The new and improved (and reacquired?) Ron Artest

Corey Maggette. Rudy Gay. Paul Pierce. Andre Iguodala. Carmelo Anthony. Danny Granger. What do they all have in common?

They're all prolific small forwards. And they've all encountered recent difficulties matched up against Ron Artest.

The last couple of weeks have witnessed defense from Artest greater than many a wild dream would allow. His relentless pursuit and fast hands have garnered much of the attention, but the key to this success may be some pounds recently shed.

Just your everyday average 280 lb. small forward earlier this year, Artest decided masquerading as an NFL defensive end was murder on his feet and a death knell to his mobility. Thus, he began an intense quest to lose weight, even hitting the gym after games during the long roadie .

"I sensed that everybody was making so many trades. We didn't make no trades, so I figured everyone was trying to gear up for the Lakers. I'm not sure. So I wanted to make sure I kind of could be like a whole new person. Kind of like a new trade."

In other words, the Lakers have gotten in "the Ron Artest business" twice since last July, and for the price of just one player at the mid-level exception. Shrewd G.M., that Mitch Kupchak.

As he's felt more like his old self again, Artest has grown increasingly adamant about operating without a help defender. His logic is even if an opponent does happen to drop 20 or 30 at his expense, there's no way it happened without some serious work. "There's really no sense to help," explained Artest. Earlier in the season, when he wasn't as light and still learning his mates, perhaps. These days? Not so much.

But despite this confidence expressed, there is still room for humility.

Artest had an interesting reaction when I asked about the pride in following up his most celebrated recent performance (against 'Melo) with a smothering encore against Granger. He asked if Granger was an All-Star this season. No, but he was named 2008-2009's Most Improved Player. Good enough. Artest then recounted how he took the rookie under his wing during their brief time as 2005-2006 teammates before Ron Ron was traded to Sacramento.

"That's my boy... I would work him hard and kind of show him the ropes. When I left, he just took off. I think I had a little bit to do with it, because I would just push him one-on-one, one-on-one every day in the summer time."

I joked how a student can't beat the teacher, prompting an introspective answer from Artest.

"I don't know nothing about that. I still have a lot to prove, I think. Sometimes, I would be getting cocky and tell people I was one of the best defensive players to ever play on the wing, but I got tired of saying that. I just still haven't proven it."

I asked why he got tired of saying he was one of the best. Was it a matter of people weren't paying attention or Artest thinking he wasn't backing up the claim?

"People just didn't want to believe it. But now I'm in L.A., so they have to believe it."

And that's because...

"You know," smiled Artest, content to let the explanation trail off and remain in his head. "I'll save a piece of that comment for a later day when I actually prove something."

The best may still be yet to come, kids.