Recent rumblings have suggested that the LA Lakers are toying with the idea of sending starting Power Forward Lamar Odom to the bench. There are several considerations that recommend this move, but probably the biggest issue would be deciding who would start in Odom's spot. The move with the highest potential payoff is promoting Trevor Ariza to the starting lineup. This move, however, is fraught with risk.
Lamar Odom came to Los Angeles for the 2004/05 season in the deal that sent out Shaquille O'Neal. He has played in more than 250 games since joining the Lakers, playing either Forward spot, initiating the offense on occasion, and filling in as the biggest man on the court in rare instances as well. But Odom's willingness to play whatever spot the Lakers have asked him to is too frequently outweighed by his unwillingness (or inability depending upon whom you ask) to remain aggressive as a scoring option. With limited shooting from distance, and two behemoths manning the 4 and 5 spots for the upcoming season, Odom's lack of aggressiveness could force management's hand. He simply lacks a skill set that will allow a Small Forward to thrive in the current Lakers' lineup.
This is precisely where Trevor Ariza becomes intriguing. While Ariza is not much of an outside shooter, a casual fan may not have noticed that in more than 200 games in his career prior to coming to LA, Ariza hit just four three-point shots in 28 attempts. This amounts to an incredibly poor percentage (14%) and an incredibly low shooting rate (1 per 134 minutes of game play). Meanwhile, Ariza hit 5 of 15 shots from the arc with the Lakers. That's 33% and one shot per 29 minutes. These numbers come in a very limited sample size, but it is suggestive of Ariza's willingness to make his game more dynamic and fit the team around him. Apart from an otherwise unremarkable jump shot, Ariza is an efficient offensive player, who shot 52% from the floor largely on slashing moves to the hoop. A solid rebounder despite his lack of bulk, Ariza also uses his length to benefit in passing situations. His ast/to ratio (nearly 2:1) was just slightly better than Odom's, who, while touted as a skilled passer, is a poor decision-maker. So Ariza's offensive game is at least adequate and arguably better suited for this team's needs than Odom.
Ariza also adds increased ability on the defensive side of the ball. Odom is probably twenty pounds heavier, but Ariza is much more agile, uses his length better, and invests much more pride on defense. None of this is to say that Odom is a poor defender. He has been shoddy at times, but for significant stretches last season he was above average. Ariza's talent lies in the fact that he has relishes the role of being employed to cover opposing teams' best players. He is a timely shot blocker, an adept ball thief, and plays with full intensity. While fans frequently complain about Odom's "coasting," that label is wholly inappropriate for Ariza, who plays all out.
So where is the risk in moving Odom to the bench? His scoring, assuming he is not considered a first or second option, and rebounding would energize a second unit. There is, however, always a risk to moving a player from the starting lineup to the bench. Consider Luke Walton. It may be said that he played so well as he did in 06/07 because he was in a contract season. That is true. On the other hand, it could be said that the move from being a starter in 06/07 (he started all 65 games he appeared in during 06/07) to losing the starting spot accounted for his epic decline. Walton shot 2.4% worse on FGs, 5.4% worse on threes, and 3.9% worse on FTs, and was roundly criticized by LA faithful. With this in mind, the consequences of sending Odom to the bench must be considered. Playing as he does currently, he would be a huge lift to the second unit. Playing even more inefficiently, Odom would be an incredibly pricey disaster.
There is one further risk: Ariza's health. In four seasons, Ariza has averaged 56 games per season. Over the past three seasons, that average falls to 50. He has not appeared in more than 60 games since his rookie season and appeared in just 35 last season. Questions about a congenital defect in his foot, the same foot that caused him to miss three months last year, linger and make the likelihood of his appearing in a full season a slender hope. Add in increased minutes that come along with starting (he has averaged 18 minutes per game in his career) and the odds of a breakdown must be countenanced.
As with any roster tinkering, the pros and cons of moving Odom out of the starting lineup must be weighed heavily before committing to a move. He may not work out. And if he does not, consider Ariza the best fit given the surrounding team's skills and skill gaps. The potential reward is huge: Phil Jackson would have his Doberman on defense, a solid rebounder, a good slasher, and a fiery competitor. Next to Kobe Bryant, and with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol in the low post and veteran sniper Derek Fisher at the Point, the Lakers could be significantly better than they were last season. Yet for all Ariza's potential as a difference-maker, the risk factor remains quite high.