The 2011 NBA Finals Rests on One Player's Shoulders, And It's Not Who You Think

Jonathan MoralesContributor IJanuary 14, 2011

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Lamar Odom #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses  during Lakers media day at the Lakers training facility on September 29, 2009 in El Segundo, California.  Odom married Khloe Kardashian over the weekend. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

by Jonathan M. Morales

Suppose for a minute we are playing a round of Finals Jeopardy...and yes, I know the real game is called “Final Jeopardy,” but this is the NBA version.

So, for the sake of the game, please just play along! 

The game begins and Alex Tribec carefully reads the answer off of the board and it goes a little something like this:

            “Answer: One of the most gifted forwards to ever play the game. An athletic wonder-too big and strong for opposing small forwards, and too fast and agile for opposing power forwards. Able to play four different positions on the floor and the first player since Oscar Robertson to potentially average a triple-double for an entire season. With the vision of Magic, the touch of Bird, and the athleticism of Michael Jordan, this player has been the key to his team’s success.  He is the consummate team player while giving opposing teams a player they plainly cannot match up against. Quite simply, he is the key to the 2011 NBA Championship.”

With that, the clock starts ticking and the familiar “do-doo-do-do do-doo-do, do do-do-do do-do-do” starts playing in the background...  

Okay, times up! 

As you fumble with your sharpie and hurry to scribble down the first answer that comes to mind, you logically begin to write the one player whose name and game fit perfectly with this description. The one who has been at the forefront of the NBA, ESPN and Nike since he came into the league…Lebron Jam… (Wait; don’t forget it has to be in question form) “Who is Lebron James?!?” you answer with conviction.

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ERRRRRR!  Sorry, wrong answer.  Thanks for playing…and with that Alex bids you a fond farewell!

Although James seems like the obvious choice, there is another player with a similar skill set that should have been considered. One who has befuddled not only opposing coaches, who have the unfortunate duty of trying to figure out how to guard him, but his own coaches as well, who try in vain to keep him focused for a full 82 game season.  He is a player who has never quite lived up to the enormous potential with which he was blessed and, who only recently has begun to put together a consistent showing of his limitless gifts.

The correct answer, or should I say, the correct question should have been: “Who is Lamar Odom?!?”

Odom is one of the most gifted and unique players to ever play the game. But, ever since he entered the league out of the University of Rhode Island in 1997, he has left many spectators scratching their heads.  A point guard living in a power forwards body, many thought Odom would come into the league ala Magic Johnson picking up triple-doubles nightly and championship rings annually. 

Unfortunately, he was never quite right as a leading man and was soon typecast as a supporting actor.  For the next few years he accepted this role and played it as best he could.  But in the end, he struggled to portray another former star, playing Scottie Pippen to Dwayne Wade’s and Kobe Bryant’s version of MJ, respectively.

The results were inconsistent just like his game, some nights it worked and some nights it did not.  But what became strikingly obvious was that Odom had been miscast again.  He was no more the best supporting actor as he was the leading man. 

It was not until things began to fall apart in LA that fate finally stepped in with the role of a lifetime.  The Lakers had just been bounced from the playoffs for the second straight year by two-time MVP Steve Nash and his run-and-gun Phoenix Suns.  Bryant was livid and went on a LA radio tour demanding a trade to all who would listen.  Fans wanted Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak’s head on a plate, asserting that rookie center Andrew Bynum was too young, that Odom would never reach his potential and that both should be used as trade bait immediately. 

Then lightening struck. 

The Lakers landed a trade as significant as the Boston Celtics acquiring of Kevin Garnett during the previous off season.  Memphis big man Pau Gasol was coming to LA and his arrival literally changed everything for the Lakers.  It gave Bryant a legitimate second option. It gave Andrew Bynum the gift of time and it pushed the Lakers back into playoff prominence vaulting them to three finals appearances and back to back titles in three years.

But undoubtedly, the greatest impact of Gasol’s arrival was on that of Lamar Odom.  No longer was he burdened with being something he was not.  Instead, like that of the proverbial glass slipper, Odom slid into the Laker’s third option and voila! It was a perfect fit!

Since then it seems as if the mystery of Odom’s inconsistency had been solved.  Put him in the starring role, or as a supporting actor and he struggled.  But as a cameo, as the special guest appearance, he shined.  Like Kevin Bacon or Morgan Freeman, Odom was allowed to do what he does best: Fly under the radar while the bigger stars carry the story forward. Then just at the pivotal point of the story they make their presence felt turning a good movie into a great one; turning a small role into a memorable one.

It’s funny how things turn out.  Odom has played the third wheel so well that his impact is now on par with the Lakers other two stars.  His role has not changed, but his contributions have.  Consistency is now the norm and Odom finds himself on the verge of his first ever All-Star appearance…a cameo which could lead to an Oscar nomination. 

His timing could not have been better either.  With Bryant battling not only Father Time, but a second injury-plagued season, and with Gasol withering from carrying the team through another extended Bynum absence, it has been Odom who has helped keep the ship afloat.  With that, he finds himself back in the lead role.  For Bryant to be effective he needs to pick his spots and Gasol needs to be steady throughout, but Lamar Odom needs to be special for the Lakers to have a chance.

This year promises to be the Lakers toughest road ever to the title; whether it’s the rejuvenated Spurs, the Shaq-Backed depth of the ever-dangerous Celtics or the newly designated “Heat-les,” which have won 20 out of their last 21 games and including a blow-out win against the Lakers on Christmas Day. For the Lakers to win a third consecutive title, Odom must embrace a lead role and I’m not just talking about in his upcoming reality TV show.

Odom has the potential to be the Lakers version of Lebron James.  When he puts his mind to it, there isn’t a player in the league that can match up with him.  Yet there’s that word again: “Potential.”  It’s a dangerous word.  It has defined much of his career to this point, but not in the way he or we would like. Should the Lakers make it to a fourth Finals in four years, they’ll need Odom to be a star.  They’ll need him to realize his potential and then to exceed it. For now that team’s have figured out how to withstand Bryant’s heroics and now that they’ve figured out that Gasol can be bullied, the Lakers will need Odom more than ever before.

The stage is set for the performance of Odom’s lifetime.  It is his chance to live up to the expectations that are befitting someone with his God given gifts.  It is his chance to answer his critics once and for all.  Make no mistake, the 2011 NBA championship rests on Lamar Odom’s shoulders and it’s his chance to prove he was leading man material all along.