Scott Howard-Cooper
Friday July 3rd, 2009

Ron Artest and his everlasting, unbreakable love for the Houston Rockets lasted all the way into the second full day of free agency, a record even on the clocks of his alternate universe.

Be surprised by Thursday's news of Artest agreeing to sign with the Lakers only if you haven't been paying attention. L.A. was always prominent in his mind. Kobe Bryant for years has loved the possibility of Artest being there, the feeling was mutual, and the sides made nonstop eyes at each other.

Plus -- and this is the really important part -- it's Ron Artest. When the 29-year-old forward told the Houston Chronicle after the season that he was pledging himself to the Rockets, there was never a chance it would play out that way here on Earth. Even if he would have eventually stayed, it would only have been after the obligatory emotional gymnastics and various other escapades in the Ron-Ron Funhouse.

Maybe this is the first tangible fallout of the news that Yao Ming could miss next season, and every season after that, because of a foot injury. Either the Rockets didn't see themselves as championship contenders and didn't want to make the same deal with the devil by re-upping with Artest or Artest didn't see the Rockets as the same championship contender and reached for the escape hatch. Or maybe this was just an inevitable outcome because initial statements from Artest will always be wobbly and all it takes is the right circumstances to put a crater in the plans.

There are two huge risks in the Lakers choosing Artest over Trevor Ariza, which is basically what happened since they play the same position and are set to sign contracts for similar money (Ariza reportedly agreed to a deal with the Rockets on Thursday):

1. Ariza is proven gold. The Lakers won a championship with the 24-year-old starting, and producing in a big way, at small forward. Nothing beats that certainty: They know it works.

2. He's Ron Artest!

Then there is the one reason it makes all the sense in the world to the Lakers: Artest is better than Ariza.

Ariza is a good defender, especially on the perimeter, but Artest can be very good everywhere. He is strong enough to muscle inside and quick enough to keep up on the wing. Ariza is a solid offensive weapon -- 11.3 points and 49.7 percent shooting in the playoffs. Artest, though he gets a little three-point crazy and forces shots at times, will score from anywhere. It make sense for the Lakers, too, because they can handle life in the 24-hour reality series better than anyone. Artest has a great heart and can be a wonderful teammate and is a passionate worker and dedicated to winning, but he loses focus like few others and can wear down a locker room. It's not a malicious thing. If there is not a strong, grounded personality behind the scenes, though, it is inevitable he will jump the tracks. His previous two stops, the Kings and Rockets, were a group of good guys, and Houston was probably too many good guys and needed his energy, however conflicting at times, to mold into something other than constant first-round punching bags.

Let's just say the Lakers are a little practiced at the soap-opera life. Bryant is a very strong presence, Derek Fisher is a very strong presence, Phil Jackson is a very strong presence. Artest will have those kind of influences over his shoulder every day.

It's one of the reasons Bryant was always convinced Artest could work there and not be the latest distraction. As reported in May, after Houston and L.A. went seven sometimes-angry rounds in the Western Conference semifinals, Bryant remained intrigued about playing with Artest, largely because Kobe felt the culture of the Lakers could roll with the Artest moments. Not that he was alone in that thinking -- the front office had Artest, then in Sacramento, on the Plan B list if it had failed to land Pau Gasol in January 2008. Artest, for his part, had Staples Center on the brain when he regretted staying in his Kings contract last summer, only to be traded to the Rockets.

There was never the animosity between Bryant and Artest that some tried to project. Quite the opposite. Even in the MMA moments, the two remained friends and the professional respect never waned. If Lakers executives ran the pursuit of Artest past Bryant, and they surely did, Kobe would have answered with a strong endorsement. Along the same lines, the front office may have wanted and gotten a thumbs up from Jackson, whose presence is especially important now, in what would also be an indication he will return as coach.

So it is that the Spurs added Richard Jefferson, the Magic acquired Vince Carter and the Cavaliers loaded up with Shaquille O'Neal, but the Lakers are the only team that can say they won a title in 2008-09 and got better still. They continue to be interested in re-signing Lamar Odom, a move that would make them more versatile and deeper than before, Odom and Artest two of the unique offensive threats of the game.

Provided they bring back Odom, the Lakers are lacking only a true backup center behind Andrew Bynum. Then again, that was the case last season and it seems to have turned out OK, so that gets into nitpicking territory and this isn't a nitpicking kind of day. It's a day the rest of the league hates seeing.

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