Ron Artest shows maturity in how he handles reduced role
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson jokingly pleaded with a reporter not to run the story. Lakers forward Ron Artest argued that the media brought it up in hopes it could divide the team. And both Jackson and Artest said it's a non-issue.
This, of course, involves the only topic Artest doesn't like talking about: anything involving struggling performance(s). Oh, he'll discuss them all right. He just won't do it with the same enthusiasm as he would the raffling-off of his championship ring on Christmas Day, raising money for mental health charities; his NFL aspirations; boxing; his recent appearance on a Houston sports-talk radio show in which he imitated Rockets forward Luis Scola; the Lakers' scheduled visit next week with President Obama and seemingly any other topic.
Just don't bring up these stats: Entering the Lakers' game Tuesday night at Staples Center against the Washington Wizards, Artest through 20 games has reached career lows in points per game (8.2), rebounds (3.3), assists (1.8), field-goal percentage (39.5%) and minutes played (27.1). He also has sat out significant chunks of the fourth quarter in favor of Matt Barnes and couldn't convert on the final play in three of the Lakers' six losses.
"You just got to win games," said Artest, who argued recently that dissecting individual performances is only pertinent to tennis. "That's all that's important. You just have to go out and win."
Jackson, who's rarely shy about tweaking Artest for his off-beat personality and shot selection, appeared equally as defensive. "He's fine. Just leave him alone," Jackson said. "He plays well at practice. He'll find his stroke here, and he'll be good. He's just too good a ballplayer not to get out there and get some things going for himself."
Artest has overlooked a few things, however, as his offensive issues go beyond the stat sheet, including a drop-off, according to Hoopdata.com, in shots within 10 feet (25%) and from 16 to 23 feet (18%). Artest still sets himself on an island in the corner perimeter, disrupting offensive continuity and feeling out of rhythm with the reduced minutes. Without a doubt, he's showcased ball movement, penetration and tempered shot selection, but all three qualities come more in spurts than in consistent sequences.
Artest and Jackson also stress that his focus is more on defense. Fair enough. But aside from adequate performances against Portland's Brandon Roy and Golden State's Monta Ellis, Artest hasn't presented the lock-down presence Lakers fans remember from the postseason, when he kept the likes of Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Boston's Paul Pierce in check.
Lakers fans have the gray hairs to prove how agonizing it was to see Artest appear lost for most of the 2009-10 season, but the frustration gave way to a long and, in the end, satisfying journey toward Artest's memorable Game 7 performance in the 2010 NBA Finals, in which he scored 20 points on seven-of-18 shooting and held Pierce to 18 points on a five-of-15 clip. Though there's certainly time for Artest to provide that presence during the 2011 postseason, it'll require a vast improvement than the input he's put in through 20 games.
But here's where Artest is doing the right thing -- he's maintaining the right demeanor about his reduced role.
"He says, 'I don't care if I play two minutes or 42 minutes, as long as we win,'" Jackson said. "So that's the right attitude."
"Rather than be frustrated, I'd rather just stay ready," Artest said before the Lakers' 113-80 victory Friday over the Sacramento Kings. "If I play one minute for the whole game, it doesn't matter; it's just about us winning. That's it."
That epitomizes the sort of adjustment he has had to make his whole career, and I'm not just talking about his role in 2004 at the Malice at the Palace, which sparked an 86-game suspension and, Artest argues, cost him three or four defensive player of the year awards and one regular-season MVP honor.
He played a significant role in the 2007-08 season with the Sacramento Kings with a 20.5-points-per-game average. He took less of an offensive role with Houston the following season, averaging 17.1 points per game, and ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin recently reported that Rockets Coach Rick Adelman didn't like that Artest he had called timeout on plays without his permission. Fast forward to the 2010-2011 season, and you have Jackson telling Artest he should've called timeout after grabbing an offensive rebound in the final play of the Lakers' 95-92 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 28. Other than tactfully sharing his belief that Jackson just wanted to single him out, Artest has listened willingly.
"I had my chance to get everything I wanted individually," he said. "I had my chance to have my own team with Indiana and Chicago. I messed that up. There's no need to do that anymore. I still work on my game to be the best."
That entailed dropping his weight to 245 pounds so he can defend more mobile defenders, but he's not pursuing the league's defensive player of the year award or even a post on the NBA all-defensive team, an honor the Lakers believe he should've had last season. It's entailed Jackson and Artest having a more mutually respectful relationship than last season, when Jackson's continuous prodding of Artest's shot selection fueled the forward's frustration level and prompted him to vent his grievances via Twitter. And it's entailed Artest encouraging Barnes to replace him in the lineup (both players raise their hand on the court when they feel tired).
"I just go out there and play," Artest said. "I'm capable of putting up numbers. Whatever happens out there offensively or defensively, I'll be happy with the rhythm of the game and the flow of the game."
That area still remains in question for the time being. But one thing's for certain: Artest's heart and intent point to the right place even if his actions and explanations for his lapses fall short.
-- Mark Medina
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