One of the undertold stories of this Laker campaign is how Ron Artest is playing. This makes sense considering sexier stories surrounding Kobe’s shooting, Gasol’s minutes, the play of the bench, and Bynum’s knees have been such major parts of the Lakers’ start to the season. Plus, when you throw in the Lakers’ strong start and then their recent losing streak, the bigger issue of their overall team performance was also a more prominent story than focusing too much attention on Ron’s play. But since the Lakers have finally broken out of their losing ways (at least for one game), I thought I’d turn the spotlight onto how Ron has been faring this year and some of the things that I’ve noticed when reviewing his performances. (On a side note, let me say that this is a topic that’s been covered well by the fine folks at Silver Screen and Roll and in a recent piece at ESPN Los Angeles. Give those articles a read to get more background on what we’re discussing here.)
Essentially, Ron Artest hasn’t been playing that well in the Lakers’ first 20 games. He’s playing fewer minutes (down to 27 per game) and thus his per game averages are down (even if only slightly) across the board. He’s shooting his lowest percentage over an extended period since the 40 games he played for the Kings in the 2005-’06 season, and his comfort level in the Triangle seems on par with where it was last season (a fact that, after his strong pre-season performance this year, is difficult to comprehend). When I exchanged emails with our old friend Kurt Helin of PBT I asked him what he was seeing from Ron:
Artest does look off (offensively). I looked at him on Synergy and he is still shooting well in a spot-up/catch-and-shoot situations (41.7% from three on those) but when it comes to plays within the flow of the offense, well, he’s not flowing well and he’s breaking out of the sets a lot. His plays in isolation are especially bad.
I agree with Kurt in that Ron’s shooting is better when he’s taking shots in rhythm off kick-outs from either post-ups or off penetration. When his feet are set and he takes the shot without hesitating, he’s making enough shots to justify his position as a starter and for the minutes he receives in the rotation. Where I think Ron’s biggest problems lie are in the fact that he’s still not showing the confidence of a player of his caliber. Just as the statistics reveal, the eyeball test tells us that Ron is performing poorly, but so much of that is really based off how often he’s hesitating after he makes a clean catch. Rather than just catch and shoot, he’s head faking, taking a needless dribble, or seemingly looking for his rhythm rather than just firing away. This constant second guessing of whether or not he should shoot makes it so that when he does recognize that he should put up the shot, it’s often too late and a defender is there to contest his attempt or make it so an off balance heave is then needed to get a look off clean. Against the Pacers and the Grizzlies, Ron’s last second shot attempts to win the game came in these exact situations and the expected results followed.
However, Ron’s performance on offense isn’t the place that has me the most concerned. Defensively, Ron just hasn’t been as good this season as he was last year. In the aforementioned article at SS&R, CA Clark breaks it down statistically:
According to 82games.com, using opposing PER as a measure of individual defensive performance, Ron Artest is allowing his opponents to put up a 17.7 PER. Amongst Laker starters, only Derek Fisher is worse (giving up an obscene 20.9 PER). Kobe and Lamar are both holding their guys below “average” (which is 15) and Gasol is right on the edge with a 15.0 opposing PER. When the bench is included, only Steve Blake joins Derek Fisher in the “worse than Ron Artest statistically” category. Compare this to last year, in which Artest faced the top opposing perimeter player every night, and still held his opponents to a 12.9 PER.
However, opposing PER is just one way of measuring a players’ defensive impact. Reed passed along the following thoughts:
I do think (PER agaisnt) is a helpful stat, given that it tells how efficient opposing players are when being guarded by a certain player, but I think it should be given less weight than team defensive on/off numbers. As Boston has shown us so well the last few years, defense is really about five players working together to force low % shots and then rebound. Sometimes an average one on one defender can produce elite defensive results by executing the team schemes really well. Derek Fisher and Ray Allen come to mind. And, Ron’s defensive on/off numbers are awful this year (opposing teams score 5 more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court). Last year the team was 4.5 points better defensively with Ron on the court. Now, some of that is probably the result of swapping Sasha/Luke’s minutes last year for Barnes this year, but some is probably just worse defense by Ron.
Kurt built on that same point by explaining that:
Defensively Artest still seems good in isolation, but he doesn’t seem to be fighting through screens with the tenacity he did last season. (In general) his defense seems less focused.
Really, this is where I think Ron is showing a drop off. In one on one situations, he’s still very good. His hands are as quick and strong as ever and while he’s not moving as well in defending players’ first step, he’s still able to keep most players in front of him on most possessions and force difficult shots that just seem to be going in more than last season (Rudy Gay’s leaning jumpers come to mind here). But it’s really Ron’s off ball work that isn’t up to his usual standard. Understand that most wing players like to come off screens in order to make their catch and attack. Whether using simple pin downs or cross screen actions, offensive wings uses these picks to get that extra bit of space to get the ball so they can go to work. Last year, Ron Artest ate these actions up. One only need to look back to the work he did on Kevin Durant as evidence as to how disruptive Ron could be in doing strong defensive work before his man caught the ball. He’d bump, hold, and fight through as many screens as needed in order to make his opponents’ catches more difficult or deny them completely. When his man did catch the ball he’d be in such good position that his elite isolation defense would take over to limit his man. This year, he’s just not as good at getting through screens; he’s getting picked off more on pin downs and isn’t bodying his man to create the needed space to chase and curl around the picks.
But as Reed mentioned, defense is a team game too. And what’s not helping Ron’s work is the fact that the Lakers’ team D has also fallen off from last year. Especially in areas that really help wing defenders. In P&R situations, the Lakers bigs aren’t showing and recovering as well. When elite wings are coming off screens, the bigs aren’t hedging out to contest passing lanes and disrupt the timing of the opposition’s offense. They’re also not rotating as quickly when wing defenders are steering ball handlers into designated spots on the floor. All of these factors conspire to hurt players like Ron (and Kobe and Fisher) as they’re hung out to dry more when chasing players around the perimeter or when fighting thorough screens (both on and off the ball). The opposition is able to make passes cleanly and on time which allows offensive wings to attack while on the move rather than having to make a catch, stop, and then attack a set defense.
Obviously, some of Ron’s struggles are both mitigated and enhanced by the fact that Matt Barnes has played so well. Last season when Ron was the only legitimate and healthy small forward on the roster (Walton was injured and Adam Morrison was, well, Adam Morrison) he was allowed to play through his struggles on any given night. On many nights his offensive rhythm may have eluded him, but he’d often find his groove on defense. One quote that I’ll never forget was when Ron spoke about being a player that gets into a defensive rhythm; a defensive zone (much like scorers get in offensive zones) where he could lock up offensive players after finding his comfort level (either over the course of a game or by finding his zone for several consecutive games).
This year, Ron really isn’t afforded that chance. Matt Barnes is playing so well that he’s siphoning away Ron’s minutes. Ron is also losing game time to Shannon Brown’s improved play as Kobe still has the option of sliding up to SF on any given night. This means that Ron plays fewer minutes and therefore has fewer chances to find the rhythm that often escapes him, only to come at times when many least expect it.
In the end, I don’t want to make excuses for Ron Artest. He’s not playing his best basketball on either O or D and while it’s not as big of a detriment as it was last year, his play has had a negative effect in recent weeks. However, there are reasons to have hope that it will improve. As Kurt mentioned, he’s still shooting well when taking spot-up jumpers in rhythm and on defense he’s still a very good defender in isolation situations. When Bynum returns, some of the back line defensive issues should become more organized and that will only help Artest. And on offense, the Lakers can find ways to get Ron more comfortable in the Triangle by having him come off screens more to get him moving towards the ball with his defender trailing him, rather than having him attack in isolations from the wing or the post. I also think the Lakers would do Ron a favor by playing him more with the 2nd unit where he doesn’t have to share the court with Kobe, as it seems obvious to these eyes that Ron is less inclined to be aggressive when he shares the court with #24. Only time will tell if any of these tactics are used or are successful if implemented. But I’m not convinced that Ron is a lost cause and do believe we’ll see a better performance from him in the last 60 games than we have in the first 20.