Archives For ron artest

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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.

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Lebron James.  Carmelo Anthony.  Paul Pierce.  Kevin Durant.  Brandon Roy.  While this is an amended list, it’s these (types of) players that the Lakers were thinking of when they signed Ron Artest as a free agent.  Sure, the Lakers were optimistic that Ron’s all around offensive game would mesh in with the Triangle, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that improving the Lakers defense wasn’t on the minds of Mitch Kupchak and Phil Jackson when the green light was given on this acquisition.  However when looking at that list of great wing scorers, you don’t see a member of the Utah Jazz.  And that fact led to a couple of interesting comments in the lead up to this series:

Mamula: “It will be interesting to see who will Ron Artest be guarding in this series. He is not quick enough to put on Deron. Wesley Matthews and CJ Miles are not really explosive constant scorers, even though they have their moments from time to time.”

Ray: “Is it just me, or should we just put Fisher or Kobe on D. Will? I love Artest, but I don’t think he can handle his speed.”

So, at this point, the question must be asked – who is the best person for Artest to guard?  In game 1, Phil Jackson started Artest on CJ Miles and then moved him onto Deron when Fisher picked up an early foul.  And while Ron did an okay job on Williams, I think Mamula and Ray’s concerns were valid in that Deron’s quickness and ability to change directions did at times leave Ron flatfooted and out of position.  Now, that’s nothing to be ashamed off as Williams is a headache for nearly every defender and slowing him down will always be a team effort and not one that can be assigned to one player.  But is this the best use of Ron’s defensive skills? 

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Williams is going to accumulate his stats against any defender the Lakers throw up against him.  Whether it’s Kobe, Shannon, or Fisher, Williams is just too good a player to stop completely and even slowing him down is a serious chore.  So, should we really be sending Ron out there against him?  I’m acutally not sure it’s the best approach. (On a side note, Fisher actually does a good job against Deron – it must be all that practice time against him from when Fish was on the Jazz.)

In game one, Wesley Matthews and CJ Miles combined for 30 points on 24 shots.  And while these aren’t the most efficient numbers, they do highlight the fact that these two guys are threats.  And when you consider that Miles (34% on threes this season) only made 1 of his 5 attempts from behind the arc but had several wide open looks from distance that just missed, this point total could have been much worse from the Lakers perspective.  Just looking at those point totals for those players, it reminds me of the boxscore from the lone Jazz win during the regular season where the team had tremendous scoring balance and was able to spread the scoring load around enough to earn the 8 point win.  And it’s those types of team efforts on offense that will be needed to beat the Lakers.

As Kevin at TrueHoop expressed yesterday, the Jazz face some daunting disadvantages in this match up.  If they are going to overcome them, they can’t just rely on their typical exploits from Boozer and Millsap to pull them through.  And even if Deron goes off in the way that he did against Denver, it will still take some better than just solid performances from some of Utah’s supporting players on the wing.  That means Miles, Matthews, and Korver will need to step up their games and perform well.  So why not deploy Artest in full on ‘defending Durant’ mode to shut one of these guys out?  Wouldn’t that go further in helping to secure a win than throwing him on Deron for extended streches?  Especially when it really will be a team effort where switches, double teams, and strong side zone looks are likely to be deployed in slowing the Jazz all-star PG?  Maybe I’m off base with this.  What do you think?  What should the Lakers do with Ron Artest?

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Before I get into why I think Ron Artest is the Defensive Player of the Year, allow me to throw out this disclaimer: I am biased. Now, before you stop reading, let me explain. I’m not biased because I’m a Lakers fan (necessarily), I’m biased because I’ve seen nearly every minute that Ron Artest has played this season. This is something that I can not say about the other top defensive players in the NBA. So, because that is the case, I’ve seen first hand and game after game the impact that Ron has on the defensive side of the ball.  I can not make this same claim about some of the other elite defenders around the NBA.  Some may say that fact makes my views distorted or slanted. And that is a solid argument.  However, I will also say that this fact makes me informed about the guy that I’m watching. And the guy I’m watching is a fantastic defensive player that is playing some of the best defense, night in and night out, that I’ve seen in a long time from any player.

I understand that there are several other strong candidates for this award.  Reigning DPOY Dwight Howard is a fantastic defensive player in his own right and if he took home the hardware, I would applaud with little to  no complaint.  Besides Howard though, there’s players like Lebron (he of the chase down blocks and low foul rate), Andy Varejao (a great big man in P&R defense, drawer of offensive fouls, and overall defensive pest), and even defensive stalwarts KG (when healthy) and Tim Duncan (no explanation needed).  So why do I choose Artest?  Take a look at that list of contenders and tell me what you see.  That’s right, save for Lebron, that is a list of big men.  The guys who get loads of credit for blocked shots and rebounds (and to the more astute watcher hedging/recovering on pick and rolls, backline communication on defense, etc). 

But Artest is the all too rare stopper on the defensive wing.  He’s a guy that’s tasked with slowing down the premier offensive talents in the NBA – and does quite a good job at it.   And because Ron plays on the wing, his effectiveness won’t always be measured by the stats that are found in the box score.  Sure, Ron has opportunities to rack up steals – and he does average almost one and a half a game.  But Ron is not a player that gambles a lot in the passing lanes.  So while he may not rack up the gaudy steal numbers of some other players that shoot through gaps and read passes like a DB breaking on an out route (like Kobe, for example), the steals that Ron does pick up are mostly on the ball, litterally, taking the ball away from the man he’s guarding.  Which is just one facet of the smothering on ball defense that he exhibits nightly.

Mainly though, it’s the tenacity and determination that Artest displays that has me recognizing his defense.  Really, he just plays hard.  He doesn’t take possessions off.  He fights through screens, he bodies up his man, he closes out hard, and he helps his teammates.  His overall effort is truly astounding when watched within the context of how normal players defend.  Before I got to watch Ron on a nightly basis, I just didn’t understand this fact.  But now, after watching him in 70+ games, I recognize how much effort he puts into defending.  It really is a sight to see.

His defensive versatility is also off the charts.  Last night, Ron battled Manu Ginobili (a SG) and bothered him on pretty much every possession that they faced off.  Sure, Ginobili ended up with some good numbers, but he worked his tail off to get them and took some punishment from Ron on several plays (including one in which Ron and LO doubled Manu and when Ginobili tried to escape dribble, Ron poked the ball away from behind – trademark Artest move – grabbed the ball, bumped Manu off and then powered up for the layup as Ginobili ducked away).    Just over a week ago, Ron did a spendid job on the beastly PG, Tyreke Evans.   Then before that, there was the number he did on Carmelo Anthony.  Ask Kevin Durant who he thinks is one of the toughest defenders he’s faced.  And sure, there will be nights where Ron gets beat – Lebron’s game in January, the first half against Vince Carter a few Sundays ago, or parts of the game that he had against Wade in Miami come to mind – but that happens to even the best defenders.  No one pitches a shut out in this league.  Especially not when facing the types of players that Ron faces.

If you want to look at this from a statistics perspective (which is limited due to the type of defensive stats that are kept and the ability to properly ananlyze defensive impact), Ron holds players to a 12.7 PER Against.  When looking at his on/off floor stats, the Lakers give up less points, opposing teams shoot a lower percentage, and the Lakers rebound better as a team when Ron is in the game.  None of these stats are perfect, but they do begin to tell the story of Ron’s impact on the team defensively.  They just perform better with him on the court.  Not to mention that Ron’s work on defense also means that Kobe doesn’t have to guard the other team’s elite wing player for extended minutes, saving more of his energy for offense, where (if you haven’t noticed) the Lakers have needed him several times this season to make some big shots in the closing seconds.

But bringing this back full circle, Ron is my guy.  I know there are other worthy candidates and the likelihood that Ron wins are pretty slim anyway.  And while I’ve hinted at it before now and mentioned that he should be considered for the award, I’m now fully on board.  If I had a vote, he’d get it.  This doesn’t mean I’m right, but I trust what I see.  And what I see is a player that is facing some of the best scorers in the entire league, night in and night out and either shutting them down, severly limiting them, or making them work as hard as possible to have effective nights.  One night it’s Durant, then it’s Granger, then it’s ‘Melo, then Paul Pierce, Caron Butler, Vince Carter, Ginobili, Wade, Lebron, Joe Johnson, Brandon Roy, Iguodala, and on and on.  So today, I thought I’d just give the man his due and put in my two cents on his defensive performance this season.  To me, it’s award worthy.

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Lately, the Lakers have not been playing that well.  We all know this.  They’re 5-5 in their last 10 games and, against a middling team from the East, needed a game winning jumpshot from Kobe to avoid a four game losing streak.  Typically, I don’t blame individual players for poor play or losses and I won’t do so now.  Basketball is a team game where all players and coaches contribute to what happens on the court.  However, when the team is playing poorly and losing games there are two points of view – the macro and micro.  We’ve focussed a lot (and will continue to do so in the future) on a lot of macro issues – the team’s performance on offense is the most recent example.  However, the individual performances of the players make up the team dynamic, so it’s also appropriate to discuss what is going on with the guys that make up the team.

I say all this because Ron Artest is struggling right now.  His offensive game is off and it’s affecting his status as a viable player on that side of the ball.  In recent games, Ron did have a solid FG% against both Indy and Miami shooting 9-17 in those games and totalling 21 points.  But when you dig a bit deeper in those games and look at the total 5 game stretch in the first part of March, there is a bigger problem – his overall shooting and, more specifically, his three point shooting has been well below his season standard.  This month, Ron has shot 4-18 (22%) from three point range.  And when you look at his total field goal shooting numbers from just the last three games he’s 4-24 (17%).  Granted this is an extremely small sample size and any statistician would tell you that these numbers should and will normalize soon.  But, it is worrisome.

We should note, though, that there are some reasons behind this.  First, Ron does have a hurt left thumb that is heavily wrapped during each game.  You may question how much a left thumb injury should affect Ron’s shooting, but Ron is a player that loves to finish in the lane with his left hand and his jumpshot is also one with a lot of guide hand influence (to my eyes).  Plus, anyone that’s played basketball with a hurt hand (whether it’s their strong hand or not) understands that your ball handling is compromised and that reduces your comfort level on offense overall.  I mean, you lose the ball more when dribbling, you don’t get a good grip on the ball when elevating to shoot your shot from the perimeter or in the paint, and it all conspires to make you less confident when on offense (Kobe’s struggles on offense are another example of everything just stated about dealing with a hand injury – save the confidence part).

And to me, this is the biggest key – confidence and comfort level on offense.  When the Lakers first acquired Artest, I was a person that questioned if he would fit in.  I wondered if “ball stopper” Ron would surface and if he’d buy in to the offensive principles.  I’m happy to say that I was completely wrong about that as Ron has proven more than accepting of his role and position within the team structure.  But, with his recent shooting woes, what I am seeing is indecisiveness.  Ron looks unsure as to whether he should shoot or pass.  He’s second guessing himself in instances where he should show no hesitation.  A percect example occured in the Orlando game where Ron received a pass in the corner and was pretty much wide open for a three.  His feet were set and any confident player would have just fired away (not to go off tangent here, but any of our guards would have surely shot in that instance).  But instead, Ron brought the ball up in a shooting motion and stopped, then ball faked and allowed the defender to recover.  Then, with the defender now close enough to contest the shot, Ron took a side dribble and shot the ball – almost as if he knew that he was open and that he should shoot.  It was in that moment (removing the shooting numbers for a second) that I really thought something was not quite right with Ron’s offensive game.

I also think that Ron’s got some weary legs.  With the injuries to Sasha (and especially) Luke, Artest has logged long minutes on many nights and spent those minutes defending the other team’s best offensive wing.  Some may say that this is his specialty, and I would agree with that.  But only to a point.  Because when looking at how he’s been used recently, I question the wisdom of throwing Ron out there to play 45 minutes against Dwyane Wade or 38 minutes on Vince Carter when those players are guys that play Kobe’s position and guys that #24 would typically mark.  Even though Ron did well in both of those matchups, I think he could have spent more of those minutes on Barnes or Richardson.  I mean, even last year Ron split time with Battier on the league’s toughest wing scorers and surely didn’t log as many minutes chasing around the best of the best on the perimiter for almost every minute he was on the court.  So, while I understand wanting to take advantage of Ron’s defensive mindset while also giving Kobe a breather on D, I do think that Ron needs a bit of a rest at times too and should not be using up all of his energy on defense – and especially not against players that do have quickness advantages over him like some shooting guards will.

Again, I’m not trying to disparage Artest.  I think his defense has been a key component in our high defensive ranking this season.  His intensity and determination on that side of the ball have truly been invaluable.  And in a year where most of our shooters are performing below (and some well below) their career averages in three point accuracy, Ron’s ability to hit 38-40% from downtown has been crucial to the (some would say limited) success on offense that we have experienced this season.  And when you combine that with his ability to make plays for others, I don’t think anyone can question his value to this team.  But, that’s why his recent funk is concerning.  Ron may be the 4th option and all his offensive numbers may be down this season, but he’s an integral part of our schemes and team structure.  So, here’s hoping that Ron’s struggles end soon.  Because right now, in a time that our offense could use a bit of a pick me up, an effective Artest would really help.

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Sometimes, how you see the universe and how everyone else sees the universe is radically different. And it can be frustrating because you need elusive proof to show the other side you are right.

Lakers fans who have watched most of the team’s games see this team — and Ron Artest — in a different way than most of the sports universe is talking about them and him right now. Today, the world sees Ron Artest the distraction as being back — did he really drink during halftime of a game? Is he going to get suspended or fined for ripping Crawford? Even in the days before this incident, several national NBA writers suggested that Ron Artest may not be working out as a Laker, that the trade for Ariza was a wash or won by Houston so far.

That is the opposite of how Lakers fans see everything.

Back in 1916, Albert Einstein (after a dozen years of work any plenty of false steps) finally published his corrected version of his General Theory of Relativity — that space and time tell matter and energy where to go, and that matter and energy tell space and time how to look. It was revolutionary. It told Newton that the apple that fell on his head may have made him a little loopy, and wrong. (If you want a more detailed explanation, ask Sheldon Cooper, PhD.)

As with the proposal of any radical idea, it was not accepted quickly (even after his public fame had made him an icon the scientific community was not convinced he was right). Einstein was right, he knew he was right. But he needed proof to convince the world that things were different than they thought. In his case, he needed photographs from a total solar eclipse to show the bending of light from stars behind the sun. And it took years to get that, time in which Einstein took shot after shot. He waited patiently until those photos of the eclipse came, and the photos of a 1919 eclipse were divided into two camps (one said he was right, another wrong). It was 1922 before photos from the viewing of an eclipse in Australia proved Einstein right to the world.

Laker fans are sort of in the same place. Based on observations this season, they have a theory that Artest is a better fit right now than Ariza, that within the triangle and on defense he is exactly what the Lakers need to win it all again. That Artest is an upgrade over Ariza. Some people nationally disagree. Some skeptics even sort of agree with this, save for the “he’s going to go nuts and blow it all” theory.

Now is the first distraction. Except this is a Laker team that deals with the spotlight of Los Angeles — this is not really a distraction. My sense from being in the locker room is that Artest fits in, he is liked, and that nobody sees what he does off the court as mattering at all. This is a team that has been to the Finals two years in a row; they understand focus on the court when the media is swirling about. Lakers fans don’t see this as a distraction, rather just a funny little story. But that’s not how the world sees it.

Like Einstein, Lakers fans need proof that their theory is right. But like Einstein, they need to wait. The proof will not come until June, and until then there really is no proof that will convince everyone. The Lakers won with Ariza, the question is can they win it with Artest.

Lakers fans know the answer. They just need to wait for the proof.