Andrew Bynum

Can the Lakers trust Lamar Odom this time?

Watching Lamar Odom tonight as the Lakers finished off Utah four games to one, it seems like he’s changed. One nearly forgets last year’s Finals, when he was out-hustled by everyone from P.J. Brown to Leon Powe. It was a series of missed free throws and hangdog expressions for Odom, such a striking failure under pressure (in a career known for just those types of disappearing acts) that his starting spot was unceremoniously taken away from him by Phil Jackson before the season, meaning in a contract year Odom would have to hope for a Sixth Man of the Year award at best to entice future employers.

Tonight Odom capped the best playoff series of his life by sending another (probable) free agent, Carlos Boozer, to the bench for the entire fourth quarter. Odom even overshadowed Pau Gasol in the series, with his unbelievable rebounding, timely shot blocking and more and-1’s than anyone I’ve seen in a long time (although that could be attributed to extremely soft, almost Warrior-like fouls under the basket by the Jazz, especially Mehmet Okur).

Andrew Bynum is under contract for many more years and has only played 26 minutes over the last three games, with Jackson replacing him in the starting lineup with Odom in Game 4. Odom and Trevor Ariza, clearly the third and fourth best players on the Lakers right now, are unrestricted free agents after the playoffs. As good as Odom has been, Ariza has a much better chance of getting re-signed by the Lakers, unless they plan on playing Luke Walton and Adam Morrison a lot more than they do right now. And if that had any realistic chance of happening, they might as well bring Rick Fox back for good measure.

Even the Lakers will see some belt-tightening with this economy, in the form of a smaller salary cap and increased luxury tax penalties next season if their payroll stays the same. Unless Jerry Buss gets a championship this season, there’s no way Odom returns. Surely Buss wants to get his money’s worth out of Bynum’s new extension, even though Bynum is in the midst of his worst professional month (Playboy Mansion Piggybackgate, Rhianna rumors and a return from knee surgery that’s made him look not just out of shape but lazy and fearful of anything resembling rebounding and/or defense) since Kobe Bryant called him and Mitch Kupchak out on that infamous cell phone camera video.

Still, the Lakers look like they need Odom as much as he needs to make a good impression. That was shown in just a four-minute span in the fourth quarter tonight, when the bench (including another uninspired game by Bynum and a downright embarrassing effort from Josh Powell) let the Lakers’ 22 point lead shrink to six. Jackson stuck Kobe and Odom back in the game, and it was tough to argue which player was the one who really cemented tonight’s victory. Kobe had a turnaround jumper to push the lead to 9 with less than two minutes to go, but Odom grabbed two rebounds (he had 15 on the night) and scored soon after Bryant’s jumper on a dunk in transition (two of his 26 points in the game).

Odom’s morphed from a flaky underachiever to the vocal leader of this Lakers team, the guy who leads the pregame huddle and shows more emotion on the floor than anybody on the team not named Sasha Vujacic (whose shooting decline this season has defied all logic other than making everyone wonder when he’s going to cut his hair and ditch the cheerleader headband). The question is, can he keep it up as the Lakers advance further and face stiffer competition than this year’s broken Jazz squad? It’s difficult to imagine the Lakers winning anything this year without Odom, and it’s tough to envision what the team would even be like without him. Bynum might very well end up becoming one of the league’s top centers, but to say the fire in his belly is questionable is a drastic understatement. Odom, on the other hand, looks mentally stronger than at any point in his career. That said, if at any time in the playoffs Odom reverts back to the tentative play and shellshocked expression he exhibited against the Celtics last year, the Lakers will be finding out what life is like without him.

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