Posted by Neil Paine on July 6, 2009
Over in the comments of our offseason transactions thread, there's an interesting discussion about the recent de facto "trade" between the Lakers and Rockets, which essentially ended up swapping Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest straight-up.
The poster 'Anon' sparked things by writing:
"Am I the only one who thinks that the Lakers took a step BACKWARDS with the Ariza/Artest 'trade'? Basically they gave away a younger player who played better defense, was more efficient offensively (especially in the playoffs), and has more upside in Ariza for another player who certainly gives you much better shot-creation ability but wasn’t as efficient at both ends in Artest. And Artest’s age and year-by-year numbers don’t point to an expected huge increase in performance for next season even if he does have a performance jump (he’s still in his prime at 30, but most players typically have their very best seasons in their late 20s). It seems that the Lakers ran out to grab the 2002-2004 version of Artest instead of the Artest that has certainly leveled off since then."
I countered with the argument that, if you believe the on/off-court plus/minus numbers, Artest is still better defensively than Ariza, and by no small margin either (Houston was 4.8 pts/100 poss better on defense with RonRon in the game, while L.A.'s D was only 0.9 pts/100 better with Ariza), and that Artest generally makes more sense than Ariza for the Lakers at the moment simply because the age of L.A.'s current roster demands the better player right now -- Kobe is no spring chicken (exacerbated by the fact he's been taking the game-in, game-out pounding since age 19), ditto Odom (if he returns) & Fisher, and even Gasol turns 30 the year after next. Add to that the fact that Phil Jackson will almost certainly retire after next season, and the Lakers need Artest more than Ariza because they can't afford to wait around and find out what Ariza's ceiling may be; perhaps it's better than Artest, but with the window on Kobe's peak closing, can they take the chance that's it's not?
Then our friend Mike G chimed in with a comment about the dreaded "C word" when it comes to Artest... Chemistry:
"Do Kobe and Artest have any chance to complement one another? Or will their chemistry inevitably corrode the team?
In crunch minutes, Artest is not afraid to take the shot. In fact, he insists on it, and he’s really bad. While he may have been a ‘good boy’ for a while, I don’t see that continuing.
Phil (and Jordan) pressed Rodman into being a productive player, because he filled a niche. Artest is more demanding, and Kobe is no MJ."
Despite the little on-court spat they had earlier this year, Kobe and Artest are apparently friends off the court, for whatever that's worth. And the general book on Artest has been that he's a secondary option, skills-wise and intangibles-wise, trapped in the body of an all-timer -- he has all of these physical gifts, the size, the strength, the defensive ability, the athleticism, but his finer offensive skills have always lagged behind, and we all know about his rather unpredictable personality. I think it can work because he can still do the Ariza job on defense better than Ariza did, at least for the first few years of the contract, and he has a proven track record of pretty decent offensive efficiency as long as he's limited to 20-22% of his team's possessions when on the court. With Kobe taking his usual 30-ish%, and Fisher & Odom/Bynum combining for ~34%, that leaves 36% for Gasol and Artest to fight over. This is purely subjective, but from a psychological point of view, I think Gasol will be more willing to sacrifice his possessions for the greater good than Artest -- Jackson could certainly force Artest to come out on the short end, but that would be much worse for chemistry IMO, since he has a tendency to act out when he's not getting the touches he thinks he deserves.
Then there's the matter of floor spacing, the idea that Ariza's more perimeter-oriented game meshed better with Gasol, Odom, & Bynum than Artest, who has the ability to post up down low. It's true that Ariza took 32% of his FGAs from deep last season while you'd ideally want Artest at about 25%, based on his history, but when Artest was at his best he was still shooting jumpers 60-65% of the time -- which is actually a higher rate than Ariza did a year ago (56%). So, no, I don't think Artest's playing style is going to pose a particular problem when it comes to fitting in with the Lakers.
The main potential problem I can see is the chemistry issue, just in terms of having to divvy up a small % of possessions among a group of players who are used to seeing more. I can certainly envision this hurting L.A.'s offensive efficiency if Artest's will (or ability) to create shots overpowers Gasol's, because even at his peak Artest was only operating with an ORtg of ~110 (normalized to 2008-09); by contrast, Gasol's ORtg last year was an astronomical 125.6! And that's why it was nice for L.A. to have Ariza, who posted an ORtg of 112.4 a year ago while only demanding 16.6% of possessions, as a 4th banana. But I simply don't see Artest accepting a 16.6 %Poss role, which means Gasol's possessions will inevitably go down. All in all, though, I like this for L.A. right now because Artest is better defensively than Ariza and his offense is more versatile -- he adds a perimeter guy who can create when defenses focus too much on Kobe, he can post-up when necessary, and he's not going to hurt their spacing either. For 2010 at least, the Lakers are better with Artest than they would have been with Ariza.