With the 2009-10 season behind us and the free agency bonanza just getting started, ‘Forum Blue & Gold’ begins the first of a series of player reviews from your NBA champions. We begin with the player who left many fans and critics divided when he was signed before last season: the one and only Ron Artest.
SEASON IN REVIEW:
Ron Artest has been called many things in his career—defender, instigator…even crazy. In 2010, the Lakers small forward finally added a new title to his résumé: champion. After fan-favorite Trevor Ariza bolted for the Houston Rockets, the Lakers quickly snatched up the former Defensive Player of the Year with their mid-level exception—a steal by most anyone’s standards, albeit one that represented a notable risk-reward type of proposition for a team coming off of a championship victory.
“He wants to win a ring,” said Artest’s agent David Bauman shortly after his signing last summer. “He’s a winner and a hard worker and he went looking for a team with whom he could find some justification for what he does. He plays his best when he’s in that kind of an environment.”
Bauman’s comments set the tone for Artest’s inaugural season in a Lakers jersey, even if from a purely statistical standpoint, the former St. John’s star had one of the most underwhelming seasons of his career. Over 77 games, Ron put up fairly pedestrian averages of 11 points per game on 41% shooting, to go along with four rebounds and a little over one steal. As is usually the case with Artest though, what you see is not always what you get as his defensive toughness and hunger for an NBA title provided a huge—and in many ways underrated—boost to a team that battled through injuries and post-championship complacency for much of the regular season’s second half.
As a defensive master, Artest didn’t disappoint—methodically disassembling the games of Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce among others, while ensuring that Kobe didn’t have to waste vital energy chasing the other teams’ star player around for 48 minutes. His playoff performance also served as a reminder to the league that #37 remains an elite on-ball defender and that much like Kobe, rumors of his demise were premature. After all, Artest was similarly injured toward the end of the regular season, yet still gutted it out and missed only five games.
On offense, it goes without saying that Ron spent much of the season dazed and confused, admittedly struggling with the intricacies of the vaunted triangle offense and an outside shooting touch that betrayed him most nights. These issues aside though, Ron still provided what were arguably the two biggest offensive plays of the post-season with his instant redemption game-winning put-back in Game 5 against the Suns and his clutch three-point dagger with just over a minute remaining in Game 7 against the Celtics.
On its face, Artest’s overall season arc provided a bit of a mixed bag. However, Ron was never a Pau Gasol-type of of player who was going to integrate flawlessly (and immediately) into the team’s ebb and flow. He wasn’t signed for his suave game or consistent shooting. To the contrary, the forward was brought to L.A. for exactly the opposite reasons—to create discord on the floor for other teams. In that bruiser type of role, he succeeded with flying colors.
PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON:
Kobe initially called out the Spaniard during the Finals trophy presentation, but without Ron Artest’s Game 7 heroics, the Larry O’Brien trophy is likely headed back east. With 20 points and five steals, Artest buoyed the team during a historically sluggish first three quarters, reminding his teammates that his fingers were still ringless with each and every timely put-back. Ever the drama king, Ron saved his best for last—connecting on a dramatic trey in the game’s final minute that not only sent the STAPLES Center crowd into a state of bedlam, but also proved to be the final nail in the Celtic’s coffin.
(Honorable mention goes to Artest’s kid-in-a-candy-store antics during his post-Game 7 interview.)
Truth be told, Artest is far from the only player who has failed to grasp the triangle on first attempt; future Hall-of-Famer’s Gary Payton and Karl Malone also experienced difficulty in their one year with the Lakers. Luckily, the Lakers have Ron under contract for four more years and he will only continue to grow within the offense, especially now that Coach Jackson has announced his return.
For better or worse, Artest has proven himself as a difference maker during his 11 up-and-down years in the league. He maintained his composure as well as any Laker this year though, showing a sense of maturity that few thought was possible for the player who once played a key role in the worst player-fan altercation in NBA history. Similar to the way Jackson helped Dennis Rodman harness his often combustible energy, Artest understood his role on this team and remained steadfast in his desire to do whatever it took to help the team win games. The forward willingly checked his ego at the door on day one as a member of the forum blue and gold, which is something that shouldn’t be overlooked when you consider that Ron has played the alpha dog on more than one team in the past.
“It’s amazing I can be the same person and a world champion,” said Artest in a post-championship interview with KHTK in Sacramento. “I always thought that I had to be someone else to be a world champion.”
The Lakers were fully aware of what they were getting into when they made the controversial decision to sign Artest, yet they never asked him to be anything other than himself. In turn, the 16-time NBA champions still got the pitbull they were hoping for and for the first time in his career, it was Artest who was perfectly comfortably walking with the rest of the pack. It’s that fundamental change in mentality that helped him transition from longtime misfit to the much more fitting title of NBA champion.