ODOM CONTRIBUTING BEYOND THE BOARDS

“Slowly but surely” has been something of a mantra for Lamar Odom over the first three months of the season. He’s uttered the phrase plenty of times as he’s progressed through various stages of what is viewed by many as a grand reclamation project.

He joined the Clippers in July via a four-team trade that sent Mo Williams to Utah. He was injured, sustaining bone bruises in both knees while the Clippers were in China and missing the remaining three weeks of the preseason. He was out of fitness, providing the kind of effort that was expected but in his own words seeing things that he wanted to do and without physically being capable of making those things manifest on the court.

It took some time but Odom, 33, began to look more like himself in January. You know, the Lamar Odom who could slap a defensive rebound off the backboard, fill the lane as he pushed the ball up the court off the dribble and whirl a pass behind his back like few human beings on the planet that stand 6-foot-10 can.

“He’s made big jumps from the beginning of the year in terms of his condition and physical standpoint,” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said. “Rebounding, he’s more active and has more energy, so those are all good things. Now he’s got to make some shots for us, make some plays in the paint if they’re going to double-team Blake [Griffin] or at the elbow where he’s a very good facilitator for us. But he’s got to put some pressure on the defense for us.”

Odom is shooting just 38.0% on the season, including worse than 30% from 3-9 feet. He has scored in double-figures once. Still, Del Negro insists, “When he’s open and has good shots I want him to shoot them. I don’t care what his percentages are. I want his confidence up. I want him attacking the rim.”

Despite still seeing Odom’s reticence to shoot the ball, Del Negro has exuded an unabashed confidence in the veteran.  He knows what Odom contributed in winning back-to-back titles with the Lakers just three years ago. And he knows what an engaged and confident Odom could mean for the Clippers.

If you asked Del Negro about Odom in November or December, before the effervescent forward started hauling in seven-plus rebounds per night, he would speak as though he were peering into the future. While Del Negro never possessed a crystal ball or deck of tarot cards, the common refrain has always been that Odom “knows how to play.”

Since Jan. 12, Odom has had seven or more rebounds in 10 of 11 games. He’s had four or more assists four times. And he’s settled in as the primary backup behind Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

Griffin called Odom, nearly 10 years his senior, a very valuable “utility guy.”     

“It’s not just one thing,” Griffin said. “It’s not scoring we rely on. It’s defense, assists, coming up with loose balls. He’s kind of like our utility guy in that sense. We have a lot of them in Matt [Barnes] and Ronny [Turiaf] and everybody. It’s a total team effort. It really is.”

Much has been transcribed about the makeup of this Clippers team; their chemistry, their togetherness. If Chris Paul is the team’s floor general, Odom is its general of camaraderie. Never without a smile, Odom, provokes a laugh from any number of teammates with a look, a vocal imitation, or his charisma.

In Portland on Jan. 26, while the Clippers were amidst a three-game losing streak he joked with longtime friend Caron Butler and several media members sitting courtside at shoot-around, dribbling the ball, skipping and saying, “That’s how you bring the ball up in the hood.”

Butler called him “Sugar Foot” and chanted “La-mar O-dom.” Odom reciprocated by playing up the fancy dribbling to the bemusement of other teammates who looked on as he weaved his way down the court from baseline to baseline.

He is in a different place mentally than he was less than nine months ago, when his tumultuous season with the Dallas Mavericks ended and they shipped him to the Clippers. When he arrived he said he had “insight” after what he had been through over the previous season and his sometimes tragedy-filled life.

Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, who was an assistant in Dallas last season, noticed a somewhat reborn or at least refocused Odom. “It obviously was a disappointing season for Lamar and a lot was going on,” Stotts said. “I’m glad he’s bounced back well with the Clippers. I think it was a great for him and I think he’s showing his versatility. Obviously, I’m happy for him.

“Lamar’s a great facilitator. He loves to pass. He sees things. With his size and length and court vision he really is a great facilitator, especially at that position. I think the Clippers are being able to utilize all of those skills that he has.”

One of Odom’s greatest skills at work in L.A. has been his leadership. While he’s never been the guy leading a fiery oration inside a locker room, he has always had a knack for building trust with his teammates. In his second stint with the Clippers, the team that drafted him as 19-year old out of the University of Rhode Island more than a dozen years ago, he has taken on a more vocal role. 

In Phoenix during shoot-around, Del Negro was discussing how to set better screen angles within certain play sets when defenders would go under the screen against youngster Eric Bledsoe.

Odom sat on the scorer’s table watching and imploring Bledsoe to “pay attention to where the screen is coming from” as the play developed.

When Bledsoe did it right, Odom chimed in: “There you go, young fella.”

When the team executes a play well, Odom often claps it up repeatedly. He talks about defense and rotating and playing on string.  

The encouragement and teaching is part of what makes Odom somewhat of a perfect teammate, the smile and glimmer in his eyes are what is most infectious but the message behind them almost as impactful.

“I think it’s about controlling our emotion and keeping our energy positive,” Odom said in his usual serene and thoughtful tone, sitting in front of his locker at Staples Center clasping a bronze bead bracelet together. “Doing all the little things, one of them is playing defense. Whenever we get at it defensively, we have so many guys here that can have big games offensively and share the ball, and that’s kind of our happy place.”

While playing defense and sharing the ball may be the team’s “happy place,” Odom may have slowly but surely rediscovered his as well.