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Getting there wasn't always easy, but last season ended in triumph for Ron Artest. Will he be the good-if-goofy citizen again this year?
Role for the Lakers in 2010-11
When Artest signed with the Lakers before last season, some were concerned the team took a step backwards, trading the youth, potential, and non-craziness of Trevor Ariza for the older, um... eccentric Ron Ron. Would he play his role? Would he be a distraction? Would he snap at some inopportune moment, putting the crazy back in Crazy Pills?
In order, yes, no, and no.
Not that the year was devoid of Artestian color. There were haircuts, a smorgasbord of Tweets, the Great Christmas Night Fall, interviews on national television conducted without pants, and more. It was capped with, quite simply, the greatest press conference ever. (I'm still trying to figure out how to make "Acknowledge me!" my ringtone.) It's not like the guy suddenly became boring- he is and will likely remain a gift to the local media- but anyone waiting for him to rip the team apart was disappointed.
In fact, it was the opposite. Artest became a unifying presence, popular in the locker room and as the reaction to his redemptive moments during the playoffs showed, a guy the rest of the team wanted to see succeed.
On the court, it was more a mixed bag. For a while, Artest was a reasonably solid influence on the Lakers offense. Sure, there were goofy moments, but Artest showed an ability to move the ball and a willingness to get himself near the bucket. He was also the team's most reliable threat from beyond the arc, shooting a sliver under 40 percent before the All-Star break. Then the wheels came off his perimeter game. He started March 4-17 from downtown, and ended it on a 6-24 run. Take away one night in April where he buried three of four, and Artest was 4-23.
The playoffs weren't much better. Never before had I heard a home crowd yell "Noooooooo!!!!!" when a player had a chance to shoot, but the Staples faithful shouted Artest down more than once down the stretch and into the postseason. With good cause.
Artest played the second half with his shooting hand heavily taped, which couldn't have helped, but more importantly (and disturbingly), his understanding of the offense seemed to regress. I remember one sequence late in the season where the Lakers came up the court, and all four of his teammates simultaneously pointed to Artest and then the place on the floor where he was supposed to be.
That was offense, and it was indeed occasionally offensive. But Artest was brought to L.A. to add defense and an edge, and in that he was successful, Particularly as the season went on and Artest lost weight, making him quicker and lightening the load on troublesome foot injuries. But throughout the year he had the sort of "a-ha!" moments driving home his value. In the playoffs, when presented with an assignment he could sink his teeth into with man-on-man coverage, Artest thrived. Generally speaking, his presence changed the way teams attacked the Lakers, and there were games during the season where he controlled games defensively like Kobe can on the other end.
This season, he'll be expected once again to be the face of the Lakers defense, taking responsibility for the opposition's best player when possible, and generally lighten Kobe's load on that side of the floor. He will provide a sense of relentlessness and drive designed to again place the Lakers among the league's stingiest teams. On the other end, between the addition of Steve Blake and the not unreasonable hope Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown will perform better from the perimeter this year than last, Artest shouldn't need to be the team's designated jump (I use the term liberally) shooter. The Lakers will still try to get Artest on the block, or find opportunities for him to put the ball on the floor and use his massive frame to seal off defenders. Despite an inherent inelegance, when he gets himself to the right spot with a favorable angle- he's actually quite good going to his left off the dribble -- Artest is very effective.
Best Case Scenario
Artest maintains his lighter playing weight of last season's second half, and the benefits build over the course of the year. His defense, already good, becomes better and more consistent as Artest avoids the injury issues nagging him through his first few months as a Laker. On the other end, the triangle light bulb goes off and Artest no longer seems perpetually confused. The ball doesn't stick, decisions are crisp, the shot stays consistent. Given all the team's firepower, Artest isn't going to put up huge offensive statistics, but he develops greater efficiency and eliminates the plays so awkward you figure Artest was acting on a dare from a courtside spectator. As a result, L.A. keeps its defensive dominance, but the O looks more like the product of two years ago.
Worst Case Scenario
Artest's "dare circle" expands to the entire lower bowl and his entire Twitter army as he regresses even further in the offense. To the point we have to cover our eyes. The shots don't fall, yet he takes more of them. Meanwhile, age and injury whittle away at Artest's defense, making the struggles on the opposite side harder to stomach. Having won his ring, Artest loses focus allowing all the distractions of fame and Hollywood to eat away at his play. Harmless eccentricities are no longer harmless. (Note: Unlike most players, we've actually seen the worst case scenario with Artest. I can't believe it could get that bad... but keep in mind history has demonstrated my W.C.S. is demonstratively not the actual W.C.S. for Artest. Just saying.)