The process has been painstakingly slow, almost tortoise-like. But Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro is patient, and so is Lamar Odom.
As the season has moved forward, Odom has gradually been getting into better shape, finding his rhythm and playing a larger role in the Clippers’ early season success. It’s a transition that isn’t lost on his teammates or in his improving numbers.
“He’s so valuable to our team because he just knows how to play on both ends of the court,” guard Chris Paul said. “He knows how to space the court, he knows how to roll, and he knows what pass to make.”
At times, it seemed Odom would never get there, but as the Clippers start a four-game road trip Tuesday night in Chicago, his contributions off the bench are worth noting.
After playing sporadically during the season’s first four weeks, Odom has become a vital player off the bench, totaling 20 or more minutes in four of the Clippers’ past five games and helping in a variety of ways. He had five assists against the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 1, grabbed 11 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks last week and totaled eight points and eight rebounds Saturday against the Phoenix Suns.
“He wants it, and I believe in him,” Del Negro said. “I’m going to keep pushing him. I’m going to keep making him work, and he’s going to keep doing work. His teammates support him because we know that he gives us an element that we need.”
Odom inexplicably showed up at Clippers camp out of shape and overweight after he arrived in a trade with the Mavericks on June 29. His tenure in Dallas had been well-documented, nothing less than a massive failure after he was traded by the Lakers and endured the deaths of a cousin and, in a separate incident, a teenage pedestrian when Odom was a passenger in an SUV in the offseason. He said he even considered taking the season off.
While it was assumed Odom would be happy returning to Los Angeles and arrive in shape and ready to play, it wasn’t the case.
“It takes time,” he said after the Suns game. “I had so much time off that sometimes as an athlete, you slow down. So it’s important for me to just keep getting after it in practice, putting in the extra work so I’m comfortable all over the court, comfortable in my defense, in making moves and coming out of them. I’m lucky I’m on a great team that’s really deep. I can help in other ways. I don’t need to score.”
Del Negro noted that Odom, who is listed at 245 pounds in the Clippers media guide, has shed 12 pounds since arriving. But it’s not quite enough.
“He wasn’t in shape; he’s still got to get in better shape,” Del Negro said. “He’s got to lose some weight, but his timing is getting back. He’s feeling more comfortable out there. So as he works through things, he’s going to be a valuable asset for us down the road.
“It’s up to him to keep doing the work. He’s been very diligent in his approach to things, getting in early, working out hard, putting in the effort. Hopefully he keeps on that path.”
Clippers fans have been more than patient. Other than Paul and forward Blake Griffin, no player receives a bigger ovation when he enters the game than Odom, who was drafted by the Clippers as a first-rounder in 1999 and played four seasons before he was signed by the Miami Heat before the 2003-04 season.
It’s uncertain if Clippers fans are cheering Odom’s return or simply recalling his days with the Lakers, but he’s clearly a favorite. That goes for his teammates, too.
“Never being around him, I didn’t really know he has a tremendous basketball IQ,” Griffin said. “He sees the game very well. Listening to him and bouncing ideas off him, he always comes to me and says something and is always giving me encouragement. He’s helped tremendously, even when he wasn’t able to be on the court.”
Now that he is, the Clippers’ bench has become even more formidable. His ability to score, rebound, pass and even bring the ball up the court is something opponents must account for. And his soft touch around the basket means teams must try to block him out on missed shots.
“He makes you think about him,” Paul said. “I’ve been saying that, as he continues to get more and more comfortable, it’s going to be scary.”
It will take a little more time, but he’s getting there.