When the Ron Artest trade went down on Tuesday, I was working on player profiles for the ESPN Draft Kit; by the way, the new, improved game is going to be an impressive beast (he said lovingly and pimpingly). Here's what we had to say about Artest, then of the Sacramento Kings:
"Whether he is with the Kings or starting yet another rehabilitation program with another team, Ron Artest will be one the most valuable fantasy players while he is on the floor. ... We like him if he joins a new team, where he has to prove himself, more than if he remains with Sacramento, which will struggle to make the playoffs."
I stand by that. I like Artest a lot more now that he will be traded to the Houston Rockets for Bobby Jackson, rookie Donte' Greene and a 2009 first-round pick on Aug. 14; the trade must wait until one month after Greene was signed by the Rockets to become official.
What's not to like about this trade? Artest is going to a contender; his chief complaint in Sacramento was that the team wasn't in the running for the playoffs the past two seasons. When the Kings last made the postseason, their coach was none other than Rick Adelman, current coach of the Houston Rockets. According to Artest's agent, Mark Stevens, "Ron has a great relationship with Rick Adelman," and this bond helped the deal go down.
Artest played 40 games under Adelman after being traded to the Kings and before Adelman was fired in May 2006. He averaged 16.9 points, 1.5 3-pointers, 5.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 0.8 blocks. Except for the assists, consider this the low end of what Artest is capable of in Houston. He joins a team with two players who demand double-teams by themselves: Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Artest is an offensive force (20.5 points per game last season), and rather than joining the team midseason as he did with Adelman in 2006, he will benefit from his previous experience as well as training camp and the preseason, where he can better learn Adelman's system. Defenses will key on T-Mac and Yao, giving Artest more space to score. A repeat of last season's scoring numbers isn't out of the question and he is assured of improving on his scoring average from his first spin with Adelman as coach.
Defensively, Artest will continue to be what he has always been: a monster. He has averaged fewer than two steals per game only twice in his career: his rookie season and the suspension-shortened season of 2004-05, in which he played just seven games. With Yao to help clean up, Artest will be free to take more chances in the passing lanes and this should result in a bounty of steals.
How do I see Artest lining up with the Rockets? At small forward to start games, bumping Shane Battier to the bench (more on him later), but also frequently shifting to power forward, especially when facing smaller teams such as the Warriors. He is strong enough to bang with most power forwards on the defensive end and his range will cause them all kinds of problems when the Rockets have the ball. Note that a team with Artest, Battier and Yao on defense is going to depress the offensive stats of players on opposing teams. This is something to think about for those of you in daily leagues.
The biggest knock on Artest (and it's a big one) is that he is a bit of -- how can we put this delicately? -- a loose cannon. He has had numerous off-the-court and on-the-court issues that have affected his playing time. I expect little of this in his first season with Houston. Artest is playing for a coach he likes, for a team in serious title contention and for a contract in 2009-10. That's a lot of motivation for good behavior. While normally on draft day I stay away from Artest like a diabetic does cotton candy, I am bumping Artest up my cheat sheets this season. If he plays 70-plus games, he figures to provide second-round value in mid-sized leagues.
How about the other players on the Rockets and Kings? How are they affected? Let's break them down, capsule-style:
Tracy McGrady: I see little to no change in McGrady. He will continue to be the No. 1 option on the Rockets. With Artest starting and Battier on the bench, the Rockets have a sixth man capable of stepping into either the 2 or 3 spot on the floor. This gives Rick Adelman the luxury of resting T-Mac more than he was able to last season, when he played 37.0 minutes per game. Having another reliable scorer on the team could bump McGrady's assists up, but his scoring and other numbers should be very close to last season's. McGrady is an excellent decision-maker and Artest gives him more options (and more for opposing defenses to cover). I expect increased efficiency in fewer minutes for T-Mac, which should bode well for fantasy owners.
Shane Battier: The Rockets will be benching an all-NBA second-team defender (2007-08) for a three-time member of the NBA All-Defensive team. Battier should be the sixth man for the Rockets this season and continue to see many minutes, slotting in at shooting guard and small forward.
Luis Scola: If, as I suspect, we see Artest get minutes at power forward, it will be Scola who suffers. Scola is skilled player and he provided a nice boost to fantasy owners in the second half of last season. Much of this, however, was contingent upon Yao going down with an injury. This season, barring another Yao Ming misadventure, will see Scola return to his November and December numbers from last season. The Rockets are a better offensive and defensive team with Artest playing the 4. As a result, I recommend Scola not be drafted in mid-sized leagues.
Aaron Brooks: With the departure of Jackson, the speedy point guard out of Oregon is now Rafer Alston's primary backup at the point. He is not draft-worthy in any but those monstrous 30-team leagues, but as a starter in waiting he is worth keeping an eye on. He has some offensive skills, as seen by his 22-point outburst on January 5 against the Knicks.
Kevin Martin: Now, more than ever, Martin is the man in Sacramento. Truth be told, he was the man already. We can expect a bump in value with Artest gone. Last season, in 15 games without Artest, Martin averaged 37.9 minutes, 28.7 points, 2.0 3-pointers, 4.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.5 steals on 48.3 percent shooting from the field and 88.5 percent from the line. That's a bump of five points per game, a half-steal per game and numbers in line with his season averages everywhere else. This season, I expect Martin to score more and for the rest of his numbers to stay close to his production from last season. He doesn't do enough in assists and rebounding to be considered an elite fantasy 2-guard, but he is at the top of the second tier with his scoring, 3-pointers and excellent percentages.
John Salmons: Fantasy owners can only hope that with Artest shipped out that Salmons will see regular minutes this season. Last season, Salmons turned heads with his production. He averaged 18.0 points, 0.6 3-pointers, 5.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.7 steals in 17 games starting at small forward. His numbers were very similar when he started at shooting guard. He is a versatile offensive player who finishes with great efficiency around the rim. Look for more consistent production this season as he inherits a good portion of the minutes Artest leaves in his wake.
Francisco Garcia: Whatever minutes Salmons doesn't get, Cisco Garcia will see as the Kings' sixth man. It is entirely possible that Garcia, and not Salmons will be the bigger beneficiary. By the end of last season, when Artest was off the court with an injured thumb, Garcia was putting up big numbers. In April, he averaged 32.7 minutes, 16.8 points, 1.2 3-pointers, 2.2 steals and 0.8 blocks with excellent percentages. Whether he was a sleeper on your cheat sheets already or not, you can bump him up now.
Donte' Greene: According to the Houston Chronicle and other sources, Greene was the key to the deal for the Kings. He had better be, considering the Rockets' 2009 pick figures to be well outside the lottery and Bobby Jackson, at age 35, is no longer a game-changer. Greene is a great talent. Anyone who watched him at Syracuse knows he has the whole package (scoring inside and out) when he is motivated. However, he is young (20 years old) and will need seasoning. Long term, I really like this kid. I expect his minutes and production to climb as this season goes on. This makes him a late-season pickup rather than an end-of-draft target.
Bobby Jackson: Not much changes for Jackson as he returns to the place of his greatest NBA success. He will again serve as instant offense off the bench, backing up Beno Udrih. He remains injury-prone and should not be rostered in most leagues.
Guy Lake is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Guy.Fantasy@gmail.com.