his marriage to Khloe Kardashian ostensibly on hold, TMZ and other sites have claimed that Odom became addicted to crack cocaine and began getting deeper into his problem over the summer. As recently as late September, TMZ reported that Odom was in the midst of a "crack binge." 

Odom was also arrested for DUI in August, leading to even more concern in the NBA community. Over this period, it's been mostly radio silence from Odom, with only "sources" checking in with gossip rags and well-sourced NBA reporters to update his status. E! Online's Natalie Finn reported in October that Odom was clean, sober and looking forward to a return to the NBA.

Yes, that's October as in a month ago. If you're wondering what in the hell a championship contender is doing entering themselves into this situation, you wouldn't be alone. 

And that's not just because Odom is (again, allegedly) dealing with demons far more important than anything happening on the hardwood. Keep in mind that this wasn't Lamar Odom, NBA Sixth Man of the Year we were talking about last year. Odom shot below 40 percent for the second straight season and averaged a career-low 4.0 points per game.

Nevertheless, the Clippers' reason for considering Odom is apparent. He's a known commodity in the locker room, someone who doesn't need shots to be effective and has worked within the framework of an offense since the moment he entered the NBA. There are few forwards in this league who have his basketball IQ; his understanding of spacing and passing ability from the elbow are elite.

More saliently, Odom is a damn good team defender. Even at his lowest points as an offensive player—and there were plenty of those to choose from—Odom had an obvious statistical effect defensively. When Odom was on the floor last season, Los Angeles allowed 95.5 points per 100 possessions, nearly two points better than the Memphis Grizzlies' league-best mark. As soon as Odom hit the bench, the Clippers' efficiency dipped down into bottom-10 levels.

NBA.com

You don't win championships ranking No. 22 in defensive efficiency. While the presence of human pit bull Eric Bledsoe with those second-unit lineups helped, Basketball Reference's career on-off stats give plenty of historical evidence pointing toward Odom's teams being better defensively with him on the floor. He's probably not quick enough to guard 3s at his advancing age, but Odom's smarts offensively carry over to the other side. He's a willing communicator on rotations and uses his body well against post-ups.

This is important. Because the Clippers' defense is putrid. We're still at the point in the season where an obligatory small sample size reference is needed—I typically wait around 20 games before it's blanket statement time—but it's looking like the preseason defensive concerns are coming to fruition. 

The Clippers are the worst defensive team in the league thus far. The. Worst. While you'll probably notice quite a few contenders hanging around Clipperdom defensively, the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder have track records befitting an early-season leash. 

The Clippers have no such leash—especially in the middle. More than anything, an Odom signing would be a subtle acknowledgement that management doesn't believe the Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan is a championship-worthy frontline in crunch time.

And the numbers would back them up.

Only the Washington Wizards—the lowly, Marcin Gortat-fronted Washington Wizards—allow opposing teams to shoot a higher percentage in the restricted area than the Clips. Compound that with the fact that only five teams allow more shots per game inside the most desired area of the floor and, umm...that's not good.

Blake Griffin gets plenty of grief about his inability (or unwillingness) to use his athleticism to become an elite defender, but that (sometimes unfair) criticism obscures the shortcomings of DeAndre Jordan. Jordan is a seven-footer with a huge wingspan, whose reputation as a "good" defender comes only from those who don't watch basketball regularly.

NBA.com / Synergy Sports

The NBA's fancy new SportVU data, which uses cameras hung around each arena to track every movement within a game, says Jordan faces eight shot attempts at the rim per game. On those attempts, opponents have shot 61.1 percent—the fourth-worst among players who face five or more a night. Griffin, just to make sure this doesn't turn into a DeAndre bash, is the 13th-worst using the same criteria. 

Still, Los Angeles is about two points per 100 possessions stingier when Jordan is on the bench. Keep in mind that the Clippers' backup centers are Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens. Also keep in mind that Hollins isn't a good defender and calling Mullens a train wreck would be kind. 

The Clippers do a few nice things on defense. They've done a great job of limiting corner threes, have a bunch of willing perimeter defenders (Darren Collison notwithstanding) and are implementing the Tom Thibodeau defense that took the league by storm. There are the makings of a good or at the very least passable unit.

And let's not even get started on the free-throw issues. Rather than provide analysis or numbers, here is a compilation video of children crying, which I can only assume is less painful than watching Griffin or Jordan toss up bricks in crunch time:

Odom doesn't necessarily fix all those issues in one fell swoop. Assuming no skill atrophy, Odom would be an instant jolt defensively and allow Doc Rivers to implement some creative lineups down the stretch. But Odom dipped below the 60 percent mark from the free-throw line his past two campaigns, including a dreadful 47.6 percent rate in Los Angeles.

That's not all that much of an improvement over Jordan's career percentage (42.3).

And there is where the hesitance is rooted: the cost-benefit analysis. Even assuming the best-possible scenario—Odom's personal problems are behind him, he's spent his off time committing to basketball, etc.—is it enough to justify the risk?

I'm not so sure. 

Everyone around the league knows the Clippers need one more interior defensive presence to compete for a title. It's one of the first things that come up in league circles when discussing the little round table of Western Conference contenders. So, in a vacuum, an Odom signing would make some sense.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

But waiting makes more sense. Emeka Okafor, currently on the sidelines with a herniated disc in his neck, is coming back at some point and is an instant buy-out candidate when he does. The Suns will have no interest in finding minutes in their rotation for an aging veteran whose contract expires after the season—even if they're hanging on the precipice of the playoff run. 

I'd be shocked if Okafor isn't bought out within moments of being cleared to play. And when he is, the Clippers should instantly grab the nearest phone. Though Okafor is declining and injury-prone, he'd be a perfect short-term risk, the type of consummate professional who could fit inside any locker room without even the slightest distraction. He's also a fantastic team and post defender who'd fit just fine with Griffin down the stretch. 

Even if the Okafor dream scenario doesn't play out, the Clippers still have a couple of trade chips on their crowded wings. Jamal Crawford has been great this season, but if push comes to shove, he's probably expendable. There are also other minor changes that could be made, like adding Jason Collins, Earl Barron or some other free-agent big to play small minutes.

In early August, I wrote that Odom deserved a shot at salvaging his NBA career. The article was published before any news of his drug-related problems leaked, but I stand by a majority of the points.

Odom's life and career were disrupted by an overwhelming wash of tragedy and heartache, major life events that very likely played a factor in his battles with addiction. He had seemingly made a concerted effort to recommit to basketball last season with the Clippers, even supposedly kicking his habit before picking it back up this summer. 

A very large part of me believes in that personal redemption. Odom is one of the most thoughtful, kind, smart players you'll ever come across. It's impossible to root against him. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

But it's equally difficult to understand where his head's at. To understand where he's at in his recovery process or whether the night-to-night grind of an NBA lifestyle is necessarily a good idea for someone who was hitting rock bottom after rock bottom a couple months ago. To ascertain where the line between humanity and a good basketball move begins and ends. 

I venture out saying these things with trepidation, because I'm cognizant of how #hottakey it may seem for a writer to cast doubt on whether a "bad seed" will hurt a contending locker room. After all, our "evidence" of Odom's drug issues mostly comes from gossip rags. And it's not like they've ever taken a story and run with it without hard evidence or anything.

It frankly feels icky. 

But maybe that's the point. Maybe the reason it feels icky is because it is too soon. Maybe there's a better option out there basketball-wise and better things Odom could be doing in his recovery. 

I really don't know. Either way, if reports are true and a deal is imminent, we'll likely get to find out all the answers to the questions—good or bad. Here's to hoping it's the former.

 

(Note: All stats are courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.)

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