That’s the nagging question that’s been hanging in the air for the Los Angeles Lakers for a while now, ever since 2004 really, when the team cut loose center Shaquille O’Neal and coach Phil Jackson and the slow-down version of the triangle offense that had won them three championships.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss admitted then that he really didn’t like the triangle.
Buss wanted to return to the glory days of yore, to Showtime, when he had the majestic 6-9 Magic Johnson snaring a rebound on the defensive glass, then running a fastbreak that left opponents dizzy.
With Jackson’s firing, the team brought in Rudy Tomjanovich and began rebuilding the roster into a running team. The 6-9 Odom with the silky smooth open-court skills was a key acquisition for constructing the new-and-improved, up-tempo Lakers. Like the Magic of Showtime, Odom had the size to secure the defensive rebound and the ballhandling skills to power out on the fastbreak. Dude was born to run and feed the ball to teammates filling the lanes.
Only problem was, Buss’s dream soon derailed. First, the NBA of the new century is not the NBA of the 1980s. Jump-starting the pure running game proved oh so hard to do. Rudy T stepped down during a disastrous 2005 season, and that summer the Lakers rehired Jackson and his triangle approach.
All of a sudden, the elegant Odom was marooned. Like a racehorse hitched to a hay wagon.
With the behemoth Shaq gone, Jackson no longer insisted on running the triangle offense at a slug’s pace. Triangle guru Tex Winter had long been urging Jackson to run more, even with Shaq still around.
Odom gave the Lakers an opportunity to go, and to Jackson’s credit, he turned the team loose a bit and found some ways to take advantage of Odom’s gifts.
Still, the triangle features much half-court action, and the Lakers often found themselves slowed in the halfcourt, trying to move through the triangle options.
Lord knows that Odom has tried to get it. He’s always shown the team-first attitude. He’s a lovely, warm, genuine person. The Lakers adore him. But he has never been a good fit for the triangle. His hesitation in it feeds his inconsistency, Tex Winter has fussed over the past three seasons.
At first, Jackson likened Odom to Scottie Pippen, the versatile forward who ran the offense and set the table for Michael Jordan when Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls to six championships.
Alas, we knew Scottie Pippen, and Odom is no Pippen.
The Lakers front office has hemmed and hawed and kicked the tires, thinking about trading Odom several times over the years. But every time they thought about trading him they apparently got visions of what would happen if Odom fell into the hands of an evil genius such as Dr. Mike D’Antoni, once of the Phoenix Suns and now of the New York Knicks.
Basketball hell is giving up a talented player who then becomes the secret ingredient to the success of one of your sworn enemies.
Problem is, Odom’s such a talented, intriguing player that he presents a challenge for Jackson on how to use him. If the coaching staff could only harness that talent. …
The best answer the Lakers coaches could come up with was to move him to power forward, where he could rebound, defend and benefit from mismatches with slower opponents. That worked to a degree, but it left several things unresolved.
First, there was the open-court element of Odom’s talent just going to waste. That’s the kind of thing that keeps coaches awake at night.
Then there were the obvious things exposed in last year’s NBA championship series against the Celtics. Caught in the frontcourt playing in the triangle offense, Odom was often pretty damn good. But there were also numerous times he presented the figure of an unsure, inconsistent player.
The coaching staff was able to rationalize such inefficiency so long as the Lakers were winning and moving through the playoffs. But in the championship series, Los Angeles became a team exposed for its lack of mental toughness and inconsistency – and Odom became something of a poster child for those issues.
Plus the Lakers now face another head-scratcher. Center Andrew Bynum returns from injury this season, which moves Pau Gasol back to power forward. The Lakers hope to run a Twin Towers approach with the two 7-footers, although Winter has his doubts it'll work in the “Small Is Beautiful” NBA of 2008.
Gasol at power forward would mean moving Odom to small forward, or so it seemed. (Actually, Odom remains an insurance policy. If the Twin Towers doesn’t work, he returns to power forward).
But as every single person in the Western World has learned by now, Jackson opened training camp this year by suggesting that Odom perhaps come off the bench. He made this announcement, of course, without discussing the issue at length with Odom himself.
Now, if you’ve ever played for Jackson, or played on a team that has gone up against Jackson, the last thing you want to do is trigger one of his mind games.
Unfortunately, it’s what Phil does best.
“Phil is the master of mind games,” Jordan said back in 1996 of the master manipulation that Jackson practiced.
Later, Jordan watched Jackson coach the Lakers and he declared, “He’s still the master of mind games, only better. He challenges you mentally. That’s his strong point.”
These mind games come in such variety that many times the people around Jackson proceed through the game without even being aware that they are participating, that he has engaged them in it and manipulated them. (He is magnificent at manipulating the media; reporters often seem least aware of his skill, perhaps because they're easy suckers for the ego candy he feeds them).
His players are usually a bit smarter than reporters, so they have at least a dim awareness.
“There’s meanings in everything and why things are done not everyone always knows,” Bill Wennington, who played for Jackson in Chicago, explained. “Phil is a really deep thinker, and everything he says seems to have a lot of thought put into it. Most of the things he says have at least two meanings, and at times you have to figure out which one he means. But that’s part of Phil. He wants you to think; he wants you to figure out what’s going on. He doesn’t want you to do things just by rote, and he uses that term a lot. He wants you to think and know what’s going on and why you’re doing things.”
In the process of thinking about what Jackson has said to them, players sometimes discover that there was even a third or fourth intended meaning, Wennington said.
“At times you think back and you find a third or fourth meaning that you maybe didn’t see it right away. He knows how to push buttons and get guys going and get them to achieve goals that maybe other people can’t get.”
Odom, having played for Jackson for three seasons, is fully aware of his mind games. That didn’t stop the forward from complaining openly and vehemently about the idea of coming off the bench.
Perhaps Odom trumped Jackson by responding vociferously to the coach’s trial balloon.
After all, Jackson abruptly changed tactics. Now, it seems, the Lakers are ready to try Odom handling the ball and playing some point guard, or point forward, with veteran Derek Fisher moving to off guard and Kobe Bryant moving to small forward.
Just maybe, though, as Bill Wennington would allege, this is what Jackson wanted all along.
Some veteran Lakers observers might fuss that Odom can’t play point guard for the team because he still doesn’t know the triangle well enough.
Then again, Fisher has always been able to get the Lakers into their half-court offense. He knows the triangle well. If he’s there at 2 guard, he can easily take over in those half-court situations. And maybe, like Ron Harper did in Chicago, Odom will finally get the hang of the triangle.
And Bryant at the small forward? That’s where the Lakers like to play him on offense anyway.
Maybe Jackson had wanted to move Odom from power forward all along, so he simply challenged Odom’s status as a starter. Suddenly Odom was so worried about being a starter – he has been a starter his entire basketball life – that he didn’t bother anymore about being a power forward.
Maybe that’s what Jackson wanted all along, that, as usual, he was playing chess a couple of moves ahead of everybody else.
Fact is, with Jackson, you never really know. It’s only after he’s gotten his way that you’re left to figure out what really happened.
Across the continent in Charlotte, where he sits these days as an owner/operator of the Bobcats while keeping an interested eye on Jackson and the Lakers, Jordan is surely smiling.
He knows Phil usually manages to get what he wants.