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Lamar Odom And The Failure Of Language

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The Lakers' power forward is enjoying his best season as a pro. It's time for the conversation about his play to catch up.

The Lakers' power forward is enjoying his best season as a pro. It's time for the conversation about his play to catch up.
The Lakers' power forward is enjoying his best season as a pro. It's time for the conversation about his play to catch up.

Lamar Odom strains the vocabulary of hoops criticism. To understand how, begin with the question of positional taxonomy. Every Lakers box score, depth chart and official game program will tell you that Lamar is a power forward, and indeed he is. He plays on the front line alongside either Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol, and on defense he guards opposing fours. But he doesn't fit neatly into any of the power-forward substrata recognized by the analytical vernacular. Although he can shoot three-pointers with some competence, he's not a classic "stretch four" in the mold of Dirk Nowitzki. And although he has a potent scoring touch around the rim, he doesn't have the back-to-the-basket post game of a Carlos Boozer or Zach Randolph. He's probably closest to the "point forward" archetype that we associate with Scottie Pippen, but even that label seems a bit misapplied, as Lamar doesn't handle the ball or initiate his team's offense quite as often as Pippen did his. Lamar spends time in each of these categories but never lingers long in any of them.

Likewise, attempts to describe the value of his play suffer from clumsiness of diction. Often, when writers or fans are looking to praise Lamar, they say he's "underrated." This adjective fails in its intended purpose both because it's not inherently complimentary - one could be pretty bad and still be underrated - and because its frequent deployment is self-sabotaging. We can call a player underrated only so many times before it becomes obvious that the player in question, by general consensus, is perfectly well thought of. "Versatile" is another one that we reach for in discussing Lamar, and at least this descriptor has the advantage of being true, if not of being especially vivid.

The most common expression of disparagement about Odom's game is that it's "inconsistent." In fact, I'm not sure he's any less consistent than a typical NBA player. Everyone has good games and bad. From night to night, it's difficult to predict whether Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol, to take as examples two of Lamar's more esteemed teammates, will be in peak form or something substantially less than that. I'm not aware of any rigorous evidence proving that Lamar's production is susceptible to greater variance than that of his teammates. Lamar's inconsistency, I'd argue, simply looks different.

When Kobe has a poor game, it's almost always because he shoots badly. (Well, lately it's also because he plays bad defense, but that doesn't get much recognized or talked about.) Fortunately for Laker fans, it's been a while since Kobe has a hit a rough shooting patch, but a series of games in late November illustrates the phenomenon. On November 28th, Kobe shot 14-for-33 in a home loss to Indiana. Two nights later, he shot 9-for-25 in a loss at Memphis. The night after that, he shot 10-for-24 in a loss at Houston. When Kobe stumbles, he does so visibly -- ostentatiously, even. His shortcomings lend themselves to easy diagnosis: Kobe "shot too much" or showed "bad shot selection" or "broke the Triangle." These are failures of commission, and whether or not one agrees with the particular criticism, the terms of the conversation are understood by all.

When Lamar disappoints, he does so along a different dimension. You'll never see Lamar Odom shoot 9-for-25, because when he can't find the basket he stops attempting to find it. Instead, for better or worse, he ratchets down his role. A bad game for Lamar is 3-for-7 from the field with five rebounds. When Lamar plays poorly, he recedes from view. As some might put it, he "disappears," and in this he short-circuits our expectations for professional athletes.

The popular imagination conceives of NBA players as having a greater-than-usual command over their bodies, and we're quicker to excuse failure when it's attributable to physical limitations. In the eyes of many Laker fans, Derek Fisher can get away with being an atrocious defender because we look at him and see instantly that he's 6-foot-1 and in his mid-‘30s. We readily grasp how those two characteristics do not easily put one in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. But when someone like Lamar Odom comes up short -- someone who's 6-foot-10 and blessed with speed, strength and fast-twitch musculature that most of us can only dream of - we attach to it a greater degree of culpability. It registers as a failure of temperament, or even character.

This strikes me as misguided. People are not imbued at birth with identical supplies of aggressiveness, "intensity" or any of the other abstract nouns you might hear during an NBA telecast. There's reason to believe that Lamar Odom can no more will himself to be a dervish of activity every second he's on the court than Derek Fisher can remove years of wear and tear off his legs. Human limitations take both tangible and intangible forms, and the latter are no less real than the former.

Moreover, Lamar's occasional recessiveness isn't always the liability it's made out to be. When someone doesn't have their shot working, we don't want them to keep shooting. The instinct that makes Lamar defer to his teammates in those situations is, sometimes, a good one. Not always, of course: there are plenty of occasions when Odom's offensive creativity is needed to provide a spark, or when he's not working quite hard enough on the glass. But even if we could, say, inject Lamar with a vial of Kobe's hyper-competitive psychosis, we'd want to think hard and long before doing so, because it might well take away a big part of what makes Lamar such an effective teammate.

All this is kicking around in my mind these days because the man, at age 31, is enjoying what is pretty clearly his best season as a pro. He's contributing 34 minutes a night of very efficient scoring, productive work on the glass and ball-handling and distribution that few men of his size can rival. On a Lakers team that has sometimes struggled at the defensive end, his work against opposing power forwards has been stellar. He also doesn't get enough credit for his durability: Lamar played all 82 games last season and has played all 45 games this season, while shifting effortlessly between the starting lineup and reserve unit depending on the availability of Gasol and Bynum. There's talk that Odom could make the All-Star Game next month. It probably won't happen because the forward position in the West is such a logjam, but given Lamar's superb performance this season, my hope is that the ongoing conversation about his virtues as a player will evolve beyond the "underrated"/"inconsistent" crudities that have bogged it down.

What's nice is that when Lamar retires 10 years from now, he'll leave behind a shorthand for talking about a very specific kind of basketball player. Somewhere, an 11-year-old is in the midst of a huge growth spurt and just learning how to handle the ball on the break, hit a seven-foot bank shot and attack the offensive glass at just the right angle. Maybe he won't play hard all the time, but he'll play hard often enough, and at his best he'll be able to do literally anything his team needs. And when he finally gets to the Association, we won't have to struggle to cram him into categories that don't really describe what his game's all about. Instead we'll be able to say, "he's just like Lamar Odom."

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.