LOS ANGELES -- As he skulked out of Staples Center on Sunday afternoon, Metta World Peace paused for a moment by the Lakers bench, the look on his face conveying bewilderment more than shame. Kobe Bryant wrapped him in a long hug, strange considering World Peace had just thrown a vicious elbow to James Harden's head that prompted an ejection, but oddly appropriate considering their history together.
While the nation was flashing back to 2004, when Metta World Peace was still Ron Artest and he charged into the stands at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Los Angeles was more likely revisiting another surreal scene. In 2008, after the Lakers were humiliated by the Celtics in Game 6 of the Finals, Artest famously marched into the showers at TD Garden. While Bryant was lathering up, Artest told him he wanted to come to L.A. and help him win a championship.
The Lakers signed Artest a year later, and not because they wanted him to earn citizenship awards or raise awareness for psychiatric health. They needed an edge. Bryant needed an enforcer. The team was soft and Artest was the toughest addition they could make. The Lakers were fine with Artest appearing at schools and lobbying politicians, as long as he remained a madman when it came time to match up with Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce on the court. That was always his job description.
Artest delivered for the Lakers at the most crucial time, in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals against Boston, allowing Bryant to win his fifth championship. But after the post-game press conference, when Artest memorably thanked his psychiatrist, he seemed to mellow. He still directed some Twitter rants at head coach Phil Jackson, and verbal jabs at successor Mike Brown, but nothing sinister or scary. Artest's transformation, into the milquetoast Metta World Peace, was a sweet story for the NBA. But it wasn't so nice for the Lakers, who wondered where their tough guy had gone.
He resurfaced in the past three weeks, with 26 points at San Antonio and 18 against Dallas, one game with nine assists and another with eight rebounds. Metta World Peace was turning back into Ron Artest, and around L.A., the metamorphosis prompted hope for another championship. World Peace was playing on the edge, and that's where he's most potent. As the Lakers saw Sunday, it's also where he's most dangerous.
When World Peace is passive, he's useless as a player. When he is aggressive, he's hazardous as a person. For three years, he has done this dangerous dance, treaded this dotted line, and now he has lost his balance at the worst possible moment. The NBA suspended World Peace for seven games Tuesday night, severe given that six of those games will be in the playoffs, but fair given his past indiscretions. World Peace could miss the entire first round, which means there is a chance he has played his last game as a Laker. Maybe Bryant knew that when he embraced him.
"Metta has for the most part been a model citizen both on and off the court since joining the Lakers," general manager Mitch Kupchak said in a statement. "Still, his most recent lapse in judgment is not to be condoned or accepted. His actions could have seriously injured another player, and his absence during this suspension will hurt our team, as well. While we accept the league's decision, we will be supportive of Metta and try to help him be more professional on the court."
The Lakers must reach into a flimsy bench to replace World Peace, their starting small forward and best wing defender. Matt Barnes, enforcer 1A, is nursing an injured ankle. Devin Ebanks, who was in the Development League earlier this season, was assigned to Durant on Sunday. The Lakers outlasted the Thunder, and if they draw Denver in the playoffs, they should survive the first round. But their margin for error is as thin as their roster.
Assuming that World Peace does return in the Western Conference semifinals, the Lakers can't know what player to expect: the one who was a wallflower in the first half of the season, or the one who was a threat in the second. The rhythm he built over the past month will be impossible to sustain and the backlash over the elbow will be impossible to ignore. He could shrink right back into the shadows.
The most surprising part of Sunday's outburst is that it didn't happen earlier. As World Peace so publicly acknowledged, he had a great psychiatrist, and he also had the best psychiatrist/coach in Jackson. But his problems cannot be cured, only managed. Artest may have rehabbed his image, but he cannot fully rehab himself, and in seven games he will likely be tested again. The Lakers will need him right back on the edge, the point where it is easiest to fall.