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Lately, the Lakers have not been playing that well. We all know this. They’re 5-5 in their last 10 games and, against a middling team from the East, needed a game winning jumpshot from Kobe to avoid a four game losing streak. Typically, I don’t blame individual players for poor play or losses and I won’t do so now. Basketball is a team game where all players and coaches contribute to what happens on the court. However, when the team is playing poorly and losing games there are two points of view – the macro and micro. We’ve focussed a lot (and will continue to do so in the future) on a lot of macro issues – the team’s performance on offense is the most recent example. However, the individual performances of the players make up the team dynamic, so it’s also appropriate to discuss what is going on with the guys that make up the team.
I say all this because Ron Artest is struggling right now. His offensive game is off and it’s affecting his status as a viable player on that side of the ball. In recent games, Ron did have a solid FG% against both Indy and Miami shooting 9-17 in those games and totalling 21 points. But when you dig a bit deeper in those games and look at the total 5 game stretch in the first part of March, there is a bigger problem – his overall shooting and, more specifically, his three point shooting has been well below his season standard. This month, Ron has shot 4-18 (22%) from three point range. And when you look at his total field goal shooting numbers from just the last three games he’s 4-24 (17%). Granted this is an extremely small sample size and any statistician would tell you that these numbers should and will normalize soon. But, it is worrisome.
We should note, though, that there are some reasons behind this. First, Ron does have a hurt left thumb that is heavily wrapped during each game. You may question how much a left thumb injury should affect Ron’s shooting, but Ron is a player that loves to finish in the lane with his left hand and his jumpshot is also one with a lot of guide hand influence (to my eyes). Plus, anyone that’s played basketball with a hurt hand (whether it’s their strong hand or not) understands that your ball handling is compromised and that reduces your comfort level on offense overall. I mean, you lose the ball more when dribbling, you don’t get a good grip on the ball when elevating to shoot your shot from the perimeter or in the paint, and it all conspires to make you less confident when on offense (Kobe’s struggles on offense are another example of everything just stated about dealing with a hand injury – save the confidence part).
And to me, this is the biggest key – confidence and comfort level on offense. When the Lakers first acquired Artest, I was a person that questioned if he would fit in. I wondered if “ball stopper” Ron would surface and if he’d buy in to the offensive principles. I’m happy to say that I was completely wrong about that as Ron has proven more than accepting of his role and position within the team structure. But, with his recent shooting woes, what I am seeing is indecisiveness. Ron looks unsure as to whether he should shoot or pass. He’s second guessing himself in instances where he should show no hesitation. A percect example occured in the Orlando game where Ron received a pass in the corner and was pretty much wide open for a three. His feet were set and any confident player would have just fired away (not to go off tangent here, but any of our guards would have surely shot in that instance). But instead, Ron brought the ball up in a shooting motion and stopped, then ball faked and allowed the defender to recover. Then, with the defender now close enough to contest the shot, Ron took a side dribble and shot the ball – almost as if he knew that he was open and that he should shoot. It was in that moment (removing the shooting numbers for a second) that I really thought something was not quite right with Ron’s offensive game.
I also think that Ron’s got some weary legs. With the injuries to Sasha (and especially) Luke, Artest has logged long minutes on many nights and spent those minutes defending the other team’s best offensive wing. Some may say that this is his specialty, and I would agree with that. But only to a point. Because when looking at how he’s been used recently, I question the wisdom of throwing Ron out there to play 45 minutes against Dwyane Wade or 38 minutes on Vince Carter when those players are guys that play Kobe’s position and guys that #24 would typically mark. Even though Ron did well in both of those matchups, I think he could have spent more of those minutes on Barnes or Richardson. I mean, even last year Ron split time with Battier on the league’s toughest wing scorers and surely didn’t log as many minutes chasing around the best of the best on the perimiter for almost every minute he was on the court. So, while I understand wanting to take advantage of Ron’s defensive mindset while also giving Kobe a breather on D, I do think that Ron needs a bit of a rest at times too and should not be using up all of his energy on defense – and especially not against players that do have quickness advantages over him like some shooting guards will.
Again, I’m not trying to disparage Artest. I think his defense has been a key component in our high defensive ranking this season. His intensity and determination on that side of the ball have truly been invaluable. And in a year where most of our shooters are performing below (and some well below) their career averages in three point accuracy, Ron’s ability to hit 38-40% from downtown has been crucial to the (some would say limited) success on offense that we have experienced this season. And when you combine that with his ability to make plays for others, I don’t think anyone can question his value to this team. But, that’s why his recent funk is concerning. Ron may be the 4th option and all his offensive numbers may be down this season, but he’s an integral part of our schemes and team structure. So, here’s hoping that Ron’s struggles end soon. Because right now, in a time that our offense could use a bit of a pick me up, an effective Artest would really help.