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.