|An opposing team's scout sizes up the Lakers|
History tells you that at some point this season Ron Artest is going to be a problem for the Lakers, that he's going to be a distraction by doing something screwed up. Young teams can't handle that kind of influence, but this team -- as the defending champion and being in the NBA Finals the past two years -- has dealt with difficult situations before, whether it's incorporating Lamar Odom as sixth man or overcoming Andrew Bynum's injuries. So this might be one team that can handle Artest. The one thing I do know is that something is going to happen.
Rick Adelman [Artest's former coach at Houston and Sacramento] was the best at not having rabbit ears and really not giving a crap if Artest practiced, or if he showed up an hour before the game in boxer shorts or whatever it might have been. With Adelman, it all came down to needing Artest to win the game tonight. If you are consumed with having him live by the same rules as everybody else, you're setting yourself up for a lot of sleepless nights.
I didn't like the move to get Artest. I thought they'd be much better off re-signing Trevor Ariza because of his youth, the way he emerged at the end of the year, his length and the way he fit in with that team. Ariza is a fit-in guy, whereas Artest demands that everybody else has to change to accept him and adapt to him.
The upside is that Artest is an incredible player. The Lakers were always considered a finesse team, but now he gives them their first tough guy since Kurt Rambis -- that's going a long way back -- although with less reliability. I have no doubt that Artest can do anything he sets out to do because he's the Floyd Mayweather of basketball. He's probably in the gym shooting at 2 or 3 a.m. He does it differently. He could say I'm going to score only eight points but average double-digit rebounds and hold my opponent to 12 points a game -- and he could do that. Defensively, he's such a physical force with quick hands. He can hold his ground even as he's pestering you with those quick hands. You can't overpower him, and at the same time his feet are still quick enough to cut off the angles. He's just plain intimidating, and it's going to make for a big difference from the defensive style of Ariza, whose length caught people off guard. He had those deflections that helped secure playoff wins by playing the passing lanes and moving quickly without people noticing him. This year it's going to be completely different. In the playoffs, Manu Ginobili or Paul Pierce is going to know he's going to have to battle Artest for seven games, and psychologically alone that can wear on you.
Kobe Bryant is going to have to manage Artest. Kobe might relish it, especially if Artest is responding. But I can also envision a day when Artest isn't responding and Kobe says, I'm done with him, he won't listen to me. Kobe will like having some toughness behind him so that he won't have to be the tough guy all of the time. On the one hand, he's probably relishing that; on the other hand, he may be dreading the drama and the work he'll have to do off the court to keep Artest in line.
Is Kobe the best player in the NBA? If I had to start a team for the long haul, I'd take LeBron James. But if I had to win today, I'd take Kobe. He's proved it. Once LeBron wins a championship, he'll probably win repeatedly. Kobe has already reached that peak and he's starting to come down the other side just a little bit, but I'd still take the experience of winning that you get with Kobe. The talent has improved around Kobe, but he also has grown up. It seems from everything you hear and read that he accepts his role and trusts his teammates more than he used to, and of course that was the same progression that Michael Jordan went through. Early in Jordan's career, his teammates didn't like him either.
The feeling I get about Phil Jackson is that there is no real formula. People talk about him as the Zen Master and all of that, but what really goes into it is that he's won a lot of games and people believe in him. He's a smart guy and he knows how to play mind games with people, and he can do it his way and his players have confidence and belief that he knows what he's doing. What other coaches can get away with the stuff he does, like the talk [early in the offseason] that he was going to have Rambis coach the away games [Rambis, a longtime Lakers assistant, was hired as the Timberwolves' head coach in August]? He has the aura, the mystique, and that's a big part of being a success in this league. He gives the players the belief that if they do what he says, it's all going to work out. That kind of belief takes on a life of its own.
They're going to miss Rambis because he was a worker for that team. You'd see him out on the floor working with the players, and he also ran the defense for Phil. Brian Shaw is going to have to step up into the role this year, which is not to say he can't do it.
I didn't see dramatic changes in Pau Gasol last year. People talked about the new toughness he showed in the Finals against Dwight Howard, but I have a hard time believing that a guy of Pau's age is all of a sudden going to get tougher and have a backbone. Some of it was the coincidence of going against a young kid in Howard who didn't know what to do the first time he was in the Finals, whereas Pau has been there before. He was also on a more complementary team with a role that was good for him. In Memphis, they said they didn't believe Pau could lead them because he is not a leader, not a No. 1 option. On this team, he is slotted perfectly as a second and sometimes third option. He is a very good player who is in the perfect role with the right team.
It's going to be very important for Andrew Bynum to play a full season and regain the confidence he lost after having knee injuries the past two years. He looked like a lost pup in the playoffs, like he couldn't get anything done. He's young enough that he can still develop some toughness, but this is a big year for him. If he has another tough, floundering year, it will mess with him mentally. He can be really good as long as he feels confident in his durability, and I really like the prospect of Bynum and Gasol as their frontcourt. Pau is so good at stepping out, spacing the floor and hitting shots from the baseline elbow, which is where he'd rather be. Bynum was developing a good low-post game before he got hurt, and defensively that's very intimidating looking up at two 7-footers protecting the basket together. You've got to be a cocky, arrogant guy to take the ball inside against those two. Most guys will be looking to kick it back out.
Re-signing Odom was a big victory for them, as important as he is to the Lakers as their No. 2 or 3 guy. You don't quite know what you're going to get from him; he was so bad in the Finals against Boston two years ago, but then so good against Orlando last year. But when you're putting together your scouting report for the head coach, he causes big problems. You go down the list -- Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, Odom -- and it's like, How many guys are they going to throw at us? They have so much talent and ability. Who do we concentrate on? And it's natural that sometimes you'll forget about Odom because there are just so many people to defend on that team, and sometimes he'll make you pay for that.
Derek Fisher changed the Finals with the big shots he hit. At 35, his minutes are going to be down, and they're going to try to pace him through the regular season to have him ready to go for the playoffs. He struggled with his shot last year. It was like he gave a sigh of relief when he made that big three against Orlando. Defensively, he has so much trouble defending speed because of his age, and they've tried to become a better help team around him. But he is in the game for them because he knows what he's doing, he makes good decisions and he spaces the floor with his shooting. He's another in a long line of Jackson's non-traditional point guards.
Sasha Vujacic was a disappointment after they re-signed him. When his shot is falling, everything is OK. But he was unreliable from the perimeter last year. He went from being a consistent catch-and-shoot guy to trying to develop his game off the dribble, and that threw everything off for him. I give him credit for trying to evolve, but he needs to return to his base as a dangerous catch-and-shoot guy. He is a pesky defender but not a great defender.
Jordan Farmar had a tough time last season. This might be his make-or-break year. I can imagine them trading him.
They tweak the triangle offense every year, though it remains their bread and butter. Artest could be very dangerous in that offense because the theory is that any of the five players can fill any of the five spots. He could be a terrific release valve for them. They pass it over to him and all of a sudden he's one-on-one on the weak side at the elbow against a defender who is a second late getting over to him. Now, will Artest be disciplined enough to run it?