Monday, July 6, 2009

Artest's Big Move: Was It the Best Move?

It's a long way from being the NBA's face of evil incarnate.

After a few quiet, though unsuccessful, seasons in Sacramento, Ron Artest's image as a citizen was mostly rehabilitated.

After a shockingly successful playoff run in Houston, the last several games of which featured him as the Rockets' primary (some would say only) offensive option, Artest's career was positively rejuvenated.

Coming into the offseason, Artest was being named as one of the most important free agents in this year's class, and all the championship contenders and potential-laden pretenders saw him as an essential piece to their puzzle.

It was reported that Artest had had dinner with LeBron James just a few days before agreeing contract terms with the Los Angeles Lakers. Rather than try to assist LeBron (and that new large dancing fella the Cavs picked up on draft day...not the one from the Congo, either) in setting up that Nike's-wet-dream of a Finals matchup against Kobe Bryant's Lakers, Ron decided he'd rather be somewhere where they'd been to the mountaintop before.

LeBron's own wishy-washy treatment of his future may be the biggest deterrent to the big-name free agents that Cleveland's trying to court. No one wants to be stuck in Cleveland with next to no help should LeBron decide that he wants to see how bright the lights really are on Broadway.

If he goes, Shaq is sure to follow, and then what?

Artest has served his time in a hollowed-out wreck of a team who used to be relevant. It's highly unlikely that he'd be interested in doing it again based on someone else's whim.

But, what if the King had been able to make a convincing pitch? What would the Cavs look like with Artest in the lineup?

The same way the Orlando Magic were able to stretch the Cavs around the perimeter and pick apart their previously formidable defense, that's exactly the way that the Cavs would have been able to pull their opponents all over the court.

A backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West. Artest at small forward. LeBron being guarded (and I use that term loosely) by power forwards. Shaq in the middle with Zydrunas Ilgauskas coming in to spell him.

A lineup like that could have been the unit that the Magic's '08-'09 lineup wanted to be when it grew up. Opposing defenses would have been getting carpet-bombed into submission.

Unfortunately, without Sideshow Bob Varejao, interior depth would have been a rumor, with the likes of Darnell Jackson and J.J. Hickson having to grow up quickly.

In the suddenly-resurgent Eastern Conference, however, what team could really take that much advantage?

The Magic have taken away the height mismatches that helped propel them past Cleveland by letting Hedo Turkoglu walk and replacing him with the less-vertically-imposing Vince Carter, the kind of scorer that Artest relishes the chance to shut down. Additionally, their depth took a hammering in that deal, with Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee both being large parts of their playoff run.

Boston appears to be trying a page from Orlando's playbook in adding Rasheed Wallace, who has the height and range to make a conventional power forward move around much more than he'd like. However, having him guarded by (and more importantly, forcing him to guard) the freakishly athletic LeBron while Artest dueled with Paul Pierce would be a recipe for either a very compelling series or a Cavalier blowout.

Chicago? Detroit? Miami? Atlanta? Not the way any of them stand right now, thanks.

The Lakers' acquisition of Artest has been compared to the Bulls picking up Dennis Rodman, and the comparison is actually pretty apt. Kobe gets to play Michael Jordan, the hyper-competitive superstar who won't let any foolishness get in the way of him getting another title. Pau Gasol gets to play Scottie Pippen, the rhythm guitarist who can play some mean solos himself. Artest's longtime friend Lamar Odom gets to play Toni Kukoc, albeit a Kukoc with a serious tan and an even more serious substance abuse problem. And Phil Jackson gets to play...well, himself. That's how you know you've really made it.

It's not unreasonable to compare these Lakers to those Bulls teams in terms of the rest of the cast, either. The Bulls never had a big-time point guard, and neither do these Lakers. The Bulls had yeoman work from big stiffs like Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, and a bunch of other uncoordinated white boys. The Lakers have a highly talented big man with youth and potential on his side...along with lots of bedsores from his frequent injuries on his backside. Andrew Bynum's flashes and fragility sort of cancel out the steady mediocrity of the Bulls' interchangeable crew.

Ron Artest traded in a highly uncertain future in a potentially Yao-less Houston for a chance to join a star-studded ensemble in Los Angeles, and in the process, may have made the Lakers the prohibitive favorite to get back to the Finals.

But in Cleveland?

The trio of LeBron, LeRon and LeShaq could have gone all fo' fo' fo' on the East and stood snarling in the way of Kobe's repeat.

And David Stern and Phil Knight would have absolutely melted with orgasmic glee.

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