The Gift and the Curse

Darius Soriano —  July 5, 2009

NBA: MAY 06 Conference Semifinals - Rockets at Lakers - Game 2

I want to preface this post with the fact that I am truly going to miss Trevor Ariza.  I wrote about Ariza a little while back and expressed my opinion that we should keep him.  So, losing Trevor is a blow to me as a Lakers fan.  At this moment, I have strong opinions about his agent, the manner in which Trevor has departed our team, and having to defend a title without a player that I truly thought of as a core contributor to our success.  Losing Ariza is a sad turn of events for me.  I can only wish him the best and hope he continues to grow into the player that we all think he can be.  All that said, we are moving on (but before we do – one more look at what we did!).  So the focus of this post is only on the newest Laker: Ron Artest.

There are so many variables to the Lakers’ acquisition of Ron Artest that my head is spinning.  I am excited and terrified at the same time.  The only comparison I can make is being at the top of a climb on a roller coaster and we are about to start the dashing descent that is both exhilarating and fear inducing at the same time.  As Kurt said so simply (and yet aptly) Ron Artest will be a Laker.  Six simple words and suddenly a swell of thoughts, emotions, gut reactions, and rationalizations hit these boards and media outlets all at once.

Personally, I don’t have a fully defined opinion yet.  In the past, whenever talks swirled around a potential Artest acquisition, I was firmly against it.  For one, those talks always centered on replacing Odom with Artest and I was flat out opposed to that.  Secondly, any potential trade for Artest usually involved the Lakers taking back some awful contract that would have killed our cap flexibility for that and future seasons.  Third, I wondered whether his game would mesh with the team we had in place and whether or not all the previously mentioned factors would skew his role and make him out to be some sort of savior to our team and its championship aspirations (which is the exact type of mentality that inspires the dreaded “hero mode” from Artest that we all cheered for as opponents).  Basically, acquiring this type of player under these circumstances was a non-starter for me; I didn’t even want to have the conversation.

All that said, I have always been a fan of Artest’s talent and ability.  I’ve always viewed him as a very good player that could be a contributor on a title contender.  Though that belief was always dependent on what team he went to and if that team would have the requisite players, coaches, offensive and defensive systems, and environment to inspire Ron to contribute in a meaningful way.  You see, not all contenders are built the same.  And while they share many of the same ingredients, they don’t always have the same personalities or egos or schemes that would enable a player like Artest to make a positive, sustained impact.  But now, there is no more debating – Artest is a Laker.  He will be a member of this team and be depended on to contribute.  So, the question is: are the Lakers the team that can inspire the best that Artest has to offer?  Lets explore some of the variables on our team and how Ron will fit in.

Offense: It’s well understood that the Lakers are Triangle team.  Almost all of our players have either been brought in specifically because they provide the skills to contribute in this offense or because their talent level is so high that the coaches have seamlessly integrated them and gotten the most out of them as contributors.  Whether we’re discussing Luke or Gasol, Sasha or Odom, our guys have been viewed within the context of what roles they can fill in making our offense successful.  So, where does Ron fit in?

If we’re talking offensive skills, Ron Artest is the prototypical Triangle SF.  He can handle the ball to initiate offense, shoot the jumpshot from long or midrange, pass well, move well without the ball, set good screens, be a beast on the offensive glass, and a bull on the low block.  He’s just a fundamentally sound basketball player.  So within our offense, he should be able to utilize his full skill set and operate with a high level of efficiency.  I mean, Ron will have plenty of opportunities to shoot wide open jumpshots as the ball gets swung from strong to weak side after sideline Triangle initiations or pressure releases.  He should also see plenty of post up isolations at the elbow and the low block (ala Kobe) after he cuts to the weakside, sets down screens, and then looks to pin his man.  I would not be surprised to also see Ron operate out of the hub of the Triangle, have the strong side wings cut off of him, and then see Ron use his strength to get high percentage shots at the basket (ala Luke Walton).  Plus, with his perimeter skills, Ron provides the Lakers with another player that can run the P&R and make a good play for either himself or a teammate.  Needless to say, we’ve been looking for this type of all court and multi-skilled player to play SF for us for a long time as he can be a strong finisher in most, if not all, of our sets.

However, finishing is only one aspect of how the SF needs to be effective within our offense.  How will Artest operate within this offense when it’s a teammate and not him that’s in the best position to score?  As many have mentioned before, Ron is the type of player that likes the ball in his hands and likes to make decisions while he holds the ball.  Those instincts will have to be reeled in for him to be successful in this offense.  The Triangle is a system based off ball and player movement where reading and reacting to the opponents defensive tendencies create easy offense and quality shots.  As Michael Jordan once described it, the Triangle is an equal opportunity offense.  And when one player decides he’s going to hold the ball and search and probe for an opening, the offense can easily fall apart (or at least be greatly hampered and then very dependent on high level shot making – like the shots that Kobe takes and makes).  I mean, when Ron is at the pinch post and the cutting wing comes across looking for the hand off, will he deliver the ball or will he hold it and look for his own opportunity?  When he’s in the hub of the Triangle and the player that feeds the post cuts off his shoulder to the baseline side and is open, will he execute the drop pass or will he pound the rock and try to forcefully take his man?  When he has the ball on the extended wing will he make the post entry or will he motion for the big man to come out and set the screen so he can run P&R?  As I stated before, this is an offense with infinite options based off the reads made by the players on the floor.  If one player (especially the player with the ball) reads the defense a certain way, that will dictate the direction of the offense for that possession.  It’s a real concern that Ron will stall our offense as he’ll have ample opportunities to be a decision maker in determining how a possession unfolds.  Will he learn to read the defense in the manner that we need him to and in the manner that his role dictates?  These are all questions that concern me.

Defense: This is the area of the game where Artest will seemingly have his biggest impact.  Perennially considered one of the best defenders in the league and even winning the DPOY award in his career, Artest is used to having tough defensive assignments and revels in these challenges.  Artest’s combination of size, strength, length, anticipation, and good (but not great) lateral quickness has enabled him to excel defensively for his entire career.  But, how will all of these skills and attributes translate to the defensive scheme that we run?

Here is where it’s important to re-emphasize that the Lakers do not run a typical defensive scheme.  Yes, they play plenty of straight up man to man on ball handlers.  But behind the ball handler, the Lakers consistently played a strong side zone.  Ron will often be put in positions while guarding the ball where his goal isn’t only to stay between his man and the basket, but do so while funneling that man to where his help defense is located.  And while this all sounds quite standard, understand that the Lakers help defenders are often positioned in different positions than players in a traditional scheme.  Realize too that for elite on ball defenders, the main goal is to only clamp down their man – not necessarily to contain and shade them in a manner that maximizes the team’s defensive scheme.  He’ll also be asked to trap more than he has in the past and do so without fouling.

Plus, when he’s not guarding the ball and on the weakside, he’ll also be asked to be the helper in a non-traditional way.  Essentially, he’ll be put in situations where his first instinct on where to help may be incorrect.  For example, imagine Ron is on the weakside with Kobe (away from the ball) and then Fisher (guarding the ballhandler), Lamar, and Pau are forming our SSZ.  Now envision a skip pass is executed to Ron’s man (the SF) who is on the opposite wing.  Is it really Ron’s job to rotate to “his” man?  The answer may depend on where Kobe is and the positioning of the players that LO and Pau are matched up with while zoning up the strong side.  In this instance, Ron may actually have lane help responsibilities or he may need to replace (a vacated) Kobe and find the SG.  For such a strong defensive player, it seems strange to question if he’ll be able to play strong defense for us.  But, we are going to ask him to play a scheme that he’s never played before and with that comes a learning curve and also some mistakes.  And considering he’s such a headstrong player, will he be willing to buy into what our defensive concepts are and execute them in the manner that we need him to?  In the end, I think he will be, but it will take patience and teaching from our coaches and acceptance from the player.  This leads us to…

Coaching and Chemistry: It’s been reported that Phil Jackson will return for the final year of his contract.  This confirmation puts to end the rumors of Rambis or Coach K taking over and allows us to concentrate on how Phil will get the most out of Artest.  I actually think a move like this will invigorate Phil in that Artest is the type of player that is a challenge to coach – but challenges that lead to success are often the most rewarding.  In a previous post, Bill Bridges made two key points in regards to Phil and the (potential) mindset of the coaches going into next season:

Given PJ’s track record dealing with Rodman, he is the only one the Lakers could trust to capitalize on the Artest experiment. In other hands, this is a dangerous combustible experiment…The Lakers with Artest loses more regular season games while he learns the triangle and gets integrated into the defensive scheme but has a better chance controlling Denver and Cleveland.  I’ll take that.

As Bill Bridges implies, the Artest acquisition is where Phil’s player management skills will be depended on most.  With Ron now in the fold the rhetoric from Kobe, Fish, and Phil about this team being an easy one to coach or all the players being on the same page is (seemingly) obsolete.  Phil must not only reign in Ron’s penchant for breaking plays and playing outside the system, but he will also need to be patient and accepting of the inevitable growing pains that come with any addition of a new player (especially one the caliber of Artest).  I mean, we all marveled at Gasol’s ability to pick up our offense when he was traded for a season and a half ago.  But many forget Phil’s comments about us running a watered down/simplified version of the Triangle so that Pau would not have to endure such a large learning curve.  Phil may need to make similar adjustments (even with a full training camp) to incorporate Artest into the structure of the team.  As Bill Bridges notes, this may lead to less success in the regular season with the hope that we can grow as a team and gain momentum for another deep playoff run in defense of our championship.  As fans, many will see the addition of Artest and start to talk dynasty.  However, we must understand all facets of integrating a player like Artest and adjust our expectations accordingly.

Again, there will be a transition and adjustments to be made.  So, just like the coaches did with Pau, I can envision Phil using different strategies to take advantage of Ron’s strengths as a player – especially on defense.  Before this past season (particularly with the Bulls), Phil often used a switching man to man defense – relying heavily on versatile defenders that could cover multiple positions.  I would not be surprised to see the Lakers use this type of scheme more this season, especially if we have any combination of Kobe, Artest, Odom, Walton, Pau, Bynum, Fisher, and Sasha on the court.  All of these players have the athleticism, size, and/or strength to guard multiple positions with diverse skills.  I could also see Phil using Ron in the Odom role in our SSZ and using his instincts and defensive presence to maximize our defensive strategy.  In other words, I look for even more impact from the coaches this season whether they’re related to player management or strategic adjustments.

But it will not just be on the coaches.  The players are going to need to help Artest in his assimilation by accepting him into the team while also not being enveloped by his strong personality.  I think this will be easier with Kobe, Fisher, and Odom being forceful and/or charismatic leaders and deserving of respect (assuming that Ron’s long time friend Odom is retained).  But for the younger more impressionable Lakers, this may be more of a challenge and will need constant monitoring.  By all accounts, Ron is a very good teammate that is willing to back up his mates at any and all costs.  However, that type of recklessness can also inspire people to act in similar ways and I’d prefer that we take on the personality of our coach or Kobe or Fisher than that of the fiery (and borderline loose cannon) Artest.  One of the major strengths of our team has been our chemistry and any new acquisition will test that togetherness.  Will he fit in?  Will he be the chameleon or the peacock?  This aspect of him coming to the team may be just as important to his success on the Lakers as Ron will need to understand that he’s coming to a championship winning team that has a clear number one AND number two player.  And even after Kobe and Gasol, we have (hopefully) Odom and an up and coming Bynum.  Artest must adapt to his mates and his role and the team must be accepting of him and integrate him in a way where he’s also not completely neutered of the traits that make him the player he is.  It will take a balance and this is truly something to pay attention to.

In the end, there are many potential positives and pitfalls that come with this acquisition.  And there are many questions that remain unanswered.  On talent alone, we’ve added a high level contributor that is one of the best two way players in the league.  However, with all that talent comes the short fuse, the disregard of structure, and the potential mindset that he, the player knows best.  Over the past several seasons, we have grown as a team and went from not making the playoffs to eventually winning the title.  That type of growth can only come with a mindset that promotes the team over the individual and the acceptance of roles over the chase for glory.  We’re now going to see how a championship team does with Ron Artest as a key player to its success.  As I said before, I’m excited and terrified at the same time.  It truly is the gift and the curse.  We, as Lakers fans, must be prepared for any outcome to the upcoming season as we enter these uncharted waters.  One thing I do know is that it won’t be boring.  But will the end to next season look like the end to the most recent one?  Obviously that depends on more than just the newest Laker, but he will play a big role in the outcome.  I know we’ll all be watching to see how he does.


Darius Soriano

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