How Do You Fit Artest Into A Triangle?

Kurt —  September 23, 2009

Ron Artest with the LA Lakers
Ron Artest’s “blame me” statement was a great bit of PR/playing to the fans. And it worked. It got front-page play in a bunch of newspapers and now Bill Plaschke is on board with Ron Ron (so we can all rest easy).

But let’s be clear — if the Lakers don’t win the title next year it probably won’t be Ron Artest’s fault. I wasn’t a huge fan of bringing Artest here and yet I can come up with a dozen scenarios where Artest plays well and the Lakers don’t win it all. It all seems a bit simplistic, but that still sells.

To me, the larger looming question is how to fit Ron Artest into the Triangle offense. Phil Jackson, in an interview with Matt “Money” Smith (the Laker pre/postgame guy I’m going to miss, no offense Mason) and partner Petros Papadakis, Phil Jackson said he has been thinking about it too. But he didn’t say much else.

“I’ve spent some time thinking about it. Ron has a real knack of being a top defender and an aggressive player on the defensive end of the court…. But we think overall that we probably have a more balanced and difficult team to defend and to score against on this team. I think Ron’s going to be a really big addition to this team. Not only defensively, but he can do some things offensively that’ll be able to help our team and people will be surprised.”

The best breakdown I’ve seen so far comes from Wilt in the blog over at Lakersground, and this is really a must read. His basic premise is that Artest needs to play the three spot out on the perimeter in the offense.

Artest’s main spots in the offense will be the wing and the two-guard front. Given that Chicago’s version of the Triangle did not have as many options, the Lakers will probably put Artest primarily on the wing position, which requires less reading and initiating. Thus, Kobe and Fisher will be the primary ball handlers in halfcourt, while Artest will be expected to execute the initial post entry pass.

(Describing one Triangle option) As a wing, Artest’s (O3) first option is to pass to the post, establishing the deepest penetration possible. Here, he passes to Gasol or Bynum (O5) and then sets a screen for Kobe (O2) at the top of the key. Artest is a very quick cutter and can seal off his man very effectively due to his strength. In this instance, D3 and D2 are confused about how to defend the top screen, leaving Artest just enough room to cut to the basket for a precise pass from the center.

Read the whole post, there’s a lot of truth in it (and it comes with great graphics). First, Artest really doesn’t have the handles to initiate the offense, that role will be largely Kobe and Fisher (I also wouldn’t be shocked to see Phil give the “Odom as point forward” thing another go as well). But asking Artest to make the post entry pass to the low block from the wing, then have him set the screen and cut to the basket, is a good fit for him (he is a good passer when he chooses to be).

What I think you are going to see a lot of is when Artest comes from the weak to strong side to establish position on the low block (likely getting his post pass from Gasol/Odom, or maybe Kobe/Fish). If not that, there are countless ways you can establish him down low, including running the high-low action with Gasol in the high post that was effective with Bynum the first half of last season. With Artest playing the three, and with other teams will have to but their best perimeter defender on Kobe, Artest will have mismatches he can exploit, particularly on the block.

One thing that will be different with Artest is where he will line up to shoot the three when the ball does go to Gasol/Bynum on the block. Traditionally the three in the triangle gets the ball in the corner for the three, but Artest is not a strong corner three shooter (just 31% from there last year, from the wings and straight on he shot better than 40% from every slop on the floor). If there is one thing Phil Jackson does better than any coach right now (besides cell-phone commercials) is put players in positions where they can succeed, and give them confidence to make their plays.

Artest’s game is actually fairly cerebral, he just has moments where he abandons that and tries to take over on both ends. With this lineup, he doesn’t have to, and intellectually he knows that. There may be a couple moments where his competitiveness gets the better of him early in the season, but look for Kobe/Gasol/Jackson to curb that impulse quickly. With the lineup the Lakers are throwing out there, mismatches will be created for someone every night. So long as the Lakers attack those mismatches, and everyone buys into that system and the offense, the Lakers will be hard to beat. And even Plaschke will be right.