The Los Angeles Lakers Sign Ron Artest

EL SEGUNDO – The Los Angeles Lakers have signed free agent forward Ron Artest, it was announced today by General Manager Mitch Kupchak. Per team policy, terms of the agreement were not released.

Artest, a 6’7” 260-pound forward out of St. John’s University, has averaged 16.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.06 steals in 604 career games (562 starts) during his 10 NBA seasons with Chicago, Indiana, Sacramento and Houston. Originally selected by the Chicago Bulls with the 16th overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft, Artest is one of only three players in NBA history to post career averages of 16+ points, 5+ rebounds, 3+ assists and 2+ steals (Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler).

The 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Artest has been named NBA All-Defensive First Team twice (2004, 2006) and Second Team twice (2003, 2009). A member of the 2004 Eastern Conference All-Star team, Artest also earned All-NBA Third Team honors in 2004 and has finished among the top three league leaders in steals five of the last eight seasons while leading his team in steals in nine of his 10 NBA seasons overall.

In 2008-09, Artest averaged 17.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.52 steals in 69 games (55 starts) with Houston while setting single-season career-highs in 3-point field goals made and attempted (.399, 153-383 3FG) and leading the Rockets in steals (105).

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Ron Artest

MORE: Behind The Scenes: Ron's 1st Day | Artest by the Numbers
This Work of Artest Will Be Worth Framing
Published by Mike Trudell | July 7, 2009 @ 9:15pm PST

Talent is king in the NBA, so you’d better have size and athleticism … or you’re winning less than the Washington Senators.

Yet talent alone doesn’t win championships, so add some intangibles such as an indefatigable work ethic, a refuse-to-die toughness and a personality quirk that keeps opponents guessing (if not fearful).

Combine a 6-7, 260-pound frame replete with explosive muscles and the listed traits, and you have a 12-year NBA career featuring averages of 16.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.1 steals, plus an All-Star appearance, numerous All-Defensive Teams and even a Defensive Player of the Year award.

You have Ron Artest, whom the Lakers acquired via free agency from a Houston squad just weeks removed from giving L.A. its toughest playoff test (4-3).

Now, if talent and intangibles seem already evident in Artest, it may be his versatility that ends up most benefiting an already-loaded Lakers team.

Here’s a closer look.

A Lil’ Bit of Everything

Quite simply, Ron Artest is a very good, very well-rounded basketball player. He can guard multiple positions; he can shoot from the perimeter, including the three-pointer (39.9 percent in 2008-09); he can handle the ball and initiate the offense; he can board (5.2 last season); he can pass (4.2 in 2005-06); he can swipe (2.1 career); he can post up (as he did with success against L.A. in the Western Conference Semis); he can finish strong at the rim; he can set screens; and perhaps most importantly, an edginess that can’t help but to bolster his teammates.

That’s a lot of things. So if the NBA were a rock band, Artest could sing, play lead (and rhythm) guitar, bang the drums, stroke the piano and … you get the point. He’s not without weaknesses (namely shot selection, and we’ll get to that), but he can hoop to the point that scouting reports disregard him at a team’s peril.

Go Small? Play Big? No Problem

Artest, who grew up playing hoops with Lamar Odom and others on the NYC hardcourts, has a game that’s keyed by an attacking style at both ends. But what might delight Phil Jackson most about the newest Laker is his ability to play multiple positions successfully, which allows Jackson (who’s confirmed for the 2009-10 season in case you missed it) to throw several different looks at opponents. Phil can put his newes­t weapon on either wing opposite Kobe Bryant, or place Artest on the high post to work with Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol. L.A. can stick Artest on the low post to take advantage of some of the league’s smaller wing players, or use him to defend the best perimeter option of L.A.’s opponents (valuable for any team but particularly for one that also possesses a now-able-to-rest-more-on-defense Bryant) such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, Manu Ginobili or Brandon Roy. Jackson can put Artest at power forward and let him bang with, say, Kevin Garnett, or sick him on bigger point guards like Deron Williams or Chauncey Billups, all without losing anything at the offensive end from a guy who can dribble, pass and shoot. Clearly, there were more than a few reasons that the NBA’s winningest coach has been intrigued with the prospect of coaching, rather than facing, Artest.

It makes sense on paper, because Artest allows the Lakers to play against small lineups with a grouping of Fisher-Bryant-Artest-Odom-Gasol, even though that group isn’t actually “small,” thanks to the length of Gasol and Odom plus Artest’s brute strength. That crew could well counter, for example, a small Boston lineup of Rajon Rondo – Ray Allen – Paul Pierce – Garnett – Rasheed Wallace. On the other hand, Jackson could go big with a defensively intimidating squad of (also newly-signed) Shannon Brown, plus Artest-Bryant-Gasol-Bynum that dwarfs a potential Cleveland lineup even with Shaquille O’Neal’s inclusion (Mo Williams – Delonte West – LeBron James – Anderson Varejao – O’Neal). Obviously, versatility was a key in L.A.’s 2008-09 title run with Trevor Ariza in place of Artest, so there’s no re-inventing of the wheel here … But in part because of his bigger body, Artest does give the Lakers some potentially powerful new looks.

“I’m Wide Open?” (Shots Come Easier in L.A.)

Speaking of Ariza … The Lakers are going to miss him. He’s good. The lanky swingman’s play was particularly solid in the NBA Finals, thanks in part to an element of speed that few NBA players possess, and a healthy dose of toughness despite his skinny frame; there's no reason to disparage his play just because he's heading to Houston. Artest, though he plays the same position, is simply a different player who will be seeing something that Ariza and Brown in particular realized when lining up opposite of Kobe and Pau: It’s a lot easier to hit shots when you could set up a tent between yourself and your defender. Ariza’s success in the playoffs (though you can't teach clutch, and that he was) was bolstered because L.A.’s opponents had to double team Bryant and Gasol constantly and Bynum or Odom at times, leaving Ariza often open on the perimeter, and creating clear driving lanes to the cup. Ariza converted 54 percent of his postseason field goals, up from 46 percent in the regular season, as his playing time increased and finding a rhythm became easier.

Yet in Houston, Artest was his team's primary offensive option after Yao Ming went down and second option for much of the season, so the bulk of his shots – selected poorly at times no matter what – came in areas of high contention. As the Rockets’ only consistent perimeter scoring threat (towards the end of the season and in the playoffs, Aaron Brooks was simply given outside shots to prevent his more effective drives), Artest was often smothered into bail-out shots at the end of the clock, or simply felt like an early-shot clock jumper was his team’s best way to score (which often worked in Games 1 and 2 at STAPLES against the Lakers. But clearly, in L.A., the swing position in L.A.’s offense is located between two of the NBA’s 10 best players, from where good shots will be readily available as a bottom line.

...About that Shot Selection

Let’s look a little deeper at a guy who hasn’t shot well from the field in general, starting with the easy explanation for Artest’s relatively poor career 42.2 shooting percentage: His shot selection hasn’t traditionally been the best in the business. Even last season in Houston, Artest shot just 40.1 percent from the field despite it being his 12th year in the NBA. But look more closely first at last season, and realize that Ron-Ron was asked to carry much of his team’s perimeter attack, and perhaps unfairly so. With Yao Ming occupying the paint and the Rockets having few outside scoring threats with Tracy McGrady on the shelf and Shane Battier (a weak offensive player) on the opposite wing, somebody had to create offense throughout the season and particularly in the playoffs. Somebody had to create his own shot to open up room for Yao to operate, and Artest took the responsibility even though the perimeter isn’t where he does his best work. Flash back to his previous three seasons, from 2005-08 in Sacramento, when he averaged 18.7 points per game … Who else was putting up the rock for the Kings*? Thus, it’s too simple to pin his shooting struggles on poor shot selection.
*Beno Udrih? Quincy Douby? Mikki Moore? No. Maybe Brad Miller, or a very young Kevin Martin, but that’s it.

Towards that end, in 2009-10, Artest will be wearing a gold jersey, and there are two things that could immediately improve his place in an offense: 1) Space - Thanks to the aforementioned and mandatory double teams of Bryant and Gasol, not to mention an in-form Bynum, Artest will find himself wide open for the first time in years; 2) Leadership - L.A. has a coach with 10 rings and an unparalleled way of getting through to players, plus the game’s best player, who’s anything but shy when it comes to directing the team’s flow on offense. How many early or contested jumpers would Artest take before hearing about it from Bryant (only Kobe’s allowed to heat check)? The principals of the triangle offense rule, and if Artest isn’t adhering, he’ll surely hear about it.

Granted, Artest hasn’t had the best shot selection in his career, but his low percentages can be at least partly attributed to his previous basketball surroundings that will now improve considerably in Los Angeles. Theoretically, his fundamentally-strong shooting should see a healthy bump in percentage, and should be a strength, not the opposite, for the Lakers.

ArTesty Attitude? Not Really.

The well-documented events of Nov. 19, 2004, when Artest went into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit, will be forever linked with his career, and no excuses are sufficient. Period. There’s just no ignoring the incident in a thorough examination of Artest, even if he’s been on model behavior for five years subsequent. But a positive aspect of Artest’s character should be highlighted just the same: He’s always been a good teammate, as Bryant emphatically explained at his basketball camp at Loyola Marymount this past weekend while talking to reporters:

“You talk to anybody that played with him, he's a great teammate,” Bryant said. “He's never been a problem in the locker room. He had that one incident in Detroit, which was unfortunate. But outside of that, it's not a problem at all.''

Not only does he have the most important Lakers ally in the Finals MVP, but the St. Johns product possesses the trust of back-home buddy Odom. Then there’s Phil, who made Dennis Rodman seem like the NBA’s Mother Teresa. If you need more (if speculative) evidence that Artest is in a different stage of his career, it seems clear that his current motivation is not personal nor financial, but simple: He wants a championship. Artest knows that he’s the one who has to fit in with a squad that just won a title without him, and there’s been little to suggest that a few technical fouls, some alpha-male bravado with Bryant (that nonetheless featured clear mutual respect) and a penchant for performing hip hop music will do anything to change that fact.

A New Challenge

We’ll be spending a lot of time talking to L.A.’s assistant coaches, scouts and players about how Artest will mesh with the team throughout the summer, but here’s one more thing to think about for starters: It never hurts a championship team to add a new wrinkle, and Artest is certainly a shiny new toy. Immediately, there’s a new challenge in practice, both from a teaching and a learning standpoint between Artest and his teammates/coaches. There’s a new challenge in games both for the Lakers in how they’ll play, and from opponents, who can’t follow whatever recipe might have been deciphered during the previous season. There’s a potentially infectious new hunger from a player obsessed with competing and winning that seemed evident in Artest’s eye from his “Sportscenter” interview during which he announced his attention to sign with the Lakers.

Artest already loves L.A., and should that sparkle in his eye serve as any kind of harbinger, L.A. might soon love him too.