|Odom (7) went from elite to bust in under a year, but that may not be the end of his NBA story. (Getty Images)|
PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- Chris Paul's eyes light up often, because he is one of the most expressive, dynamic stars we have in basketball. Whether it's the sight of Blake Griffin diving to the rim for an alley-oop or the sensation of a gold medal being draped around his neck, Paul gives of himself in this sport -- gives you talent and emotion and more thrills than you think you deserve.
So to see Paul's eyes open wide at the mere mention of the name Lamar Odom was something to behold. Here was Paul answering questions Thursday at the Clippers' extravagant practice facility in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a city he has made his home and a place that is home to Odom like no other since his youth as a New York City kid -- a kid born and raised 2,500 miles away who has found comfort here, again.
"Just talking to him every day and seeing how excited he is just to be back," Paul said, not finishing the thought and not needing to. "At times, he says he almost feels like a rookie all over again. So I'm excited for him most of all just because he's ready to go."
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In 2010-11, Odom was sixth man of the year for the Lakers in arguably the best season of his career. He averaged nearly a double-double (14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds) and shot career-high percentages from the field (.530) and the 3-point line (.382). The Lakers' season ended in misery and disgrace against the Mavericks with a sweep in the second round of the playoffs. Changes were coming in Lakerland, but Odom never imagined the changes would revolve around him.
He was traded to those same Mavericks for a trade exception -- a move that was puzzling at first, until that trade exception later turned into Steve Nash. But what happened in the days, weeks and months surrounding Odom's unceremonious exit from L.A. overshadowed any basketball move, any maneuvering by Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak to pull off the improbable additions of Nash and Dwight Howard an offseason later.
Still scarred by the July 2011 murder of his 24-year-old cousin, which was followed by a fatal accident in which Odom was an innocent passenger in a chauffeured SUV, one of the most talented basketball players to come out of New York City in decades was rendered incapable of playing the game he was born to play. From sixth man of the year and career statistical milestones, Odom plummeted from a top-40 player in the league -- not to 50, or 60, but to one of the most ineffective players on any court, in any arena.
His TMZ/VH-1 life with wife Khloe Kardashian -- his life as a Laker, which is like no other basketball life there is -- had come crashing down. Odom's averages plummeted to the impossible levels of 6.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists, less than half his career marks in all categories. His shooting percentages dropped to .352 from the field and .252 from 3-point range, Odom's worst accuracy since he was 22 years old. He was so bad, and had become such a distraction, that the defending-champion Mavs eventually paid him to stay away.
Odom is 32 now, desperate for a fresh start back in L.A. with the Clippers, where he was mercifully traded in June. He's without question the biggest wild card for L.A.'s other team as it tries to reload after last spring's 4-0 loss to the Spurs in the conference semifinals.
"It's good to be back home," Odom said Thursday. "My grandmother used to always say, 'Everything comes back around, 360 degrees.' "
This was the grandmother who died in 2004, after Odom had lost his mother to colon cancer when he was only 12. In 2006, Odom suffered the unspeakable grief of losing his son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. To this day, Odom writes the word "Jayden" on his shoes when he plays, along with the address of the home where he was raised in the Jamaica section of Queens.
But make no mistake: For Odom, L.A. is home. And if he can regain his conditioning, his desire, his shooting touch and his all-around basketball gifts, he might just be the key to the Clippers' restocked roster as they try to take the next step, contend with the Lakers and persuade Paul to be a Clipper by choice rather than simply by trade.
After GM Neil Olshey left for Portland, successor Gary Sacks surrounded Paul with some potentially dynamic role players and the kind of veteran know-how that might've pushed the Clippers past San Antonio and into the conference finals last spring. And Paul, who can become a free agent after the season, was personally involved in many of the moves, which included the acquisitions of Jamal Crawford, Willie Green, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes and Odom.
"The guys that we have here know what it's all about," Paul said. "We have guys with championship experience, a lot of playoff experience, that have been traded and been in different situations. And all the guys here understand that it's more than just basketball when you try to become a team."
The Clippers will celebrate Hill's 40th birthday -- 40! -- before heading to China for exhibition games. Given their mostly laughable past before Paul got here, it somehow seems appropriate that they will have to travel halfway across the world on the first leg of this journey to persuade Paul to stay right where he is.
His expectation and excitement are "pretty high," Paul said. And though he's close friends with Green, his former teammate in New Orleans, it's clear that the new addition he's most excited about is Odom.
"It's unreal just to watch him out on the court because you see him and [DeAndre Jordan] standing next to each other and they're looking eye-to-eye, but LO can do things with the ball that I do and things that I can't do," Paul said. "And the way he sees the court and all of that, it's going to be a lot of fun."
Fun; something Odom desperately needs to find on the basketball court again.
"This is what I was born to do," Odom said. "I've been doing this a long time, at a high level. So I look forward trying to help this team win some games, help incorporate their winning mentality."
The Clippers haven't even played a preseason game yet, and already Paul is uneasily dancing around questions about his future. Asked what kind of success would be acceptable to him, he said, "We'll do that as a team. We have to define those goals for ourselves."
Perhaps no one's impact has the potential to be greater than Odom's, who could lift the Clippers from mere playoff team to something much more if his mind and body don't betray him again.
"I've been through a lot," Odom said. "Seen a lot. Sometimes, what somebody is feeling or what they've been through off the court can affect them on the court."
And now? Now that another nightmarish time in the life of Lamar Odom is behind him?
"I'm healthy, I'm happy and I'm ready to go out and perform," he said.
The future of the Clippers might just depend on it.