We at OTB have been all over this summer's NBA free agency season. What with the major pieces falling in to place, it's time to take a step back and look at what really it all means for next season. To begin with, a little recap. San Antonio started it all off by trading for Richard Jefferson. Cleveland announced the trade for Shaq shortly afterwards. The Magic quickly made this series of acquisitions into an arms race by going off and trading for Vince Carter (oh, and by the way, who wins in an arms race but the profiteers?), effectively showing Hedo Turkoglu the door. Then, late Friday, Ron Artest announced his desire and reciprocated intention to sign with the Lakers. The Celtics, meanwhile, worked to get in on the fun by sending a handful of reps to persuade Rasheed Wallace to play for them, though Carter has been outspoken about wanting Rasheed to make Orlando into the new San Antonio Spurs and the original land of the aging free agents has also come calling.
In all the furor over the Artest signing and the courtship of Rasheed (interesting how they're both landing coastal/major-market since Detroit-Indiana), I think there still remains a player out there who could affect this whole scene. His name is Lamar Odom. Not only do the Lakers NEED to re-sign him now that Ariza is gone and Odom-pal Artest is in the fold, the Lakers need to sign him because he is their emotional core. If he departs, the chemistry in Lala-land looks a lot less hunky-dory. I could talk specific player dynamics and interaction, or I could give you one eye opening macrophenomenal reason Odom is so important right now.
First, let's look at the other teams. Who are the emotional leaders there? Lebron, obviously, in Cleveland. Garnett in Boston. Chauncey Billups on the conspicuously quiet Nuggets. Duncan and Pop in SA. Dwight How...well, we'll get to the Magic in a second. And those are your honest to goodness contenders for next season. And none of them stack up well against the Lakers if Lamar Odom re-signs. Here's why.
When you look at a team's chemistry, their emotional make-up and composure, you don't always look to the most emotional or talented player for that. You look slightly to the left. Okay, in Cleveland, Lebron makes his own way, but perhaps that's cause for concern. In Boston, it's not KG that leads the team in huddles and pre-game chants, it's Paul Pierce. Though 'Melo is the most talented player in Denver and Chris "Birdman" Anderson is the most fiery, it took Chauncey to make them into the contender they now are. San Antonio is so professional it doesn't need an emotional nexus, and I can probably get away with saying that because they take after their coach.
And what about Orlando? Where do they get their emotional center? It's not from their big, affable superstar of a center. No, he was too busy trying to figure out a post move or else bashing his coach for trying to hide his struggles. I honestly think Dwight will get there, but he's not there yet. He's still on call out, folks. Where else could the Magic turn for their emotional core? Not Rashard Lewis. He's too busy trying not to make mistakes, because he thinks that justifies his huge contract. (Please drive more next season, Rashard. Show us that brashness that put you in the green room even though it turned out so horribly.) Jameer Nelson is only three years older than D-Ho and only now coming in to his own as a player. AND coming off of injury. Maybe, someday, he too will be able to team with D-Ho in leadership, but for now the Magic are struggling in that department.
Don't look for Vinsanity to step into that void, either. He played second fiddle to Devin Harris (and there are very few emotions, channel-able ones at least, on a team that lost as much as New Jersey did last year) and has been shrinking from leadership for years now. But let's look at all that player movement. Turkoglu, probably moving North of the border next year, was the closest thing to an emotional leader the Magic had on their run to the finals. What about the solid six? Denver's not making any substantial moves, and San Antonio's not going anywhere. Cleveland and Boston, however, have committed incredibly risky nexus faux pas in their free agent acquisitions.
Lebron has been the established leader in everything for that team since he got there, which reminds me a little of a queen bee and how the rest of her hive are simply extensions of her will. Didn't you kind of get that feeling watching him orchestrate those pre-game antics last year? Now, the Big Jester is coming to town, and though you suspect Steve Nash or Ama're Stoudamire should have been more of a focal point for that Phoenix team's personality, Shaq totally dominated the way that team functioned, to the point of mimicking Lebron's movements. I have no doubt the two will get along in 09-10, and the rest of the Cavs will probably love Shaq, but what I'd be concerned with if I was Danny Ferry, Mike Brown, and the King, is whether or not Shaq will become the attitudinal core of that team to the point of making Lebron's championship aspirations slightly marginalized.
The Celtics, in bringing in Rasheed, also bring in a personality who's used to be being the nucleus of his team's composition. Oftentimes Rasheed doesn't get the respect he deserves for being an emotional leader, but he's always been that. Sure, he goes off on refs and shatters records for technical fouls, but he's also the guy who cares deeply for the other players, who doesn't care how many touches he gets as long as his team's feng shui is satisfied. Actually, I think Lamar Odom is better at accurately sensing his team's needs and metamorphosing to meet them. So, I kinda tongued my cheek at the Palace Brawl earlier, and I want to bring in one salient fact. Rasheed did not get suspended because of the tussle. Smart maybe--you don't need a team mate to be as gung-ho loyal as Stephen Jackson was--but even Reggie Miller got a one game suspension. I think Lamar would be there for his team mates, and Rasheed is a little bit too chilled out.
In many ways, Lamar and Rasheed are the most similar players in this free agent class. Here's the one telling piece of evidence you need to see: both Lamar and Rasheed lead their teams in pre-game rituals. That's right. It wasn't Kobe or Derek Fisher or Phil Jackson in the middle of that 1-2-3-ring! circle the Lakers ran last season; it was Lamar. In the same fashion, Rasheed led the Pistons in pre-game fervor-stirring (this dance has more energy than the one above, that's just a better shot video). Despite the similarities, Lamar's signing will be more important than Rasheed's. Why? Because no team should have more than one emotional firebrand. The Magic have none. The Cavs and Celts now have two.
Ron Artest, despite the wake of soundbytes he creates, will not disrupt this balance for the Lakers. On the Rockets, Ron-Ron allowed Shane Battier to be the man leading the chants. He sacrificed in the wrong ways, speaking to the media and having the loudest on-court game but never fully developing as an emotional leader. On the Lakers, he will complement Lamar as Kobe already does. In my mind, I imagine a bi-pedal emotional structure, like the dinosaurs that eventually became birds. Artest and Bryant are the legs that can push off from the media baseline, and Fisher is the tail that provides balance. Odom is the body that will allow this team to grow and take to the sky.