When fans and media talk about how to improve a team, the conversation normally drifts towards player acquisition. If a team could only replace player X with a more capable guy via the draft, trade, or free agency, the team would take that next step forward. However, going this route isn’t always easy and is complicated by a number of factors. So, today, we continue our series on how the Lakers can improve themselves internally with a look at Ron Artest. For past installments, see our looks at Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum.
Ron Artest, to put it mildly, has had an up and down turn as a Laker. In year one he was a monster defensively, hit key shots in the playoffs that helped the Lakers win the title, and operated as a solid foot soldier for Phil Jackson with no distractions to the team. This past year, though continuing to disappoint those that expected him to blow up and sink the Laker ship, his game regressed in several meaningful ways. His minutes dropped and with that nearly all his per game statistics fell as well. His efficiency on offense also dropped off, so his decline in production can’t be explained away simply by the number of minutes he played. His defense, while still of a high caliber, was not as consistently tenacious with several more games where his man got the better of him than in his first year with the team.
His playoffs were a perfect example of how he was less consistent in year two as a great 1st round against the Hornets devolved into a spiraling struggle against the Mavs that saw him shoot 32% and get ejected and suspended for a flagrant foul. Needless to say, by the end of the season, it was clear that Ron Artest was not a player the coaches felt they could rely on for consistent production.
However, coming into next year, I’m not ready to bury Artest as a player that’s stuck in a decline. Yes, he’s aging. It’s also true that his role on offense is complicated by the fact that he’s at best the 5th option on the team and the 4th best option on the floor in any given line up. But none of this means that he can’t be a more consistent performer in 2012 with some tweaks to his game and a refinement to his offensive role. In essence, I think there’s still some improvement that can come from Ron.
Unlike other players on the team, however, there’s not much Ron can do from a physical standpoint to actually become a better player. As an offensive contributor, he is what he is. I don’t expect his jumper to suddenly become better or for his athleticism to improve. But, what I do expect is for the coaches to find better ways to take advantage of his skill set.
More than any other player on the team, I think Ron has untapped ability to help on offense that coaching can help bring out. Under Phil Jackson, Ron was relegated to a spot up shooter from the corner and a post up option off ball reversals and actions where he’d cut to the rim only to stop short to turn, seal, and post up his man. Limiting Ron to these actions and these spots of the floor may have been best for the overall flow of the offense (it’s no secret that Ron never seemed to fully grasp all the intricacies of the Triangle), but what they also did was put Ron in positions of the floor where he’s not most comfortable.
For most of Artest’s career, he hasn’t been the best shooter from the corners but has instead preferred the three pointer from the top of the key. And while taking advantage of his post up chances is typically a good idea based off his strength and ability to establish and maintain good position, because this was one of Ron’s only ways of getting the ball he often forced these actions, drawing offensive fouls or three second calls in the process.
This up coming season, I’d like to see the Lakers (somewhat) expand Ron’s role on offense to let him operate with the ball in his hands a bit more while also positioning him on the floor in places where he’s more comfortable. That not only means putting him at the top of the key where he’s a better shooter but also letting him initiate offense a bit more by handling the ball up high where he can try to put the ball on the floor (especially going left) to better take advantage of his ability to score off the dribble (something that he’s had some success with in the past) and set up his teammates by driving and dishing (something he proved he could do pretty well in his first year on the team).
Granted, I know that any increased responsibility for Artest on offense must in turn be taken away from someone else and that the Lakers surely still want to take advantage of their more potent players on that side of the ball. I’m certainly not arguing that Ron overtake Pau, Bynum, or even Odom as an option in the offensive scheme they run next year. But, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for Ron to get a few more touches where he’s given a bit more leeway than he has in the two years he played under Phil Jackson. I understand Ron’s history for high-jacking possessions and also understand that counting on a player that’s been as inefficient as Artest has these past few seasons is a risk. But, to be fair, he still has some talent on that side of the ball and it’s to the detriment of the team if they continue to be consistently outperformed at this position.
In the end, I’m hopeful that an offense that relies less on the full read and react nature of the Triangle can give Ron more direction on offense. And with better focus and a bit of an expanded role, we’ll see a more productive and efficient player next season. Hopefully any improvement on offense will also translate to the defensive side of the ball where, despite what I thought was a season worthy of making the all-defense 2nd team, Ron can still take his game up another level from this past year. All in all, there’s room for growth next year from Artest and if he and the coaches can find a way to bring that to the surface, the Lakers will have improved without having to bring in a player at his position.