When the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Ron Artest this offseason in a de facto trade with the Houston Rockets, who received budding forward Trevor Ariza, there were mixed feelings about the move.
The Lakers were still somewhat fresh off their 15th NBA title in June — a title that Ariza was instrumental in securing. As the old adage goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t exactly apply in Laker Land.
Nevertheless, while the team lauded the move as an instant upgrade, there were many doubts about Artest. Can he provide enough offense to be a starter for this team? Is he defense as solid as it ever was? Most importantly, will his volatile and, at times, vicious personality muck up something great in Los Angeles?
Those were all fair questions. And during the regular season, he didn’t exactly perform as the Lakers expected him to. Artest averaged a career low for scoring in 2009-2010, putting up only 11 points a game. He also took over five fewer shots than during the previous season in Houston, while increasing his field-goal percentage by only one point.
Meanwhile, Artest noticeably regressed on the defensive end, as he simply did not resemble the monster that he used to be. There was no evidence that this guy was a former defensive player of the year.
To give Artest some credit the depression of his offensive game was to be expected as he went from the second or third scoring option on the Rockets to the fourth or fifth on the Lakers. With Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom, there was no pressing need for him to score.
The defensive decline was more troubling. Ariza was always competitive for the Lakers, making big plays at both ends to sway games. Artest didn’t seem to have that same competitiveness and energy, and the fans noticed.
Meanwhile, the Lakers didn’t play as well as many expected them to. In fact, they really only played average ball on the road, but they were still solid at the Staples Center. Obviously, Artest’s manifest lack of production was one of the primary perceived culprits for the struggles.
Still, the Lakers secured the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and coach Phil Jackson never altered course in keeping Artest in the starting lineup. In the playoffs, that’s where Artest’s contributions really surfaced.
It happened on an incremental basis. The Lakers drew the dangerous Thunder in Round 1, and Artest drew the equally dangerous Kevin Durant on defense. Despite giving up several inches and much quickness to the Oklahoma City forward, Artest admirably contained Durant, especially at home, making sure that the Lakers did not fall in the first round.
Against Utah in the Western Conference semifinals, it was his shooting that caught the eye of observers. While he wasn’t terribly accurate, his series was highlighted by a strong Game 3 performance in which he scored 20 points, including 4-7 shooting from long range. His offensive contributions were not to be ignored.
Then came the Western Conference semifinals against the crafty Phoenix Suns. It was Game 5, and the Suns had previously won two straight to square up the series. With some 30 seconds left, Artest fired up a wide-open three-pointer that couldn’t have been any more regrettable; of course, it didn’t drop. But then, at the end of regulation, Bryant fired up a potentially game-winning heave from 25 feet which came up short. There was Artest to grab the rebound, spin, and drop it in high off the glass for the win.
It was quite the polar situation: going from the most hated guy in the building to the most loved in a span of some 30 seconds. Artest played the role of closer, something Ariza never managed to do.
So even though Ron Ron is possibly the worst wide-open three-point shooter anyone has ever seen, he’s playing a role — and a big one, too.
Nobody even remembers Ariza’s key steal in the NBA finals last year anymore.