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The Lakers own human high-fly act Shannon Brown is next in line as FB&G continues its player reviews from the past season. Be sure to check out Phillip’s post to watch Brown’s complete exit interview.

SEASON IN REVIEW:

“This time was the first time I went into training camp and really knew what was going on as far as my role a little bit,” said Brown after his exit interview. “Last year I wasn’t with the team the whole time, this year I was. It was great. You build friendships, you build family, you build bonds. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Whereas Shannon’s all-around contributions largely came as a surprise following his mid-season trade to the Lakers in 2009, this season was all about stability, improving his consistency, defining his role and most importantly, living up to increased expectations. With those goals in mind, it’s safe to say that Brown had a successful season by backup guard standards and proved that his 2009 play was no fluke.

ShanWow saw a dramatic increase in his minutes to 20.7, up from under eight minutes last season and 13 during the 2009 playoffs. He also posted the best offensive averages of his career, with 8.1 points per game and 2.2 rebounds. Moreover, Shannon showed that he was mostly a reliable backup for either guard position. From the Lakers perspective, that’s about all they can ask for of Brown considering he is primarily playing behind a superstar like Kobe.

Although Shannon proved why he is a valuable rotation player, his inconsistency mirrored that of the team’s entire bench last season. With the Lakers coaching staff shortening the Lakers rotation for the playoffs, Brown found himself on the bench more, with his minutes decreasing to 14.7. Part of that is due to the natural increase in playing time for Bryant and Derek Fisher, but it also speaks to Shannon’s still-evolving decision-making skills on the court. In spite of his sometimes erratic play during the 2010 Finals run, Brown provided a huge spark in closeout games against Oklahoma City and Utah, averaging 11 and 12 points respectively.

Shannon’s insatiable appetite for scintillating dunks and seemingly endless energy has been one of the most exciting facets of the Lakers’ past two title teams. In many ways, I think this is what ultimately hurt Shannon more than anything in his disappointing dunk contest appearance. Like Kobe, Brown is more a jaw-dropping in-game dunker, which in my opinion, is a much more valuable skill set to have than the creative costume faire we’ve see at the past few All-Star Weekends. After the viral “Let Shannon Dunk” campaign, his lackluster performance in the dunk contest was definitely a lowlight of last season, but I don’t think it’s indicative of much of anything as far as his play with the Lakers is concerned (a point he clearly drove home in his best performance of the season, below).

PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON:

Feb. 16, 2010—Starting in place of the injured Kobe Bryant, Brown showed that he’s more than just flash and dunks, scoring a career-high 27 points and and pulling down 10 rebounds to help the Lakers defeat the Golden State Warriors 104-94.

NEXT SEASON:

Shannon said it best himself during his exit interview: “I made progress. My first two and a half years I really didn’t play that much. This year I did. I’m steady making progress. As long as you get the time on the floor, it’s going to work out for the best. Basketball is my life, I think about it all the time, sometimes to a fault, and I couldn’t be happier about being a champion for the second time in a row.”

In the same interview, the Lakers guard also said that his main offseason goal was to focus on becoming more of a basketball player and not just an athlete. I think that’s exactly the right mindset for Shannon to adopt looking ahead to the 2010-11 season. We know all about his aerial acrobatics by now and streaky three-point shooting, but I suspect that Brown has a lot more in his bag of tricks. For starters, he’s shown signs of becoming a very strong defender—particularly against larger guards. If he wants to continue to get regular playing time in what is shaping up to be a tremendous defensive squad, he’ll need to really hone in on this area. Shannon also needs to continue to work on his decision-making skills, especially with the Lakers adding another reliable hand at guard in Steve Blake to go along with two of the most intelligent players in the league in Kobe and Fisher.

All of these issues point to his ongoing battle with consistency—something Brown said he will look to improve upon next season. “That’s a major part of winning,” said Brown. “Our bench has to come out and be able to produce and continue to make the team better when the starters on our the bench.”

After agreeing to return to the Lakers for a chance at a three-peat, Shannon appears dedicated to improving his play this offseason. He also displayed a great deal of self-awareness in re-signing with the Lakers instead of opting to join a team offering more money. Shannon clearly recognizes the special opportunity this Lakers team has this season and where he fits into the master plan. At the end of the day, that is precisely the mentality you want from your eighth or ninth man.

As a special bonus, take a look at this awesome video featuring Shannon’s top 10 career dunks.

Jan. 18, 2010 - LOS ANGELES, United States - epa01994839 Los Angeles Lakers DJ Mbenga of the Congo (L) and Orlando Magic Dwight Howard (R) battle under the basket during late action in Los Angeles, California, USA, 18 January 2010. The Lakers beat the Magic 98-92.

FB&G continues is player reviews for this past season with DJ “Congo Cash” Mbenga.  For a link to DJ’s exit interview, check out Phillip’s post from right after the season concluded.

SEASON IN REVIEW:

Last season the Lakers only carried 13 players.  And of those 13 players, DJ Mbenga was either the Lakers 12th or 13th man on any given night depending on match ups or how Phil was feeling on that day when deciding which player would be inactive.  When the Lakers roster was completely healthy, DJ would often suit up but would only see playing time in blow outs or as a random spark off the bench when Phil (seemingly) felt his big body could make a difference in that particular game.  So, when considering all of these factors it’s actually a little tough to gauge how good a season DJ actually had.

Statistically, Mbenga had the type of season you’d expect from a 3rd string Center and 5th big man.  In his 49 game appearances (a career high, by the way), he averaged about 2 points and 2 rebounds a game.  He shot a relatively low percentage from the field (46.6%) and was pretty bad from the foul line, making only 9 of his 19 attempts on the season (47.4%).  So far, this is exactly what we should all expect from DJ considering his role and what was asked of him on the court.

Putting his stats aside for a moment, I can easily say that I liked how DJ worked to improve his game in this past season.  He started to show better range on his jumpshot and looked more comfortable overall on offense.  On defense, while he still went for the blocked shot too often for my tastes, he did serve as an impediment to guards that drove to the basket and was as active as ever on that side of the ball.  His rebounding rates were average at best (and that’s being kind) as his want to block shots moved him away from prime rebounding position on the defensive side of the ball.  But overall, he showed some improvement from the completely raw player that joined the Lakers as a mid season pick up three years ago.

That said, I really wouldn’t call this season a success for Mbenga.  While he played in a career high 49 games, his minutes per game and per 36 minute production actually fell from his previous seasons in LA.  Plus, even though both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum missed 17 games (giving an opportunity for the 3rd string Center to get more run), Mbenga was often passed over for minutes by Josh Powell as the the Lakers elected to go small with an Odom/Powell front court for many nights where their big man depth was tested (or play whichever big man was healthy heavy minutes to compensate raither than playing DJ more).  Not to mention the fact that when Andrew Bynum suffered his torn meniscus during the playoffs, Phil actually deactivated DJ for a few games and instead dressed Adam Morrison, citing the fact that after he sustained a couple of eye/head injuries during practice that DJ was not as tuned into the action as he needed to be. 

PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON:

Considering DJ’s lack of burn over the course of the season, it’s not that easy to find a game in which DJ truly had an impact performance.  However in an early April contest against the T’Wolves, Mbenga did have his season high in points (11) while also grabbing 2 offensive rebounds and blocking 2 shots in 14 minutes.  Based off the highlights, you can see that he moved well off the ball, showed some diversity on offense, and defended the rim well.

NEXT SEASON:

DJ has yet to sign on with another team and his return to the Lakers is pretty much out of the question after LA signed Theo Ratliff to a one year deal.  And with DJ reportedly looking for more minuteson whatever team he plays for next year, his return would have surprised me even if the Lakers hadn’t signed Ratliff.  However, wherever DJ plays next year I wish him well.  He’s a marginal NBA player, but he’s a legit 7’0″ big man in a league that covets size and I’m sure he’ll find a gig by the time NBA training camps begin.  So, thank you for the contributions DJ and nothing but the best to you.

Jan. 13, 2010: Los Angeles Lakers forward Luke Walton during an NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX Los Angeles defeated Dallas 100-95.

FB&G continues is player reviews for this past season with Luke Walton.  For a link to Luke’s exit interview, check out Phillip’s post from right after the season concluded.

SEASON IN REVIEW:

By any measure, Luke Walton had a disappointing season.  He suffered through a campaign marred by injuries and – when healthy – inconsistent minutes that saw his effectiveness drop from useful to nearly inconsequential on many nights.  For many fans of Walton’s game (like myself) this was a disconcerting year and I’m sure a very frustrating one for Walton himself.  Every player wants to be on the court and for a player like Luke – one that has basketball in his blood – it must of been tortuous to be relegated to spectator status as often as he was this past season.  And Luke was mostly a spectator this season.  He only played in 29 games and saw the court for an average of 9.4 minutes (the lowest of his career and down from 17.9 just last season) in those games that he did play in.

But by all statistical measures (and I’m sure the injuries played a part in this), Luke really didn’t deserve to play many minutes this past season.  He posted career lows in nearly every statistical category.  And while it’d be easy to equate his statistical lows with his reduced minutes, his stats across the board fell in his per 36 minutes averages as well.  Basically, Luke just wasn’t that effective when he saw the court.  Sure, his innate feel for the game and his passing ability were still on display.  And there were many times throughout the season (especially when Ron or the back up guards struggled to run the offense) that fans called for a return of Walton to help facilitate a better flow to the Triangle.  But, as an individual threat, Walton just wasn’t the same guy.  Gone were the effective post ups while operating from the hub of the Triangle.  And his knack for finding creases in the defense for easy buckets underneath also diminished.  This led to his career low in FG% and in his FT rate, and ultimately made his game even more one dimensional (a passer/set up man) than what it’s been in the past.  In order to be a real threat on the floor, every player has to show enough of a well rounded game where he can be a threat from both an individual standpoint and within the team concept.  This past season, Luke just couldn’t do enough as an individual threat to earn floor time.

However, this isn’t to say that Luke didn’t contribute this past season.  As I mentioned, he still did have his moments as a facilitator of the Lakers’ offense.  There were several games this season when Walton’s passing and knowledge of the Triangle helped stimulate the stagnant sets the Lakers were running.  Also, and maybe even more of a help, were Walton’s contributions on the sideline.  While Luke rehabbed his bad back, he often sat in on the coaches meetings and charted plays during the games.  This allowed him to be a part of the team and aid the coaches by giving them insight on some of things that he was seeing from the sideline.  And while some may scoff at how important this role is, Tex Winter often filled this same role for Phil Jackson and gave his honest opinion on what the Lakers were doing on the court and what could be done to improve.  And given Luke’s familiarity with the Triangle, filling this role really was an aid to the team while also giving Walton a sense of worth with this group (something that is quite familiar to Phil if you’ve read Sacred Hoops).

PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON:

For a guy that only averaged 9 minutes a game, it’s tough to find a stand out performance.  However, if I had to choose one game where I think Luke really made an impact, I would choose game 3 of the Finals against the Celtics.  In this game, Walton played a playoff high 13 minutes and was second on the team (behind Odom) with a +13 on the night.  And while his stat line was modest (2 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist), Luke played a very good all around game on both sides of the ball.  In typical fashion he ran the offense flawlessly by moving the ball around the court and consistently hitting the open man helping the Lakers break down the Boston D.  And on the other end of the court he played spirited defense on Paul Pierce by bodying him up and forcing him out of his sweet spots and to where his help was waiting.  Luke may not have been the difference maker in this game (that honor goes to Derek Fisher), but in a crucial contest where the Lakers were looking to take back home court advantage Luke played very well and helped secure a much needed win.  And with Ron Artest struggling mightily in this game (23 minutes, 2 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, -13 on the night), Luke’s timing in having a good game was also quite important.

NEXT SEASON:

Going into next season, there are more questions than answers about what role Walton will play with the team.  By all accounts, his injured back is a real issue and there may be tough decisions ahead on whether or not Walton can even suit up for the team next season.  But don’t take my word for it, take Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak’s:

It’s not your run of the mill type back problem. We don’t know where it’s going to end up. He’s a gamer and he loves to play. He wants to be a part of the team, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get back on the court. That’s a positive, to have the kind of player that’s motivated to get well. That’s not always the case…The most important thing is that Luke make the correct decision for his life, not for basketball.  The aging process of a healthy athlete is difficult enough as it is. So we counsel Luke, and our trainers do, to try to keep the big picture in the forefront of any decision. But like most young players they want to play. Sometimes they don’t [listen.]

And based off some of the moves that the the Lakers have made this off-season, you can see that contingencies are in place in case Luke can not play.  The Lakers have inked Matt Barnes to be the primary back up to Ron Artest – the role that we’re accustomed to seeing Luke filling.  The team is also in negotiations to bring back Shannon Brown who, while not a SF, is a guy that often plays SG with Kobe sliding up to play small forward.  Lamar Odom also made comments in his exit interview that he’d like to play more SF next season.  And the Lakers drafted Devin Ebanks, a promising prospect that will primarily play SF.  So, realistically, the Lakers may have 5 players capable of playing SF on next season’s roster not counting Walton.  And if all 5 of those players do see minutes at the position (which while not likely, is still possible), that’s quite the log jam of players at a position that Walton sees all of his minutes at.

Whatever next season brings for Luke, I think we can all agree that we wish him the best and hope he has a full recovery.  Yes, his contract is one that is easy to complain about.  And sure, Walton’s limited offensive aresenal (outside of his passing/play making), questionable defense, and injury history make him a whipping boy of sorts for many fans.  However, I’ve always viewed Walton as a player that helps more than he hurts when he’s healthy enough to play.  His feel for the game and his ability to run the Lakers sets give him a value to this team that he likely wouldn’t have with another outfit.  And while that may not appease those that dislike Luke’s game or question his ability as a player, it doesn’t change the fact that Walton is a player that is quite useful when he’s right.  And while I’m not sure we’ll see that player next season, I’m hopeful that he makes a decision that is best for him and his long term health.  If that’s on the court, great.  If it’s not, then I can say that I was a fan of his game and hope things work out for him in whatever is next for him.

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Forum Blue & Gold reflects back on the season that was for Lamar Odom and what we can expect from him in 2010-2011. Check out Phillip’s exit interviews post to hear it from the forward in his own words.

SEASON REVIEW:

As the old adage says: as Lamar Odom goes, the Lakers go. If truer words have spoken during the Lakers’ most recent run of NBA finals berths, I haven’t heard them. The always entertaining 6’10” forward has represented something of an enigma during his six-year tenure with the forum blue and gold. When he first joined Kobe and Co., Lamar was immediately anointed as the second coming of Scottie Pippen. He now stands tall as a vital, yet still underrated sixth man and two-time NBA champion.

Odom has faced a lion’s share of criticism over the course of that transition process, some deserved, some not. His surprising willingness to agree to a bench role before the 2008-2009 season deserves unanimous praise, though. For Odom, the 2009-2010 season was about perfecting his new role after the addition of Ron Artest to an already formidable front line. Despite his now somewhat expected consistent inconsistency during the regular season, the results of his big-game performances in a must-win Game 5 against the Suns and Game 7 against the Celtics are hard to argue.

Over the course of an impressive 82 games, Lamar averaged almost 11 points and 10 rebounds, while playing a starter-like 32 minutes. Those numbers easily represent the lowest of his career, but with the offensive arsenal behind him, he provided the Lakers with exactly what they needed on most nights. However, Odom struggled mightily against the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, bringing in a disappointing eight points and seven rebounds on only 41% shooting from the field. Luckily for Lamar, his untimely disappearing act was largely overlooked after Pau Gasol’s series-clinching put-back in Game 6.

Against a more familiar foe in the Phoenix Suns, Mr. Kardashian thrived, posting much-improved averages of 14 points to go along with 12 boards. In fact, with the series hanging in the balance in Game 5, it was the chameleonesque Odom who slithered his way to a difference-making 17 points and 13 rebounds. His up-and-down post-season continued against Boston’s significantly tougher front line in the Finals, though. However, give Lamar credit for being a leading instigator in L.A.’s second half comeback from 13 down in Game 7.

SINGLE PERFORMANCE:

Odom had better statistical games during the regular season, but none that had anywhere near the impact of his aforementioned 17-point, 13-rebound (including five offensive boards) performance against Phoenix in Game 5 of the Conference Finals. With the Lakers lollygagging around in the second half, allowing the Suns to eventually tie the game, it was often Odom who jolted the team back into the moment. Without his rugged play, there is no Ron Artest game-winner and we are looking at an entirely different series.

NEXT SEASON:

I think that both sports media and fans make a habit out of painting “pictures” for our favorite athletes early on in their careers. In many ways, we are watching it happen right now with LeBron James; through seven NBA seasons, he remains ringless and for fans of the former Cavaliers superstar, his legacy, which was once a foregone conclusion, is suddenly very much in doubt. To a lesser extent, Lamar also falls into this group thanks to an eye-opening college career at Rhode Island and a stellar first few seasons with the Clippers. At his height, his ball-handling skills and passing ability instantly drew comparisons to Lakers great Magic Johnson. That’s the problem with setting such lofty expectations early on in a player’s career, though; what happens when they are not always met? Do you render that player’s career an automatic failure because they did not live up to the potential that fans and media prognosticated?

In the case of Odom, I think that our ideal vision for his end destiny as an NBA player has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts over the past few seasons. It seems odd that consistency issues are even a topic of conversation for an 11-year veteran, but it remains—and probably always will—an issue for the forward. The difference now is that most of his fans—and teammates for that matter—are not looking for Lamar to produce a 20-10 night in every game over the course of a grueling nine-month season. Coach Jackson understands this better than anyone, which is why he was arguably the leading champion of Lamar’s understated value when Jerry Buss initially seemed reluctant to dive deeper into luxury tax territory to re-sign Odom last summer. Without the burden of playing up to a near-max level contract and as option B on offense, the Candy Man has excelled at filling in the gaps during the Lakers’ past three Finals runs, both as a super-sub and impromptu starter.

This will not change next season, as the team brings back virtually the same core of players that has already led them to consecutive NBA titles. If anything, I look for Lamar to improve on his 2009-2010 campaign with a bolstered bench that now includes steady point guard Steve Blake to replace the often-erratic Jordan Farmar. I fully expect Coach Jackson to continue to utilize Odom over Andrew Bynum in late-game situations too, depending on match-ups and which player(s) the team signs between now and training camp to fill out the front line. Regardless of his specific role, if we have learned anything over the years, it is that Lamar can adapt to any environment. His contributions as a key role player and valued teammate cannot be overlooked as the Lakers look forward to defending their crown.

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Forum Blue & Gold takes a look at the Lakers’ own version of the Energizer Bunny—Sasha Vujacic. Check out Phillip’s post for Sasha’s comments from his exit interview.

SEASON IN REVIEW:

“I knew we were about to win the game,” said Vujacic after Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. “We didn’t want to give them a chance to come back or make some crazy shots. I had to make two free throws. I did it.”

From hero to zero…back to hero? To say Sasha Vujacic’s last three seasons have been a roller coaster ride would be an understatement; the Slovenian guard has gone from playing a major role on the self-dubbed “bench mob” during the Lakers 2008 title run to barely having any impact at all during the last two seasons. That is, until his two clutch free throws with 11.7 seconds to go in Game 7 preserved a Lakers victory over the hated Celtics. I vividly remember a January game during the 2006-07 season against the Dallas Mavericks when Sasha lit up the Mavs to end what was a 13-game winning streak. Despite posting a horrible shooting percentage for most of that season, Sasha attributed his unwavering confidence for his unexpected 16-point outburst and go-ahead three-pointer with less than 30 seconds to go in the game. It is this same confidence that allowed the 26 year-old to calmly step to the free throw line this year with a championship on the line.

“That’s what I live for,” said Vujacic. “As a little kid, as a professional athlete…as someone that loves the game of basketball, I’ve got an opportunity to go out there and I knew they were going to foul me and I just live for the moments like that.”

Two free throws in Game 7 of the Finals can make you forget many things, but make no mistake about it—Vujacic struggled mightily for much of the regular season and playoffs. Sasha averaged just three points per game in 9 minutes of play over 67 games. More importantly, he fell out of favor with the coaching staff, with his minutes instead going to the likes of Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar. Toward the end of the season though, he appeared to have turned a corner with a string of solid outings in the season’s final two weeks. Unfortunately, Vujacic’s improved play was short-lived as he suffered a bad ankle sprain in the regular season finale against the Clippers that left him in street clothes during the first two rounds of the playoffs. Give Sasha credit for refusing to accept the fate of his poor season though as he returned with a vengeance (emotionally speaking, anyway) that led to an on-court sparring with Suns’ guard Goran Dragic in Game 6 of the Conference Finals. Despite bearing the wrath of his teammates over the incident, he maintained his composure when it mattered most in the Finals and his season ended on a memorable up-note.

PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON:

It probably goes without saying at this point, but his two free throws to close out the Lakers’ sixteenth championship were just as important as Artest’s huge three-pointer and the team’s other clutch plays in the dramatic final minute of Game 7.

NEXT SEASON:

Kobe Bryant has notoriously come down hard on Vujacic throughout his Lakers tenure—not for his work ethic, but for his often-questionable decision-making on the court. In fact, if you ask any of his teammates, they will tell you that Sasha is one of the hardest working players on the team. While that has not led to consistent success in live games, “The Machine,” who is entering the final year of his contract, will once again look to prove his worth to the team in 2010-11.

“It’s no secret,” said Vujacic in a recent interview when discussing his contract status. “Not only for myself, but I really want to do good for the team. The team wants it.”

Looking ahead to next season, the hope is that Sasha will be able to harness the confidence gained from sinking the two biggest shots of his life into a renewed sense of consistency. The team expects Vujacic to play his usual brand of pesky defense, but if he wants to see extended playing time at either guard slot, he’ll need to improve his shot selection too. With the addition of Steve Blake, along with the anticipated signing of Derek Fisher and possible departure of Shannon Brown, Sasha will certainly have an opportunity to spell Kobe at the two spot. If the Lakers are not able to reach an agreement with Fisher, there will be an even greater need at backup point guard—a challenge Vujacic says he is ready to accept.

“I love it; I’m not going to lie to you,” said Vujacic about seeing more time at the point. “It’s a big responsibility…I’m up for the challenge.”

Regardless of the capacity in which he will be used next season, steady play from Sasha would go a long way toward reestablishing the bench mob that propelled the Lakers to a Finals run in 2008. Championship moxie is an underrated quality in the league and it is something that Vujacic can now lay claim to. Sasha’s primary task next season will be to find a way to translate that invaluable experience onto the court.

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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.)

NEXT SEASON:

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.