It will be strange to see Lamar Odom take the floor Monday night in a Dallas Mavericks uniform, something not at all lost on his former teammates Sunday afternoon at practice. Not that the transition to Texas has been smooth. Odom's first 13 games wearing blue and green have been a disaster-- 6.8 points on 31 percent shooting, 5.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists and a career-low 20 minutes a night -- as Odom struggles not just with fitness or the hurt of being shipped out by the Lakers, but also a summer filled with tragedy.
This for a guy who at 32 already has absorbed more than a lifetime's worth of death and sadness.
Still, his slow start combined with L.A.'s relative success has, at least for some portion of the fan base, created a line of argument that the Lakers are better off without him. They're not. While Odom was definitely set for a step back from last year's Sixth Man of the Year performance regardless of the lockout or anything he endured in the offseason -- history suggests last season's high-end outside shooting was the exception, not the rule -- I suspect he'd be playing better with the Lakers than he is in Dallas. It might take a while, but eventually he'd round into useful form.
Regardless, Odom's return highlights the ways in which his absence has punched holes in the L.A. roster. Mitch Kupchak did a decent job this offseason with limited resources, signing Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy to bolster the frontcourt, and adding Jason Kapono as a sniper. Still, Odom's production from last year (and, to a lesser degree, Shannon Brown's) hasn't been replicated, whether by any combination of the new players or by sliding Metta World Peace to the second unit.
Bench scoring for the Lakers is down from 27.7 points a game last year to 21.3 this season, while the group's efficiency differential has plummeted, as well. In a nutshell, the Lakers are getting very, very little production off the pine. Perhaps more importantly, Odom's departure also robbed the Lakers of their second-best shot creator and secondary ball handler, helping explain the corresponding rise in Kobe Bryant's workload not just as a scorer, but a facilitator as well.
The change in skill sets is one of a litany of other factors providing real obstacles to the group's improvement. Mike Brown hit on many in the clip above, following Sunday's practice. Two big ones:
Injuries. For four games, the Lakers couldn't get established on the bench because Andrew Bynum was out. Then McRoberts got hurt, Murphy got sick, Kapono's wife had twins and now Steve Blake is gone for a month. The ever-changing list of available bodies has put Brown's natural inclination to tinker into overdrive. The brief life of Devin Ebanks as a starter, relegating Matt Barnes to the bench, Andrew Goudelock's short run as Kobe's backup, a DNP for World Peace, and so on.
Lack of training camp, lack of practice. The Lakers have piled up games since the start of the season, one that kicked off with a laughably short preseason. Much of the experimentation Brown is doing with personnel combinations during games normally happens during exhibition games or on the practice floor. The former were in short supply and the latter unavailable thanks to the schedule. On those rare days when the Lakers do get rehearsal time, they haven't been able to go full-speed. The result is a palpable lack of chemistry.
And, of course, there are skill-set issues. Nobody sticks out as a go-to scorer, even when the roster is fully healthy. Vinnie Johnson is not walking through that door. For the time being, at least, nobody else is, either. Save Odom, last season's bench was, by NBA standards, pretty average and a frequent source of complaints from fans. This year's reserves include some workable parts, but it will take a little creativity (and likely some luck) for Brown and his staff to raise the level of the second unit to something resembling or even exceeding 2010-11.
For those sorting omens at home, file this under "ominous."