Can Phil Jackson Get Lamar Odom's Career Back on Track with New York Knicks?

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Can Phil Jackson Get Lamar Odom's Career Back on Track with New York Knicks?
Jae C. Hong

Lamar Odom on the New York Knicks? It almost makes too much sense.

The 34-year-old forward seems almost custom-built for the MSG circus. He is a native New Yorker, born in Jamaica, Queens. He is also a past-his-prime player who has become far better known over the past few years for his turbulent, headline-grabbing marriage to Khloe Kardashian.

So when rumors surfaced that New York could be in play for the troubled former NBA Sixth Man of the Year, it hardly came as a shock. The only real surprise here is that the Knicks haven't employed him already.

At first blush, the very idea of pursuing Odom seems like a disturbing echo of what is supposed to be a bygone era—a time when the franchise was far more interested in signing big names and getting on the front page of the New York tabloids than in assembling a quality NBA roster. These shenanigans were supposed to end with the installation of Phil Jackson as president of basketball operations.

Jackson clearly still cares about Odom. He expressed his concern for his former player, who allegedly disappeared for a few days during the summer amid rumors of drug use, in an October interview with Seth Davis:

Everybody that's been close to him, from my group...cannot get through to him. No one can get through to Lamar.

...

He went into hibernation. We're very concerned about it, but I understand that things are looking up.

Now it seems that Jackson might be willing to take a chance on his former player, as his Knicks are interested in signing him before the end of the year, per ESPN's Marc Stein.

But there could be a method to Jackson's madness. Odom used to play for Jackson as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, and few people in the NBA understand the mercurial veteran better.

 

A Lost Season

Odom, who has not played in the NBA since the 2013 playoffs, was arrested over the summer on a DUI charge. The 14-year vet worked out for the Los Angeles Clippers in November. It seemed like a fine fit at the time—the Clippers needed bench help and Odom played for them in 2012-13. 

At the time, Jovan Buha of ClipperBlog was in favor of Odom:

Odom might be the best player the Clippers can get without trading Jamal Crawford (who's become less expendable given his recent shooting efficiency and the bench's lack of scoring punch). There simply aren't a lot of third big-level free agents out there, and Odom is already familiar with half the roster. If he's in basketball shape and ready to put the tabloid rumors behind him, he could potentially fit in a 10-to-15 minute a night role as the primary backup big man.

But the club ultimately decided to fill out its bench with veterans Stephen Jackson, Hedo Turkoglu and Sasha Vujacic. Only Turkoglu remains with the team.

Lacking an NBA suitor, Odom signed a contract to play with Spanish club Laboral Kutxa Baskonia on Feb. 18 but was laid up by a back injury after two games and 23 minutes played. 

Even if he signs with the Knicks before Wednesday's season finale, there is no chance Odom will suit up for New York this season.  

Despite the seemingly hurried nature of this potential end-of-season signing, however, the Knicks appear to be taking a cautious approach in their pursuit of Odom. New York could exploit the timing of any upcoming deal and give itself a chance to properly evaluate the forward before extending him through next season, per Stein:

[The deal] would put him on their roster immediately and, more importantly, include an unguaranteed second year for next season.

Structuring the deal this way, after a tumultuous 12 months for one of Jackson's favorite players when they worked together with the Los Angeles Lakers, would give the Knicks two months before free agency begins July 1 to get the 34-year-old into their program and start working with him.

The Knicks, sources say, would want to use the extra time to see if they can get Odom to the point, physically and mentally, where the talented but enigmatic lefty is worthy of a roster spot next season.

By bringing Odom in now, the Knicks are shrewdly giving themselves a prolonged evaluation period with the 14-year veteran. If they don't like what they see, they can always dump him in the summer.

 

The Jackson Touch

It is important to remember that Lamar Odom has not played for Phil Jackson since the 2010-11 season, when he was 31 years old. That Lamar Odom won the Sixth Man award, averaging 32.2 minutes, 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game coming off the bench for Jackson's Lakers. But that Lamar Odom probably no longer exists.

When evaluating Odom's potential impact for New York, it would be better to look at 2012-13, when he averaged 19.7 minutes, 4.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for the Clippers.

Per Buha, that Lamar Odom gave the team defense, rebounding and playmaking, but struggled to score efficiently:

Last year he was arguably the Clippers' most consistent interior defender, lead the team in rebounding percentage and rebounds per 36 minutes, and was still a capable ball handler and passer. Those who point to his atrocious shooting — 39.9 percent from the field and 20 percent from deep — as a major concern are indeed correct.

On the court, Odom has always been possessed of a multifaceted game—he's a player who can do a little bit of everything—that has been noticeably absent on New York's roster. Even its best player, Carmelo Anthony, is more of a one-way player...even if his offense has been brilliant this season. 

This team already has Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani—big men who can score and do little else. For the Knicks to succeed, Anthony has to be surrounded with bigs who can defend and move the ball. Odom fits that exact profile...perhaps more than any other available big man.

That is the key word: available. Assuming Jackson intends to implement the triangle offense, a player like Pau Gasol would be a great addition. He can pass out of the post, and he knows the system. But the cap-strapped Knicks cannot afford to bring in someone like Gasol...and so a versatile, triangle-savvy player like Odom at the veteran minimum might be too good to pass up...assuming he is right, both physically and mentally.

The problem in Odom's last season with the Clippers was that he took too many wild, contested shots. Then-coach Vinny Del Negro was never able to rein in his player's shot selection.

That is where Jackson's experience with Odom could pay serious dividends. The forward had by far the most efficient shooting stretch of his career playing under the Zen Master.

Lamar Odom's field-goal percentage
G MP FG%
pre-Jackson (1999-2005) 374 13,604 44.5
with Jackson (2006-2011) 455 15,884 49.5
post-Jackson (2012-2013) 132 2,643 37.6

Basketball-Reference.com

And therein lies the crucial element in any potential Odom comeback. Assuming his back is healed, and assuming his personal troubles are behind him, the Knicks will need Jackson (and the head coach he eventually hires) to control Odom's shooting. He did it before in L.A., but there's no guarantee Jackson will be able to pull of that trick twice.

 

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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