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John Schuhmann

Numbers Game

The Lakers won't have to worry about scoring against Ron Artest anymore.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Double whammy: Artest signing helps L.A., stings rivals

By John Schuhmann,
Posted Aug 26 2009 11:51AM

In mid-February, The New York Times published an article by Moneyball author Michael Lewis called The No-Stats All-Star. It brought attention to the Houston Rockets' use of statistical analysis, as well as the ability of the Rockets' Shane Battier to have an impact on the game without filling up the stat sheet.

The story focused on Battier's defense, specifically the way he defended Kobe Bryant. And the Rockets' numbers against the Lakers from 2007-08 support the story very well.

2007-08 Rockets vs. Lakers (Rockets won 2 of 3)
Minutes Off. Rat. Def. Rat. +/- per 48
Battier on floor 106 100.0 90.6 8.1
Battier off floor 38 109.7 118.8 -8.9
Difference -9.7 -28.2 17.0
Off. Rat. = Points scored per 100 possessions
Def. Rat. = Points allowed per 100 possessions

The Rockets weren't as good offensively with Battier on the floor, but they were ridiculously better defensively. Overall, Battier was a big factor in Houston's two wins.

Famously, Battier helped hold Bryant to 11-of-33 shooting on March 16, 2008, a Sunday afternoon game in front of a national TV audience that extended the Rockets' winning streak to 22 games. Battier was on the floor for all 33 of Bryant's shots and guarded him on 27 of them (eight makes). In the three '07-08 meetings, Bryant shot 34.8 percent (24-for-69) with Battier on the floor and 57.9 percent (11-for-19) with Battier on the bench.

But last season was a different story. Battier missed the first Lakers-Rockets meeting of the season on Nov. 9, but was in the starting lineup for the other 10 games (the teams faced each other four times in the regular season and seven times in the Playoffs). And the Rockets were worse both offensively and defensively against the Lakers when he was on the floor. In fact, their falloff was greater on the defensive end.

2008-09 Rockets vs. Lakers (Rockets won 3 of 11)
Minutes Off. Rat. Def. Rat. +/- per 48
Battier on floor 353 96.0 109.0 -11.8
Battier off floor 175 98.8 104.1 -4.4
Difference -2.8 +4.9 -7.5

Perhaps motivated by the reaction after the final meeting of the previous season and by the Lewis article that was published between the second and third regular-season meetings, Bryant took it to Battier last season. He shot better with Battier on the floor (48.7 percent) than with him off it (45.3 percent), a stark contrast to the previous season.

And He Gives You Stats, Too

Now, Houston lost eight of those 11 games, so no Rocket had very good +/- numbers against the Lakers. Still, the numbers of one of Houston's key players stands out. In fact, the bane of the Lakers' offense last season was not Battier, but Ron Artest, who the Lakers have signed as a free agent.

2008-09 Rockets vs. Lakers
Minutes Off. Rat. Def. Rat. +/- per 48
Artest on floor 379 98.04 105.31 -6.2
Artest off floor 149 94.21 112.15 -17.4
Difference +3.8 -6.8 11.2

The Rockets were more than 11 points better against the Lakers with Artest playing than with him on the bench. He improved their offensive output, but he had a bigger effect on defense, especially on the boards.

Bryant's numbers weren't much affected by Artest's presence because Battier was defending him most of the time. As he did with Battier, Bryant shot slightly better with Artest on the floor. But Lamar Odom did not.

With Artest on the floor, Odom shot 43.9 percent, as opposed to 56 percent with Artest on the bench. He took fewer than seven shots per game against the Rockets, but Odom should be happy to now have Artest, who also grew up in Queens, on his side rather than in his shirt.

Artest's +11.2 on-off court differential every 48 minutes was one of the best differentials in the league among those who played at least 100 minutes against the Lakers last season.

Stopping Roy

One guy who was better than Artest in on-off court differential was the Blazers' Brandon Roy. Portland was a +9.4 per 48 minutes against the Lakers with Roy on the floor last season, and a -18.8 with Roy on the bench (which includes one game he missed due to injury). That's a +/- differential of 28.2, highest among anyone who played 100 minutes against the Lakers in 2008-09.

Consequently, no Western Conference team played better against the Lakers than Portland. The Blazers were the only West team that didn't have a losing record against L.A. in '08-09 (they were 2-2) and were outscored by only nine points in four games.

It's reasonable for the Lakers to see Portland as their biggest threat in the West, and Artest's signing plays into that, too. Artest wasn't exactly a Roy-stopper last season. In nine games against the Rockets, Roy shot 43.0 percent with Artest in the game and 48.0 percent with him on the bench. Overall, the Blazers had a better +/- per 48 minutes against the Rockets with Artest on the floor (-4.7) than with him on the bench (-7.3).

But when you compare Artest to Trevor Ariza, the Blazers probably aren't too happy about the small-forward swap the Lakers made with the Rockets this summer. With Ariza playing for the Lakers against Portland last season, the Blazers were a +11.3 per 48 minutes (dramatically better on both ends of the floor) and Roy shot 55.6 percent. With Ariza on the bench, the Blazers were a -14.1, with Roy shooting 33.3 percent. It's a small sample size (Ariza played just 90 minutes against the Blazers last season), but those numbers are pretty startling.

The Value of Ron

Beginning with the game last March and continuing with the Times article, a lot has been made about Battier's defense and his intangibles. And he definitely deserves more credit than a standard boxscore can ever give him. But last season, over a sizeable sample of games, it was not Battier who affected the final score most for the Rockets against the Lakers, but Artest. And now, Artest has joined the team he was so effective against.

There are questions with the Artest acquisition, of course. Artest's ability to get along with his new teammates will help determine if the Lakers can repeat, and there's no column in any spreadsheet for the number of times a guy gets on the team bus wearing nothing but his underwear. But for most teams trying to win a championship, on-court production trumps off-court antics every day.

The Lakers not only added someone who gives them production -- and makes them better against up-and-coming teams like the Blazers -- but they've taken one of their most effective opponents away from a team in the Rockets that will be a potential contender, if not this year, for years to come. That's a win-win for the Lakers no matter how you look at it.

The numbers used in this story were compiled with the help of the NBA, Synergy Sports and STATS, LLC.

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