Archives For ron artest

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.

With the post season rapidly approaching, we’re nearing the point where the regular season awards will be voted on. Over a series of posts, I’ll make my argument for a specific Laker to win an award or be included on one of the All-NBA or Defensive teams. Today, my take on why Ron Artest should be named to the All-Defensive 1st Team.

It’s difficult to quantify defense with statistics. Sure, we have the typical box score stats of steals and blocked shots. And over time we’ve also become more comfortable using advanced metrics like adjusted plus/minus, on and off-court statistics, and PER Against to try to paint a clearer picture of which players are most helping their teams on that side of the ball. However, none of these stats truly tell the whole story and we’re often left  judging players based off reputation or snippets of games that we watch when determining the best defensive players.

All that said, Ron Artest should make the All-Defensive 1st Team this year.

No, I don’t have the magic stat that sums up his impact. I could cite that when he’s off the court, the Lakers allow 2.15 points per 100 possessions more than when he’s on the court. I could tell you that his PER agasint is 14.4 (when playing SF) which is, technically, below league average production. Or I could tell you that he averages nearly 1.5 steals a game. But none of that would really do him justice when judging how good a defender he’s been this season.

We often talk about defensive anchors in this league and we mostly talk about big men. Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut, Joakim Noah, Kevin Garnett, or even Andrew Bynum. This makes sense because players who can protect the basket and limit the easiest scoring opportunities have enormous value.

Well, Ron Artest is a defensive anchor that plays on the wing. The Lakers consistently put him on the other team’s best wing scorer and tell him to lock him up, and he does it.

This is where PER against doesn’t do Ron any favors. Look at that link again and you’ll notice that Ron doesn’t have any defensive statistics related to playing shooting guard. However, against the Clippers Ron spent nearly every minute on the court guarding Eric Gordon, who just so happens to be their leading scorer and their starting SG. The results were classic Artest as Gordon went 3-14 and scored only 7 points. In different games this year, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Roy, and Kevin Martin have also had to deal with Artest hounding them all over the court as Kobe got switched onto lesser wing threats. But we don’t see that reflected in Ron’s PER against (meanwhile Kobe’s PER Against when facing SG’s is 13.3)

Ron’s versatility hasn’t been limited to guarding SGs either. Earlier in the year when Bynum was hurt, or when the Laker bigs have been in foul trouble, the Lakers have been forced to go small and Ron’s had to guard PFs. Statistical metrics may not show it, but Ron’s given Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, and David West (and in a recent game, Carl Landry) issues too. I specifically remember a game vs. the Clippers where Bynum was out and Lamar Odom was having trouble dealing with Blake Griffin. In that contest, Artest switched onto Blake and proceeded to push him off his spots, and ended up forcing a steal on an entry pass into Blake that helped clinch that game. (As an aside, late game steals have become somewhat of a specialty for Ron, as he snatched the ball away from Steve Nash late in the triple OT game agaisnt the Suns that helped secure that win, as well as stealing the ball from Griffin on a fast break in the aforementioned recent Clipper game that helped secure that win.)

But forget going outside his natural position to defend players. Small forward is one of the more stacked positions in the league and Ron more than holds his own against the best of the best. In three games this year, Kevin Durant has shot 36% and scored 5 points below his season average when facing Artest and the Lakers. And while Pierce, Carmelo, and LeBron have had at least one good game against him, Artest came back in the rematches against those players and held them to relatively poor nights. (After going 11-18 in the first game, Pierce went 6-15 in the rematch. After going 8-14 on Christmas, Lebron went 7-17 in the rematch. After going 14-25 in the first game, ‘Melo went 10-24 in the rematch. Ron has done a great job of bouncing back against some of the best SFs in the game.)

Beyond the raw numbers or even the versatility offered, though, it’s Ron’s sheer presence on that side of the ball that I value the most. I understand that there are other premier wing defenders but in all the games that I’ve watched I rarely see such an intimidating, aggressive defender as Artest. He’s constantly poking the ball away or forcing a player to pick up his dribble, or even pestering a player into making an errant pass. How many times have you heard an announcer (either the LA crew or the opposing one) say that you “can’t play with the ball in front of Ron Artest”? How many times has a player had to turn his back to Ron (and completely removing himself as a threat to make a basketball move in the process) in order to shield the ball and ensure that Ron didn’t get his hands in to disrupt the play? This type of stuff happens several times a game and there’s no statistical measurement that can accurately place value on what that means to the Laker defense.

In the end, I know that Ron’s a long shot to make 1st team. Last year he probably had an even better defensive season and he didn’t make either 1st or 2nd team all defense. It doesn’t help his cause that the Lakers are looked at as a team that relies heavily on their big men as their defensive catalysts. Nor does it help that Ron plays with Kobe (who has a strong defensive reputation of his own) and is backed up by Matt Barnes, yet another player with a rep for playing strong D. But I’ve watched the games. I know how Ron’s been asked to chase players around screens, lock them down in isolation (where based off Synergy’s statistics, he’s a top 10 defender and only allows .53 points per play), and expertly challenge their shots. I’ve seen first hand how he changes the game on that side of the ball by cutting off passing angles, forcing turnovers (that aren’t neccessarily recorded as steals), and making players take extra dribbles that burn precious seconds off the shot clock. Even when he’s had a bad game he’s bounced back in the next one to play even better.

This year, he’s just been too good to go without recognition. Here’s hoping that he gets it.

Silly me.

After yesterday’s talk about Lakers and trades and some smart people saying the same things about the likelihood of the Lakers making a deal (hint: not likely), I thought we could all move on and focus on the games – a Lakers win vs. the Rockets first on deck – and get back to our analysis of the team. Not so much.

Today it’s being reported by Marc Stein (a reporter whose word and credentials I trust and respect a great deal) that if the Lakers do make a deal, Ron Artest would like to be the one to switch teams. As Stein explains:

I’ve nonetheless been assured this week that Artest — though he hasn’t outright demanded a trade and is likely to publicly deny it — is serious about wanting to be dealt somewhere “he can have fun again” less than a year removed from the pivotal role he played in that ring-clinching Game 7 with Boston that the Lakers so nearly squandered.

More from Stein:

It was stressed to me that Artest has actually coexisted better with Jackson since it emerged in December that Artest asked his coach to stop criticizing him so publicly and keep displeasure in-house. Despite Artest’s increasingly regular stints on the bench in crunch time, I get the distinct vibe that settling for offensive scraps in the shadow of Kobe and Pau while absorbing the hottest heat on afternoons like Sunday when Paul Pierce erupts for 32 points has soured Artest far more than Jackson’s frequently sharp tongue.

All I can really say to this is, I can’t believe it took this long for something like this to happen.

You see, this is nothing new. Like birds flying south in winter or bears hybernating or the Lakers Grammy road trip, this is a yearly occurence. You can set your watch to it. Two years ago it was Bynum’s injury (along with toughness talk). Last year it was the the Lakers’ complacency (and a late season swoon). And this year, it’s this (among other things). There’s just an expected amount of drama when discussing the Lakers. Just the other day, we discussed the scrutiny of being a Laker in relation to the criticism that Pau Gasol has been receiving lately. Even the head coach knows this, mentioning after the Boston loss that he may not embrace the adversity, he certainly doesn’t hide from it.

In the end, I don’t think Artest is being traded. Aside from any issues with unloading a contract that isn’t quite payroll friendly (though far from the worst deal considering his talent – and yes, he still has talent), the Lakers need Artest. Snicker all you want at his 1-10 shooting or his career low output in a lot of statistical categories, but both Phil and Kobe know Ron’s value to this team. His ability to defend is rare. You can point to Paul Pierce’s explosion on Sunday, but I’ll happily counter with the fact that all great offensive players are capable of great days and all defenders are capable of bad ones. After explaining that, I’ll happily point to the combined 18-42 shooting that Carmelo and Durant put up against the Lakers in the last two weeks (which fall in line with how he’s performed against them in the past). And when it comes to the playoffs, I’m betting on more performances like the latter.

I can surely understand that Artest may be frustrated. Fans love to point out where players are falling short and there’s a fair amount of ammunition in relation to Ron’s recent performance. I know his role isn’t what a player of his overall ability is used to performing and that even after reaching the mountain top, players still have egos. I’m sure he thinks he can be more than a 4th option and a guy that isn’t guaranteed crunch time minutes. But, again, I think he’s here to stay. When the games slow down and the Lakers face off against elite wings, this team will need Artest. The guys that are in that lockerroom understand that.

For most of the year, a topic of (at least some) concern has been the play of Ron Artest. In early December we covered the topic and ultimately came to the conclusion that Ron wasn’t playing as poorly as some of his numbers looked and that a lot of what we were judging Ron’s performances on were based on comparisons to the strong play of Barnes and the fact that the Lakers were missing Bynum.

Well, since both of those factors have changed in recent weeks (Barnes has been out injured and Bynum has since returned) I thought now would be a good time to take another look at Artest and see if his performance has changed with different circumstances.

Low and behold, his performance has indeed changed. And it’s done so for the better. Below are some of Artest’s offensive numbers for the season and then for the past 8 games (when Barnes has been out with his knee injury):

Season: 28 mpg, 8.3 points, 41.2% FG, 39.3% 3point FG, 50.2% True Shooting
Last 8 games: 35mpg, 11 points, 49.2% FG, 43.8% 3point FG, 63% True Shooting

Granted, the increase in points per game can easily be attributed to his jump in minutes. But what about the increased efficiency? Artest has been shooting the ball much better from both two and three point distance and it’s reflected in his 13% jump in true shooting (a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account 3 pointers and FT’s). And when watching him, it’s obvious that he’s so much more comfortable on offense than he’s been all season. Gone (for the most part) is the indecisiveness when he has the ball in his hands and he is working within the offense better than he has all season. Several times a game now he’s making excellent reads on when to dive into the post and his teammates are noticing by delivering the ball to him in prime position to score. When on the perimeter, he’s no longer second guessing on when to shoot but rather firing away when the shot presents himself – though still showing good patience and recognition on what’s a good shot and what’s not.  While it’d be a stretch to say he’s a completely different player, he’s worlds ahead of where he was 6 weeks ago.

And it’s not just on offense that I’ve seen an improvement in Ron’s game. In the linked post on him from earlier this year, we mentioned that his focus on D wasn’t quite the same as it was last season. Well, that’s no longer the case. In this recent stretch (and before it too, actually) Ron’s defense has again been completely smothering. He’s pressuring ball handlers, getting deflections, and working as hard as ever off the ball by bodying his man and making him uncomfortable. Against the Jazz the Lakers announcers mentioned several times how “you can’t play around with the ball with Artest on you” in reacting to how much trouble C.J. Miles was having whenever he tried to use his dribble to attack Ron. I really can’t say enough about how disruptive he’s been in swiping at the ball when players are tying to make a move and forcing miss dribbles that ultimately lead to turnovers.

And while there are likely several reasons for Ron’s improved play, I don’t think you can discount the fact that without Barnes to soak up minutes at SF, Ron no longer has anyone over his shoulder looking to take substantial minutes from him. This allows him to play much more like last season where he often had to work through mistakes or stretches of below average play, giving him the chance to find any lost rhythm more quickly. This can often lead to a calmer, more focused player and the results that come with that.

Whatever the reasons though, it’s just great to see Ron playing better and contributing to the team’s success. In his first season and a half with the team I think we can all agree that few players care about winning or compete as hard as Ron. Personally, I love to see players rewarded for that type of determination and lately that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing. Hopefully, when Barnes returns, we see this same level of play as that would go a long way towards helping the Lakers reach their ultimate goal.

Around The World (Wide Web)

Darius Soriano —  December 21, 2010

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From JE Skeets, The Basketball Jones:  Saturday, December 18th was a strange night in the life of Ron Artest, even by Ron Artest’s standards. A group of Toronto artists created an art show celebrating Ron’s career entitled, “Lovable Badass.” And, as if to prove how unpredictable he is, Ron decided to show up. Check out the madness!

From Mike Bresnahan, The LA Times:  He still felt pain Monday and said his knee felt stiff during practice. “They tell me it’s just something I’m going to have to deal with,” said Bynum, who had cartilage repaired in his right knee in July.  There was no swelling in the knee, Bynum said, a key indicator that it might not be a big issue. In fact, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson wasn’t aware that Bynum was feeling discomfort.  “I didn’t hear any report about it. That’s news to me,” Jackson said. “He came out and practiced today. He’s still tiring and that will happen as he gets game conditioning.”

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers:  Jackson said he’s pleased with what Bynum has done in the four games since returning to the lineup last week in Washington. Sunday marked Bynum’s best statistical output- 16 points and seven boards in over 17 minutes of burn- but isn’t necessarily an indication of an ability to return to the starting lineup. “I just can’t tell you [when that will happen] until he’s got that kind of bounce in his step that says he can now play 30, 35 minutes,” Jackson said. “Then he can go out, play eight minutes and get into that four rotations that you want from a starter. A couple rotations each half, so that he can have the influence on a game. Right now, we’re content with how we’re doing it.”

From Mark Medina, The LA Times:  Although Lakers Coach Phil Jackson remains unsure how many minutes Smith will play (he had zero minutes Sunday against Toronto), there’s a litany of reasons the Lakers will welcome his presence, albeit in limited fashion: Andrew Bynum’s lingering knee issues, Theo Ratliff’s continued rehabilitation of his surgically repaired left knee, Derrick Caracter’s likely demotion to the Development League and never-ending fatigue for Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.   In case any of the aforementioned variables exacerbate themselves, the 6-foot-10 Smith’s career averages of 11 points and 6.4 rebounds, his reputation as a versatile forward and center and his ability to hit mid-range jumpers and make defensive stops suggest he could hold the fort and eat minutes so that the Lakers can minimize their frontline issues.

From Chris O’Leary, Slam Online:  There’s the selflessness of what he’s doing. Nothing is guaranteed in sports. The NBA title may be the Lakers’ to lose, but they could well lose it. Between injuries, the Celtics and burgeoning Heat and Thunder teams, there’s the possibility that Ron Artest could never win a championship again. If that’s the case, he’d walk away from basketball without the physical fruits of his labors of last season.  There’s the breadth of the gesture. In donating the funds of his ring raffle to mental health awareness, Ron will impact lives beyond the realm of the traditional pro athlete. Everyone talks about the legacies of the game’s greats, but with something like this, Ron’s legacy extends beyond the hardwood. Yeah, the story of Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school team is a great one for coaches everywhere to use at their own tryouts every year (”Work hard, come back next year and who knows what could happen?”), but Ron’s efforts will save and/or permanently alter lives for the better. The people he’s helping may never know anything more about him or the L.A. Lakers than that Kobe Bryant played for them, or that they’re basketball players.

From SoCalGal, Silver Screen & Roll:  So I’ve been thinking about doing some kind of player profiles for a while now, but I haven’t had the time. Instead, I’m going to start a periodic feature called “Did you know…?” and post some little- and well-known facts about some of our players. They’re not facts that are difficult to find, they’re just facts that aren’t reported regularly. That said, if I post something that you think is incorrect or incomplete, feel free to correct/update at your peril in your comments.  This week, I’m going to feature our very own Mr. Intangibles, Derek Fisher. We all know about his family’s battle with his daughter Tatum’s retinoblastoma, a vicious and rare form of eye cancer, which, thankfully, is in remission. But I’ll bet there are some things some of us didn’t know.

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.

Fast Break Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  October 28, 2010

Houston Rockets Yao Ming of China (L) goes up to shoot past Los Angeles Lakers Pau Gasol of Spain during the second half of their NBA game in Los Angeles, California, October 26, 2010. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

A couple of off days in a row for the Lakers allow me to look around the league and truly take in the entire association.   And with the NBA finally back, a few musings from one happy basketball fan…

*The first few days have provided some fantastic performances with some eye popping numbers from players around the league.  Monta Ellis scored 46 points on 24 shots in his 40 minutes of game action to help dispatch the Rockets, essentially carrying over his hot shooting from his last preseason game against the Lakers.  Meanwhile, the ageless Jason Kidd tallied 18 assists with only 1(!) turnover to go along with his 12 points to lead the Mavs in their opening night win.  Joakim Noah, a player I’ve been high on for some time, had a monster opening night outing – albeit in a losing effort – by scoring 18 points and grabbing 19 rebounds (7 offensive) to go along with 2 each of assists, steals, and blocks.  And then Chris Paul had 17 points and 16 assists (only 1 turnover) in his return to action after an injury plagued 2010 campaign.

*But it wasn’t just the veterans that have been playing well to start the season.  DeMarcus Cousins opened his NBA career with 14 and 8.  Wesley Johnson shot well in his debut.  Derek Favors played well last night too, and tonight we get to see John Wall try to fullfill his promise as an elite PG.  But, I can’t talk about rookies without mentioning the guy that resides in the other locker-room in Staples.  BLAKE GRIFFIN!!!  Sorry, got a little excited there, but even though it’s only one game, I don’t see how basketball fans couldn’t be excited about this kid.  His all-around skill set is stronger than many remembered from his college days and his athleticism is beyond anyone we’ve seen since a pre-injury Amar’e or a young Shawn Kemp.  As for the Laker rooks, Ebanks and Caracter haven’t had the types of starts that really deserve mention, but I think that will change soon enough.  With match ups against the Suns and Warriors in the next couple of games, both players should be in the mix for minutes as Ebanks can match up against the many wings that both Pacific Division foes will dispatch and Caracter’s post game can be one ingredient to pound undersized teams when one (or both) of Pau and Odom are on the bench. 

*The Heat are going to be a big story all year.  The stars they have and the media machine ensure that.  So far they’re 1-1 with a win over Philly last night and a loss to Boston in their season opener.  Many have jumped to conclusions about the loss to Boston, but I’m not one of them.  The Heat undoubtedly have enormous talent.  But talent takes time to mold and jell.  Wade’s injury during the preseason didn’t help matters, but to think that this team – a team with only a handful of players returning from last year – would have a strong chemistry or could put it together on the fly were ignoring what the past has taught us about team building.  I don’t care how talented players are, it takes time to come together.  It’s one thing if you’re adding one great player (like the Lakers did with Gasol three seasons ago), but the Heat have added James and Bosh to a team with Wade and working that out will take time.  This is why I thought reaching 70 wins was nearly impossible for this team. (That, and travel concerns.  As Phil has said many times before, teams traveling from the coasts have a rougher road when trying to win that many games.  And Phil would know such things.  Since, you know, he’s the last guy to actually accomplish the feat.)  Ultimately the Heat will find their way…they’ll have to find it amidst a shower of boos and every team’s best effort each night, but they’ll find it.

*We all saw the Lakers championship rings.  They are magnificent and gaudy all at the same time.  People like us could never dream of actually having one.  Except, you know, Ron Artest is raffling his off so now we all have a chance to own one.  If you want to participate in the raffle, you can go here or here for the info..  Also, I agree with commenter busterjonez (who is on his way to buy tickets as I write this) when he said, “If I win, I am going to give the ring back to RonRon. I don’t care if he raffles it off again, but he earned that thing.”  Hear, hear. 

*We’ll have more on the Lakers tomorrow, what with them facing off against the Suns, but I really can’t get enough of the action that’s going on all over the league.  Which reminds me, if you want to catch all the NBA games, NBA League Pass is free through next Tuesday.

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Numbers don’t always tell the whole truth in basketball, but they can certainly offer valuable insight into player patterns, as well as some occasionally prescient nuggets about the future too. That said, we look at one or two important stats for each of the 14 expected roster players and eventually, some key numbers for the team as a whole. Part 1 of Lakers and the Numbers Game focuses on the starters (once Bynum is healthy). What stats from the starting unit pop out to you as the Lakers begin their title defense?

Derek Fisher
Key Stat: +/- 40% three-point percentage
Clutch playoff shots aside, Derek had one of the worst shooting seasons of his career in 2009-2010, connecting on only 38% of his shots from the field. More concerning than his overall field goal percentage was his sudden decline in three-point percentage last season—41% in 2007-2008, 40% in 2008-2009, 35% in 2009-2010. It’s hard to dog a guy who consistently comes through when it matters most, but his inability to knock down open shots was an impetus on the Lakers overall offensive scheme during the 2009-2010 regular season. In order to take advantage of their incredible length with Gasol, Bynum and Odom inside, they need Fisher to consistently knock down jumpers this year. On a side note, like Kobe, Derek is similarly chasing down the record books, currently sitting at sixth all-time in playoff three-point fields goals with 224. Barring injury, he’ll continue to creep up on Reggie Miller and the four others ahead of him this postseason.

Kobe Bryant
Key Stat: +/- 36 minutes per game
Kobe wound up playing three more minutes per game (39 total) than 2009-2010, while his usage rate of 29 was actually his lowest since the 2003-2004 season. In Bryant’s case, the numbers don’t lie as his productivity and decision-making has been on-point for several seasons now. As his scoring average gradually decreases, Kobes’s all-around game continues to shine—a point he emphatically hammered home with an underrated 15-rebound performance in Game 7 of the Finals. L.A. obviously doesn’t need to him to pull down 15 boards a night during the season, but they do need to keep his minutes down so he’ll be as spry as possible come April. Another number to look out for this season is Kobe’s ongoing climb up the NBA’s all-time scoring list. At 25,790 points, #24 is only 1,619 points away from passing Moses Malone for sixth all-time—a figure he should easily reach if he plays in about 60 games and maintains his 27 point-per-game average from 2009-2010.

Ron Artest
Key Stat: +/- 41% field goal percentage
Ron Ron connected on several prodigious shots during the playoffs, but struggled throughout the season with acclimating his offensive game to the ins and outs of the triangle. On a team as stacked as the Lakers, his 11-point output isn’t far off from where the team wants it, but his 41% shooting from the field leaves much room for improvement, even if his 42% shooting over the course of his career doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence for a sudden increase. More vital to the Lakers’ success than his shooting percentage, though, is Ron’s shot selection. During the Lakers’ last three-peat run, Rick Fox proved himself a strong outside shooter out of the small forward slot—and one that carefully chose his spots. Granted, the Lakers expect more offensively from Artest than they ever did Foxy, but Ron could do a lot worse than at least trying to emulate his fellow bruiser from a decision-making standpoint.

Pau Gasol
Key Stat: +/- 12 rebounds per game.
Buzz about Gasol’s quiet, but substantial improvement since linking up with Kobe and Coach Jackson seems to peak during playoff time, even if Lakers fans are privy to his continuing rise as an elite player year-round. Gasol showed up to camp in 2010 with a renewed sense of grit underneath the basket and focus on rebounding the ball. The results are hard to argue with as the Spaniard pulled down 11.3 rebounds per game last season. During the playoffs, those numbers increased to 12 against the Thunder, 15 against the Jazz and 12 against Boston. Granted, those boosted numbers came with a limited Andrew Bynum during the playoffs, but the possibility of Pau potentially leading the league in rebounding persists. With Bynum missing at least the first few weeks of the season, Gasol, along with Odom, will once again be asked to shoulder the bulk of the Lakers’ rebounding load.

Andrew Bynum:
Key Stat: +/- 60 games played.
35, 50, 65: the number of games Andrew has played over the past three seasons. With news breaking this week that the five-year veteran will be out at least two to three weeks according to Coach Jackson (possibly more if you go off of Bynum’s prognosis), there’s really no way of predicting how many games he’ll play this season. For the sake of coming up with a goal, let’s go with the assumption that Andrew misses the first 18 games of the season (includes all games up until the end of November) and doesn’t experience any lingering issues with his troublesome knee. If a similar scenario plays out, I think a solid number for Bynum to aspire to is somewhere around 60 games. In any case, it’s a figure that could very well define whether or not the Lakers are able to fend off hungry teams like Miami, Orlando and Boston for home court advantage throughout the playoffs.