Odom, Mavs ready for challenge against Lakers

Odom, Mavs ready for challenge against Lakers

Published Jan. 16, 2012 12:15 p.m. ET

Lamar Odom wears his heart on his sleeve. He wears sneakers with names scribbled on them, so he wears his heart on his shoes, too.

"There's a saying, 'Basketball is Life,' Odom tells FOXSportsSouthwest.com and DallasBasketball.com "And in life, you always got to be prepared for the unexpected. You never know. And that's why you can't put all your eggs in one basket."

We haven't gotten around to asking Odom about the scribbles. But we've discussed at length his belief that "Death always seems to be around me."

And as he and his Dallas Mavericks prepare for tonight's meeting at LA against his old Lakers team, we think we have insight into the Mavs, those eggs and that basket, too.

The 2011-12 Mavs are an oddity, a defending champion moving forward rapidly with a roster that bears limited resemblance to the team that won the title. … and a roster poised to soon be greatly altered again. So far, we're talking about an active roster turnover of 50 percent and five key outgoing players as the Mavericks face the unenviable task of playing title defense while integrating so many new faces and doing so without a full training camp.

And next year? Another overhaul, as most everyone on this roster not named "Dirk" might be jettisoned.  

In our staff's multiple visits with L.O. -- the ex-Lakers standout who has struggled mightily to fit in with the Mavs -- he's spoken warmly and frankly about his feeling that "Death always seems to be around me," as he phrased it for the LA Times.

Lamar's mother died of cancer when he was 12. The grandmother who raised him passed away in 2004. Lamar buried his own child, a victim of SIDs at just shy of seven months, in 2006. This summer he traveled to New York for the burial of a 24-year-old cousin with whom he was close (Odom says the cousin was murdered) and while he was there, was a passenger in a car involved in a traffic accident in which an allegedly out-of-control motorcycle struck and killed a 15-year-old pedestrian.

In two of our conversations with Odom, he used that "Basketball is Life" phrase, and it apparently means more to him than a slogan on a t-shirt. On one occasion, Lamar said, "It's humbling. It's a humbling game. It's a humbling experience. Life is the same way. You can win the jackpot, and then lose somebody close to you. Basketball is life. I'll continue to live, be a better man, and be a better basketball player as well.”

Later, in our one-on-one talk, he said, "There's a saying, "Basketball is Life. And in life you always got to be prepared for the unexpected. You never know. And that's why you can't put all your eggs in one basket."

We initially assumed Lamar was speaking on the passing of his loved ones – and preparing for the changes that come with that. But now we wonder … "You can't put all your eggs in one basket" … Is there tucked inside that chestnut some deeper explanation for why Odom has played so ineffectively since his season-starting trade from LA to Dallas?

Odom is among the Mavs who face a looming specter of wholesale turnover – and maybe of feeling "unwanted," if you will -- as a result of two factors. One, almost certainly by Mavs braintrust design, many on this roster are in the final year of their contracts. Two, the Mavs telegraphed their long-term plan in the offseason by deciding not to offer multi-year contracts to soon-to-be departees Chandler, Barea, Stevenson, and Butler.  

Dallas GM Donnie Nelson tells us that "Long-term financial flexibility" will be the franchise's guiding principle in the new CBA environment. We know the goal to be more specific than that. The Mavs forecast a SuperTeam Era and they want to be dealt in. We've thoroughly dissected it here and are calling it the "3D Blueprint." It is certainly is one reason all the newcomers are on flexible deals, because two guys are about to become available – Dwight Howard and Deron Williams -- who are worth sacrificing that "long-term financial flexibility."

So in addition to Lamar and that "cloud of death" that he feels hangs over him, there is a downside to the 3D Blueprint and majority of the roster living under a cloud of uncertainty.

On one hand, there is no excuse for everyone not playing hard. This is why they get paid millions of dollars, a chance at another title is at stake, and selfishly, buy-out candidate Lamar and the rest must knowing they are auditioning for new contracts.

On the other, the realization that this group is more ephemeral than most could undercut any potential chemistry and cohesiveness the Mavericks might achieve this year. This is the dark side of the 3D Blueprint: potential short-term pain for maximum long-term gain. It's the right path, but not without peril.

The Mavs started 0-3 but are now 8-5. Odom hasn't been much of a contributor.

Is uncertainty part of the problem?

That state goes beyond Lamar, of course. Mavs roster members Ian Mahinmi, Brian Cardinal, Delonte West, Yi Jianlian, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry are in the final year of their contract. Brandan Wright, Vince Carter and L.O. have deals that, to one degree or another, are not guaranteed past this season. Furthermore, Shawn Marion or Brendan Haywood might face the chopping block of the Amnesty Provision this offseason.

Smart Mavs watchers look at this situation and salivate at how such flexibility could pave the way for the arrivals of Dwight and Deron to team with Dirk. But in the haste to assemble the next SuperTeam, does anybody stopped to ponder the ramifications of potentially 75 percent of the locker room realizing they might be Dead Mavs Walking?

Lamar Odom is open about the pain he feels from being cast away from the Lakers in pursuit of bigger and better (LA's failed pursuit of Chris Paul). Logic suggests Odom may harbor some of those same feelings of unrequited love creeping up with his current team, as he knows his return next year is unlikely.  

An acknowledgement of his need to devote himself to his new team came from Odom on Saturday, after Dallas tuned up for its Lakers meeting with a 99-60 drubbing of Sacramento. He credited Kobe Bryant with teaching him "loyalty" and said he owed that loyalty to Dirk and his "brothers in this locker room" – the Mavs' locker room.

We saw last year what it takes to make a team with only one transcendent talent special: It takes chemistry. Flow on offense, Dirk being the best player on the planet for two months, and defense brought the Mavericks their first Larry O'Brien. Two of those three are dependent on cohesion that only time and shared hardships bring. In the superstar-driven NBA, the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts to capture a championship.

The Mavs must rely on chemistry in pursuit of more contention. But they are simultaneously pursuing The 3D Blueprint, and maybe it's a tricky and delicate thing trying to do both.

Lamar Odom has talked a lot about a variety of factors that have weighed him down this season. In our visits with him, he seems quite introspective. At least three times that we've known of since last summer, he's granted an "exclusive interview" to reveal that he considered retirement this offseason. He recently told a group of reporters, "Some things happen that took me away from the game; took some time off. You've got to be right mentally as a person first before you do any of this."

There are a lot of reasons he's not "right mentally." Tonight, as the Mavs tangle again with the team they eliminated 4-0 in last year's playoffs (a Lakers flop that helped motivate them to make the changes that helped Odom land in Dallas), Lamar being in the "wrong uniform" could add to the reasons.

We can scoff cynically at his struggles and say things to the guy at the next barstool like, "If you paid me millions, I'd damn sure be able to separate my personal life from my business." And maybe it's true. But the Mavs braintrust will handle Lamar Odom like family, and we bet he needs that, as does Delonte, as does Jet, as does maybe every member of a contending team in flux.

The Mavs challenge, tonight in Los Angeles and beyond, is to convince Lamar Odom to go ahead and take the risk -- to "put all his eggs in one basket."