Lamar Odom can be key as 8th man

DALLAS -- Lamar Odom doesn't look so bad in a Dallas Mavericks uniform if you just lower your expectations.

Forget the Sixth Man of the Year standard Odom established with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Mavs will be satisfied if Odom establishes himself as a great eighth man in Dallas.

This has nothing to do with hurt feelings from being dumped by the Lakers or longing to be in L.A. That's a sexy storyline for a reality show star, but it had little, if anything, to do with Odom's awful start to the season.

The trouble with Odom's transition to life as a Maverick has been twofold: fit and fitness.

The latter issue has been fixed. ("I feel like an athlete again," said Odom, who admitted to being in poor shape after a personally traumatic, lockout-lengthened offseason.) The other issue isn't going to change.

Odom simply isn't a great fit for the Mavs' roster, as far as maximizing his potential. Even with his wide variety of skills, he's really a power forward who happens to be playing on the same team as one of the all-time greats at that position. That means Odom's playing time will be limited to the 20-minutes-per-game range, even if he's performing well, which hasn't happened a whole lot since he arrived in Dallas in a December salary-dump deal.

That doesn't mean Odom can't play a significant role in the Mavs' quest for a repeat championship run. (If you don't think an eighth man can make an impact, just look back at Peja Stojakovic's performance during the West semifinals sweep of Odom's Lakers last spring.) Odom just isn't going to play a starring role.

"Don't get carried away with his stats," coach Rick Carlisle said. "The way he's fitting into our team now is important and it's meaningful, and we need him."

Carlisle has made a point to single out Odom for praise after the past two games, much like the coach often did with Brendan Haywood when the big man was a popular target for criticism last season. It's not like Odom lit it up in the wins over the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers, totaling 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, eight rebounds and three assists in 44 minutes in the two games.

But Carlisle likes what he's seeing from Odom -- the energy, the assertiveness, the way he's flowing with the rest of the Mavs -- enough to feel comfortable giving him significant minutes against quality competition. That's critical because it means the Mavs don't have to overwork Dirk Nowitzki.

Odom's offensive numbers (7.9 points and 1.6 assists per game, .358 field goal percentage) should continue to rise as he becomes more comfortable in a new scheme and continues to develop on-court chemistry with new teammates, but he's not going to approach the production he had while playing a key role in two Lakers title runs.

"I don't have to call out numbers," Odom said when asked what kind of production he expects from himself. "I'm all about the W right now at this stage of my career, you know what I mean? I got the Sixth Man [award]; that was fun. I'm all about winning games, being up in the plus-minus. That's important, especially for a bench player."

Odom accepts that he's not going to finish games, a job Shawn Marion and Nowitzki have earned. His job, as far as he's concerned, is to help make sure the Mavs' closers have a lead to protect late in games.

So what if Odom is way overpaid for an eighth man? It's not like Mark Cuban is asking for help covering Odom's $8.9 million salary and the luxury tax that kicked in when the Mavs agreed to accept the Lakers' donation.

And Odom's contract won't keep the Mavs from trying to make major upgrades this summer. With a $2.4 million buyout, it's a virtual guarantee he'll be elsewhere next season.

For now, Odom's sole focus is on contributing to a contender. If he earns a third championship ring, even in a limited role, it will fit just fine.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.