It's too early to write off the Clippers' season. Lamar Odom doesn't get that same benefit.
He has failed.
He let down his team, his fans, himself.
When the Clippers need someone to take their hand and guide them in the right direction, their best player will wander off into a minimum five-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug program, the NBA announced Monday.
That's twice now. Two more times than any other star player in the league, one more time than is even remotely acceptable.
When he was suspended in March, he said it wouldn't happen again. He failed to deliver on that promise.
Because of the cloak of secrecy surrounding the NBA's drug policy, the details aren't available. The team doesn't know exactly what went wrong and couldn't talk about it even if it did. At tipoff of Monday night's game against the Atlanta Hawks, Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor had not heard back from Odom. Odom's cell phone wasn't accepting messages.
Odom's punishment fits the description of a marijuana violation. Whether this latest suspension is because he had another positive test or because he didn't follow the aftercare program is unknown.
The educated guess is that he tested positive.
The only thing we know definitively is that he failed.
The drug policy says suspension is warranted when a player "fails to comply with his treatment program through (A) a pattern of behavior that demonstrates a mindful disregard for his treatment responsibilities, or (B) a positive test for marijuana that is not clinically expected by the Medical Director."
Well, Odom failed.
His teammates wouldn't put it in those terms. Michael Olowokandi, Sean Rooks, Keyon Dooling, they all kept talking about "support"--even though the team went 1-4 during last season's suspension when Odom wasn't in the games to support them.
"When families slip, you go there and try to help them out," Olowokandi said. "This isn't the time to be judgmental at all."
"People make mistakes," Rooks said.
Odom is so likable that it's hard to stay angry at him.
But Clipper Coach Alvin Gentry wasn't in a very forgiving mood Monday. It didn't help that he had just been slapped with a $7,500 fine for verbally abusing an official Saturday night.
"It's ridiculous that it's happening," Gentry said of Odom's suspension. "It shouldn't be happening. We're very disappointed."
The Clippers have a major financial decision to make. Next summer they'll have to choose whether or not to invest in Odom--and the future of the franchise--by signing him to a contract extension that could top $80 million.
What once was a no-brainer ( sign the check, Donald ) now becomes a tough call. Can the Clippers really afford to commit that much money and wave goodbye to any salary-cap flexibility for someone as unreliable as Odom?
Lamar Odom and doubts, Lamar Odom and drugs.
Haven't we been down this road before? Yep. The path is starting to look like a NASCAR track.
Drug rumors and some doubts about his character bumped him from the top spot in the 1999 draft down to the fourth pick, which is where the Clippers found him.
That little slip cost him about $2.5 million over the first three years of his career--the difference between what the No. 1 pick and the No. 4 pick make, according to the rookie salary scale.
That's nothing compared to what this blunder could mean for Odom's long-term financial future. His next contract also sets the stage for the subsequent contract, which starts on a percentage basis from the final year.
How could Odom light up with so much at stake?
There's no excuse.
He turns 22 today. In the real world that would be time to be out of college, living on your own, accepting responsibility.
For all of the bad choices Kobe Bryant made during games as an 18-year-old rookie, at least he stayed out of trouble off the court.
The Clippers thought they had it all, because they wound up trading for 1999's No. 1 pick, Elton Brand, over the summer.
In Brand, they have a player who shared rookie-of-the-year honors with Steve Francis two seasons ago.
In Odom, they have a big question mark.
The last time Odom was suspended, the NBA announced it on the same day (and the same sheet of paper) as Isaiah Rider's drug suspension. If there's any player in the league with whom you don't want to be linked, it's Rider.
A few more drug suspensions and people will mention Odom in the same sentence as Roy Tarpley.
Odom can still determine his final destination. But so far he has made too many wrong turns, heading in the direction of failure.
J.A. Adande can be reached at: email@example.com