Laker report cards: Ron Artest
Exit interviews take place at the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo on Tuesday and Wednesday, so we'll provide audio clips as quickly as possible and news/feature items from all the interviews with video later in the day.
But we don't have to wait for that before providing an assessment of the Lakers' roster. Here is the first edition of Laker report cards, beginning with Laker forward Ron Artest.
Grade: C +
The simple narrative that Artest rested on his laurels after winning his first NBA championship, thanks in part to his own Game 7 heroics in the 2010 Finals, proves misleading. There's no doubt Artest felt vindicated in overcoming the toxic reputation that followed him after the "Malice at the Palace" in 2004. There's also no doubt Artest felt he gained more respect within the organization and the general public with his Game 7 performance and used it as a platform to tout his advocacy for mental health issues. But it's inaccurate to argue that Artest entered the 2010-2011 season without the same hunger and focus.
No, what plagued Artest this season was trying to do too much. He slimmed down to 250 pounds in the offseason and constantly worked out after games so he could stay mobile to keep up with younger and faster players. He spread himself thin with his mental health advocacy, which included holding a ring raffle and releasing a mix tape, believing the attention after Game 7 would give him the best opportunity to tout his cause. And he constantly worked on his shooting after practice trying to overcome the struggles that plagued him in a career-low 8.5 points per game average on 39.7% shooting.
Some thought this all hit rock bottom for Artest when a Yahoo Sports report indicated he had a verbal confrontation with Lakers Coach Phil Jackson about his public needling; but if anything, the incident strengthened Jackson's understanding on how to properly coach Artest. It also gave Artest a better appreciation that Jackson was simply trying to get the best out of him. There's a definite correlation between that issue and his decision to cut down on his off-court workouts after the All-Star break and he appeared more engaged on offense and played more consistently on defense.
The statistics might not reflect that, given that his scoring average and shooting percentage before the All-Star break (9.8 points, 39.6%) and after (7.9 points, 39.7%) were similar. But the difference appeared noticeable on the court.
That same mind set carried over into the first round of the playoffs, where he surprisingly was the team's most consistent player, averaging 11.8 points on 50% shooting. But the optimism that came with his scaled-back workouts and better understanding of how to "fill the gaps," as Jackson put it, quickly dwindled away. Against Dallas, Artest reverted to completely unhealthy habits in shot selection (eight points on 32%), defense (constantly pushing Dirk Nowitzki) and keeping his composure (getting a one-game suspension in Game 3 for clotheslining Mavericks guard J.J. Barea in final seconds of Game 2).
The challenging part about gauging Artest's progress and measuring his worth to the team is that he really was like what Forrest Gump said about a box of chocolates: "You never know what you're going to get." No one anticipated Artest making a put-back in Game 5 of the 2010 Western Conference Finals against Phoenix after taking an ill-advised three-pointer moments earlier. No one believed he'd be the most composed and reliable Laker in Game 7 last year. And no one believed he would throw down fast-break dunks in regular-season games against Phoenix and the Clippers.
But to blame Artest's shortcomings on him being distracted is all too simple. No, the episode that best exemplified his disappointing season was Artest scoring seven consecutive points in the third quarter of the Lakers' Game 4 loss Sunday, then missing a dunk on a fast break because he couldn't hit the rim. Artest's intentions were great and he gave an honest effort, but his attention to detail and his declining abilities provided more aggravating moments for the Lakers than joyful ones.
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest goes for the steal against Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki in the first half of Game 1 on May 2 at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest tries to drive past Kings forward Donte Greene in the first half of the Lakers' season-finale against the Sacramento Kings. Credit: Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images / April 13, 2011