The world champion Dallas Mavericks lost a game Friday night to a team that included starters Gustavo Ayon, Al-Farouq Aminu and Marco Belinelli, who sound more like 16th century explorers than fine basketball players. Chris Kaman and Jarrett Jack rounded out the starting lineup.
Suffice to say no one was comparing the New Orleans Hornets to the ’86 Boston Celtics.
The Mavericks season of transition to the future while attempting to compete for a second consecutive title has been uneven, to be nice, and now it has become a reality show that is an offshoot of a reality show.
Khloe & Lamar ran on cable last week. In Dallas, there was a blackout – Odom missed four games, all excused, for personal reasons and there were indications that there were serious problems.
Along the way, however, there were stories that he did not want to come back to Dallas and had asked Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to buy out his contract. Odom said those stores were not true.
“It’s good to be back playing basketball,” Odom said after the Mavericks defeated the Jazz on Saturday night. “I’m so blessed to [have done] it for so long.”
Odom’s adjustment from Hollywood to Texas has not been an easy one and it has been perplexing to the Mavericks. They were getting a player who averaged 14.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and won Sixth Man of the Year last season.
On the court, however, the Mavericks had a player averaging 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds. They understand that Odom may have been upset that the Lakers thought he was expendable. He played there for seven seasons and was an important part of three championship teams.
But the Mavericks didn’t understand the lack of enthusiasm. No doubt Odom was wounded by being traded twice in the off-season, first to the Hornets in the original Chris Paul trade that was squashed by the NBA, then to the Mavericks for little more than a trade exception.
A trade exception for the Sixth Man of the Year doesn’t do much for the ego.
According to basketball-reference.com, Odom has made almost $100 million as an NBA player and that money buys many luxuries, but it does not buy tolerance. Fans and Dallas media really didn’t care if Odom had hurt feelings – they were counting on him to help the Mavericks win another title. Instead, they have watched a passive player struggle on the court and, worse than that, not seem to care.
And then he left with no explanation.
“Sometimes we have to fix whatever is going on off the court in order for us to fix what’s going on on the court,” Odom said.
When a problem is not known, however, it is dangerous to arrive at conclusions. Fans and media alike were telling Cuban to buy Odom out. Waive him. Get him out of here.
Cuban didn’t listen and neither did Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, who has no doubt risen to the elite level as an NBA coach.
Keep in mind Carlisle is a guy who was 36 games better than .500 in his first two years as a head coach in Detroit, where he won two division titles, and 34 games better than .500 in Indiana, yet he was fired from both jobs.
Carlisle can sometimes come across as distant, with some players complaining he seemed somewhat of a stranger. But people who have worked with him say it is simply a result of being a serious, no-nonsense guy.
His coaching ability has never been in question and he rose to the top of his profession last season when he masterfully guided the Mavericks – no one’s favorite at the start or even during the playoffs – to their first championship.
Personal problems can be tricky. Odom may be married to a Kardashian and have made a lot of money in his career, but he has had to overcome many challenges. At a young age, he lost his mom to colon cancer. In 2006, he lost a son to sudden death syndrome. Last year, Odom was attending the funeral of a friend who had been murdered and the car he’d hired to drive him in New York hit a motorcyclist, who died.
There also had been sickness recently in his family, so even though no reasons were given for Odom’s personal problems, given his past, it seemed likely that fans wanting to waive him were being a bit harsh.
Into this mess stepped Carlisle, and once again, he handled it beautifully. Carlisle went on his week radio show and spoke firmly, saying Odom needed to return and demonstrated that he would be all in.
“This is not just the expectation,” Carlisle said. “This has got to be the reality. The guy has got to play his ass off.”
When Odom returned against the Jazz Saturday, he was more energized. His totals were modest – nine points, five rebounds, three assists and three blocks. Judging from the comments afterward, it was one of the greatest nine-point games in NBA history.
“It’s by far the most energy he’s played with the entire year,” Carlisle said. “I don’t think it’s close. I would defy anybody to go against that statement. It’s just clear – we need this from him every night. If he can bring that kind of energy and engagement, it’s going to life our team to a different level.”
Odom apologized to his teammates before the game, and afterward they were supportive. And for good reason. The Mavericks are a far different team than last year. Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson and J.J. Barea are gone. Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West, who had surgery to repair a fractured finger and is still at least a week or more away from returning, are the replacements.
Odom cannot match Chandler’s defense and rebounding, but at 6-11, his versatility gives the Mavericks a different look. If he is at his best, the Mavericks can contend for another title. Without him, the backups are Brian Cardinal and Yi Jianlian and, well, forget it.
“I don’t think there was one minute . . . where anybody in that crowd wouldn’t have said he was into the game,” Carlisle said of Odom after the win over the Jazz. “He was into it. But now that he’d done it, he’s gotta do it again. And again and again. He’s got to do it 28 more times before the playoffs. And he can do it. I’m fully convinced that he can do it.”
Like last year, the Mavericks will need an upset or two to win title. But if Lamar Odom isn’t all in, they don’t have a chance.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.