Fans of the New York Knicks waited nearly a month for Phil Jackson, announced as the team’s new president of basketball operations on March 18, to begin putting his stamp where it matters most: on a flawed roster in desperate need of an overhaul.
That move came in the form of a non-guaranteed contract for veteran forward—and one-time Jackson favorite—Lamar Odom, whom the New York Post’s Marc Berman reported arrived at the Knicks training facility on Monday.
For the troubled Odom, the invite represents perhaps his last, best chance at punctuating an admirable career lately derailed by sordid tales.
How much can the Knicks reasonably expect from the versatile forward?
Most likely not much, if we’re talking about what happens on the hardwood.
Then again, maybe that was never really the point.
To be sure, there’s good reason to believe Odom—who turns 35 in November—still has something left in the tank. Whether the trust and rapport he forged with Jackson during their six seasons together with the Los Angeles Lakers will be enough to jumpstart Odom’s dormant drive, however, is anybody’s guess.
During a recent press conference, Jackson described the reasoning behind the Odom signing thusly (via Berman):
He’s coming to town this week. We know he’s a really good basketball player. He wants to put himself back together, and he has a chance to do that by having the whole summer to work at it and getting himself back in basketball condition to play. He told me that’s what he wants to do. Having a relationship with him. It’s a pretty good risk-reward situation for us.
And it might well be. But there’s another, more nascent motivation to the move. It gets back to something Jackson said during his inaugural presser back in March—a seemingly innocuous introduction that was somehow lost amidst the subsequent specifics of franchise stability and player personnel:
The idea of developing a culture is an overwrought word in the NBA right now. But that’s the cachet that brought me here. There are things I believe that players should have that’s important for them. They should have the security of knowing that they’re going to be supported by the organization and the coaching staff. It’s a very tenuous world as it is to be a player. So putting yourself on the line, you need to have that support. This is something we want to build for them.
Thought of in this context, the Odom signing begins to take on a different dimension altogether. To go out on a limb like he did; to bring a gifted but troubled protégé back into the flock; to understand the sacrosanctity of second chances: This is the culture Jackson not only envisions, but one he fully intends to actualize.
That Odom just so happens to be one of the most intelligent and effective triangle disciples of his or any other generation certainly doesn’t hurt. But that seems secondary in light of the larger goal of giving purpose to a lately nihilistic existence.
Odom’s cataclysmic statistical drop-off following Jackson’s retirement in 2011 can’t be completely coincidental, after all.
From a PER of 19.4—the highest of his 14-year career—to a 9.2 the next year? Easy as it was to blame the drop-off on his lack of lockout discipline, Odom’s poor play during the 2011-12 season, his first and only with the Dallas Mavericks, pointed to something much more sinister—and not on the horizon, either.
The fallout was so bad, in fact, that it prompted ESPN Dallas’ Tim MacMahon to pen the following, bitterly scathing screed:
The court of public opinion has found Odom guilty of first-degree basketball fraud for his antics last season, when his out-of-shape body went through the motions with the Mavericks while he left his heart and mind in Los Angeles.
Khloe [Kardashian]’s little Lam Lam was acquitted on one count of attempted murder on the Mavs’ soul. After all, Odom can’t be reasonably accused of trying during his four months of failure in Dallas.
The following summer, after an equally discouraging stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, Odom was arrested for driving under the influence, via ABC.com’s Lesley Messer, this after rumors surfaced suggesting the 6’10” forward had gone missing for 72 hours.
Things only got worse after video surfaced in November 2013 showing a visibly intoxicated Odom slurring his way through a diss rap. Kardashian filed for divorce just weeks later.
And while he’s since managed to steer clear of the tabloids and talk shows, one can’t help but wonder what, if anything, Lamar Odom the basketball player still has left to give.
Even if his skills are shot, however, having a triangle practitioner of Odom’s caliber would pay dividends beyond the box score—especially if Jackson plans on fast-tracking his famed offensive system.
Indeed, with the Knicks still searching for their next head coach, Jackson must familiarize his franchise with the triangle in whatever ways he can—including, perhaps, informal workouts.
If Odom can somehow get himself back into effective playing shape, he could certainly be a valuable piece for a team poised to spend the 2014-15 season in luxury-tax hell once again.
Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney recently underscored the financial-strategic motivation behind the Odom signing:
The Knicks’ real motivation: The non-guaranteed second season through which New York will have the option to retain Odom for the 2014-15 campaign. By signing him now the Knicks have effectively sidestepped all of the league’s rules regarding offseason contact between teams and free agents as they relate to Odom. He is a Knick for all intents and purposes even without logging a single minute, which in this case gives Jackson and team officials the very important means to gauge Odom’s injury status and frame of mind in the months to come.
Should Carmelo Anthony decide to walk away from the $23.5 million owed to him in lieu of a better payday and playoff prospects, Odom’s versatility—he’s spent time at small forward, power forward and center—will be indispensable on a team heading for a full-on basketball reboot.
If it doesn’t work out? James Dolan’s wallet is no worse for wear.
When Lamar Odom arrived NBA-side in 1999, he was touted by some as the next Magic Johnson—an impossibly gifted basketball virtuoso with a Himalayan ceiling.
Odom never quite met the hype, of course. Although you’d be hard-pressed to find many rookies today who wouldn’t take Odom's career—solid, steady, a pair of rings on his digits—in half a heartbeat.
But there’s a bigger picture at play here, one that Phil Jackson understands like few could or can. For him, this is as much about love and loyalty as it is wins and losses, far more about friendship than franchise redemption.
Because if Jackson can show what it means to truly give someone a second chance, maybe the fans—forsaken to the point of Stockholm Syndrome—will find the same worth trying.