Are the Lakers already in trouble?

Despite being outmuscled and outhustled by the Boston Celtics in the Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers enter the season as the odds-on favorite to win the title. With the up-and-coming Andrew Bynum returning from injury, their status as favorites does some sense. But there is already trouble in Lala Land, as the coaching staff can’t figure out how to best utilize the talent on the roster. There are two issues at hand: 1) Lamar Odom is in the final year of his contract and has always been a bad fit for the triangle offense and 2) it’s no sure thing that Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol can play well together.

Heading into the season, the team seemed intent on moving Gasol to power forward and starting Bynum at center, so much so that Phil Jackson suggested that Lamar Odom might come off the bench. While the trio would make a long and formidable frontline, none of them can hit a jumper outside of 15 feet, and even that’s a stretch. Defenses would simply pack the lane, which would make it next to impossible for Kobe Bryant to get to the rim.

For his part, Odom bristled at the idea of coming off the bench.

“He must have woke up and bumped his head. He probably hit his head on something — boom,” Odom said about Jackson. “To start off like that, you’ve got to be out of your . . . mind.”

“I’ll make you a deal. If my armpits smell like roses, I’ll come off the bench.”

I could write a thousand words about why Odom’s umbrage at the prospect of moving to a sixth man role proves that he’s selfish and thinking only (or mainly) of himself, but suffices to say, he’s in the final year of his contract and he doesn’t want his stats to take a hit. The better his numbers, the better the contract he’s going to get next summer.

(Of course, there’s the argument that a selfless move to the bench that resulted into a NBA title would only serve to enhance his value. If a sixth man role is good enough for Manu Ginobili, then it’s good enough for Lamar Odom. Period.)

Okay, so Odom isn’t willing to be a sixth man. Now Jackson is experimenting with the idea of playing him at point guard.

Odom, who has already clashed with Jackson in training camp, has brought the ball up court for the Lakers in their first two days of practice.

Derek Fisher has shifted to a shooting-guard role on offense and Kobe Bryant has moved to small forward.

The concept, if it sticks, has its pros and cons.

Odom, 6 feet 10, could post up smaller point guards, though the team would lose some of his offensive rebounding if he stayed out on the perimeter.

When I heard this, I really did think that Jackson had bumped his head. I don’t know if the idea of Odom running the point has any pros, but it certainly has some cons. The notion that he’d be able to “post up smaller point guards” is ridiculous as no opposing coach in his right mind is going to ask his point guard to defend Odom. Moreover, it still doesn’t address the issue of the Lakers having three guys on the court that can’t hit a consistent jump shot. Whether Odom is on the wing or at the top of the key is irrelevant; defenses can still pack the lane and take Kobe’s penetration away. Besides, the triangle offense doesn’t really have or need a traditional point guard, so Odom would essentially just bring the ball up and get the team into its offense. I don’t see the point. (No pun intended.)

Now there’s talk of Bynum coming off the bench, mainly because he and Gasol aren’t playing very well together.

“Right now, they’re very clumsy; they’re not working well together,” Jackson said Monday. “We’ve got a group that played very well together last year. There are some things that we have to discuss and see how long we drag this out — or how quickly we facilitate it, because I think we have got the ability to play exceptionally well if we use all our skill players.”

Said [Assistant Coach Tex] Winter: “The complexion of our team changes considerably when you’re playing Gasol and Bynum together. That’s going to be a real project to work that out so both those guys can play up to their potential and really show what they can do.”

I think that Bynum and Gasol will eventually find a way to fit with each other. Gasol is decent facing the hoop and is able to work the elbow and the wing, but for either guy to have enough space to operate, they need to be surrounded by three guys capable of hitting jump shots with consistency. That brings us back to Odom.

I just don’t see how the three of them on the court at the same time is going to work. And we’re talking about three of the team’s top four players. This is a major issue.

If I’m Odom, I would embrace the role of sixth man. I’d rather anchor the bench unit at 30 minutes than start and play fourth- or fifth-fiddle for 35 minutes. But clearly, Odom is not of the same mindset. This leads me to believe that after some experimentation in the first month or two of the season, the Lakers will trade Odom for a more complementary player. They already have $10.4 million per season invested in two other small forwards – Luke Walton and Vladimir Radmanovic – but neither guy is starter quality on a championship team. Walton can play defense but lacks any semblance of a consistent jump shot, while Radmanovic can shoot but can’t play a lick of D. So, if they trade Odom, they’ll need to land a player who can space the court with his outside jumper while also holding his own defensively. (If Trevor Ariza improves his jump shot, and that’s a BIG “if,” he could ultimately fill this role.)

So who should the Lakers trade for?

The Ron Artest ship has sailed, but they might want to swing a deal for Shane Battier, if the Rockets would be willing to give him up. It’s doubtful that either team would want to risk helping the other, but it probably makes sense for both sides. Odom is probably best as a power forward, while Battier is better at small forward. With Artest and Tracy McGrady (who can also play off guard), the Rockets have a glut at the position. Mike Miller is an obvious candidate, but after the uproar over the Grizzlies’ decision to “trade” Gasol to the Lakers, they were unlikely to work out a deal for Miller. Now that he’s in Minnesota, that becomes a possibility again, though it’s doubtful that the Timberwolves would want to take on Odom (or his salary) when they have their power forward of the future (Kevin Love). Orlando’s Hedo Turkoglu is another possibility, as both he and Odom are in the final years of their contracts and the Magic could slide Rashard Lewis to small forward. However, the Magic will probably elect to keep Turkoglu because they need shooters to space the floor for Dwight Howard. Richard Jefferson would have been a great fit, but that’s no longer an option now that he’s in Milwaukee, and the Nets would rather have a young prospect (Yi Jianlian) than an aging vet like Odom. Andres Nocioni would be an interesting acquisition. He’s a hard-nosed player who has a nice jump shot and can defend. He should be starting this league, but is playing behind Luol Deng in Chicago. Maybe the Bulls would be interested in Odom? Or how about a swap with Miami for Shawn Marion? He’d be the most expensive option on this list, but he also has the most talent.

Whomever they find, Odom is still the odd man out. He’s unwilling to even consider the idea of coming off the bench yet his lack of perimeter skills makes it impossible to play him alongside Gasol and Bynum. The three could make for a great rotation at power forward and center, but that means someone has to swallow his pride and come off the bench.

Thus far, it looks like Odom is unwilling to be that guy.

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