What’s Wrong With Ron Artest?

Darius Soriano —  December 6, 2010

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.

Darius Soriano

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19 responses to What’s Wrong With Ron Artest?

  1. Well, one thing’s for sure, Ron’s not playing tennis:

    http://www.sgvtribune.com/sports/ci_16774340

  2. I think its clear that Ron is slowed by a bad back. If you look at the preseason games he was moving better than he has since his days in Indiana. But since then he look slower than at anytime of his career. I know its an easy answer but defense doesn’t regress like this but for a loss of athletisism.

  3. I believe that the LA way has just rubbed off on ole Ron. He’s just going along with what everyone on the team seems to do from time to time during the regular season(coast). Leaving hot shooters open on the perimeter, not getting back on D, and parting like the red sea when a opponent goes to the lane for an uncontested layup. Its just contagious as posion ivy when you put that purple and gold on your back, reality in a city with the bright lights and A-List celebs sitting courtside . I expect Ron to show some flashes of his great D at times, but unfortunately when in Rome you tend to do what the Romans do.

  4. one thing that wasn’t really mentioned that I believe has to do with Ron’s “bad defense” is the fact that we have been playing bad teams. If you look at our schedule we haven’t played many of the elite teams just Utah and Chicago (if you even consider them elite). And on top of that when Ron Ron has his best defensive performances are when he faces an elite small forward like carmelo anthony, paul pierce or kevin durant and out of them we have only faced anthony once. Which I recall him playing pretty well but I’m not sure. Ron was the same last year everyone was complaining about how bad he was all year until he shut down carmelo and made melo foul out. And his playoff performances against durant and pierce shut them up too. Artest offense has been atrocious since preseason but i wouldn’t come down on his defense just yet lets wait til he plays durant melo and peirce a couple times. And any other elite SF who he plays well against.

    Another observation is he hasnt shaven his head or done anything crazy this year.. he needs to get pumped up for some game soon and shave defense in his head again

  5. Artest has always been a relatively poor PNR defender. His size and girth are great in isolation, but when he has to run around the court and fight through picks, he gets left behind due to his sheer mass.

    However, this usually goes unnoticed because the Lakers play great help defense. Since the Lakers are playing fairly crappy help defense to start this season, Artest’s big flaw is really standing out. Some of this should be alleviated when Bynum comes back, but it remains an ongoing issue.

    During the Finals last year, Jeff Van Gundy kept saying during the broadcast that Pierce should use a pick against Artest to get open, because Artest has such trouble fighting through them. Same thing when we played OKC against Kevin Durant. When Durant caught the ball in isolation, but the Thunder got killed. But when he caught the ball coming off a screen, he was able to get open shots or get into the paint.

  6. Zephid,
    While I’d normally agree with you on your take that Artest isn’t a good defender of the ball handler in the P&R, the numbers actually tell a different story this year. Based off what Synergy says, when defending the ball handler in the P&R, Ron has only allowed .57 points per possession and the ball handler has only scored on 7 of his 21 shots – that’s good for 6th in the NBA. Granted, the sample size is small and his effectiveness would likely decrease if he was put in 30 P&R’s a game like a lot of PG’s are, but as it stands today, he’s been pretty good in these situations. And, like Kurt mentioned in the post, he’s still tremendous in isolation situations where he’s only surrendered .45 points per possession – good for 3rd in the league.

    But, where he’s been pretty bad has been when guarding a man coming off screens while off the ball – he’s giving up 1.28 points per possession. This is where I agree with your assessment that the Lakers’ help D is really lacking. Against the Thunder in last years’ playoffs, the Lakers bigs did a great job of stepping out and disrupting passes or giving Artest that split second he needed to recover to Durant to turn “screen” situations into “isolation” situations where Ron could then go to work on KD in space. The Lakers used this technique successfully against ‘Melo and other SF threats last year too. This year, not so much.

  7. Who won the laker tickets tomorrow?

  8. Ron Artest, coasting? I’m sorry, but that’s just not in my world at all. It ranks on the same level as the phrase “Kobe doesn’t care if he wins”.

  9. Ron will prove his worth again while being physical with the elite scorers in this years playoffs. He’s just cruising like the rest of Lakers for now, it’s a long season and it ain’t even 2011 yet!! He shut down the leading scorer(KD), made Melo work for his, and shut down paula pierce in the finals…The man deserves some slack in that department he’s earned it!!

  10. Could be that being “in a better place” personally has taken a little of the edge off his game. If so, it’s worth it.

  11. Darius, that’s really interesting. I’m not really sure what to make of him being a great on-ball PNR defender, but a mediocre off-ball PNR defender.

    Just a thought, but the Lakers have a pretty well set-up PNR defense; generally, they know which guys they need to hard/soft hedge and go under/over the pick. That strong communication probably gives Artest the time he needs to recover. Maybe the team just isn’t communicating on those offball screens, and Artest needs that split second of help provided by the big man hedging just a little bit on the screen.

    It’ll be interesting to watch more closely and see whether the screen man’s defender is helping Artest at all on the off-ball screens. If he’s not, that could be the problem area.

  12. #11. Zephid,
    I think your initial theories on this will prove correct. The Lakers off ball defense has been a problem area all year. After the Houston game, Phillip and I detailed how the Lakers wings were being over-aggressive and getting beat backdoor and if you watch other off-ball actions the Lakers’ bigs aren’t doing as good a job of stepping out with purpose when their man sets screens on pin downs or cross screens on cutting wings. This is leading to perimeter threats coming off screens with clean angles to both receive a pass and get their shots off.

    It’s really a team wide problem. One, Artest isn’t doing as good a job at fighting through screens. But two, the Lakers as a team aren’t defending these actions as well and it’s leading to better shots. The good news is that Bynum coming back will help in this.

  13. I have been on this blog since Bynum was drafted. It is really funny to hear that our defensive problems will be much lessened when Bynum returns.

    This is the person who has alternately been the whipping boy (like for possible loss of Kobe) and the savior going forward.

    My thinking is that Andrew Bynum fits right into the Laker mold for a superstar. They must absolutely be a polarizing figure and there can be no middle ground in fan reactions.

    Now all we need is for Andrew to use a little guile and misdirection and the picture will be complete. Oh yeah, he needs to change his first name — Andrew just doesn’t cut it for a polarizing superstar.

  14. Bynum is not a great defender yet. However, that does give PJ more options on both offense and defense, and it will be most beneficial in taking load off of Gasol and Odom.

  15. I’m actually expecting Bynum to do far more than merely secure a three peat for our heroes when he returns.

    For starters, his return should reverse global warming and end genocide throughout the world. Not to mention ending terrorism and those annoying new airport scanners.

    When he returns.

  16. Bynum doesn’t have to be an elite defender or All-Star-level player to help the Lakers set things in a better direction. Just clog the middle, help Pau work on 4s rather than 5s, and be a big deterrent when Fisher’s man inevitably gets past Derek and into the lane.

    Size counts, and getting shots up over multiple trees like Lamar, Bynum and Pau isn’t easy, especially when Artest and/or Barnes is in the mix.

    My biggest concern with Ron, as I said a few days ago, is his utter removal from any sort of offensive contribution. He came around in the playoffs and shot the lights out in the preseason, which makes this season’s dazed and confused play so hard to figure.

  17. To add to what’s already been said – Artest currently has the second worst Defensive Rating (opponents points per 100 possessions) of his career. His shooting percentage, rebound rate and assist percentage are all the lowest they’ve ever been.

    Meanwhile Barnes is putting up the best numbers of his career. It will be really interesting to see how the situation at the three plays out in the playoffs.