Having watched the Cavaliers, Spurs and Magic make big moves to challenge their defense of the title, the Lakers' bold response has trumped them all. By agreeing to terms with Ron Artest last week, the champs have renewed themselves as the team to beat.
There will be a lot of talk raised about Artest's history and ego, but in a strange way, those influences will enhance his value to the Lakers. He showed in Houston that he could go a full season without causing problems, and now that he is close to winning a title, he'll be more focused than ever on not repeating his past mistakes. As for his ego, this is Artest's long-sought opportunity to prove he is peers with Kobe Bryant -- and that's a good thing for Artest and the Lakers. Also, no one is better qualified to coach Artest than PhilJackson.
I see little risk and huge potential reward for the Lakers, who will be paying Artest close to $6 million next season. If something crazy were to come up, then they could afford to cut him loose. But that's not going to happen. Between Bryant and Jackson, and their focus on defending the title, Artest is going to be in an environment that brings out the best in him. And when he's playing well, Artest affects the game at both ends of the floor like few players in the league.
Think about a potential rematch of the 2008 NBA Finals against the Celtics. Instead of starting Vladimir Radmanovic or Trevor Ariza at small forward, the Lakers will have Artest (along with Kobe) on the wing against Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. What used to be a weakness for the Lakers is now going to be a strength. Add a healthy Andrew Bynum at center, Pau Gasol at power forward and Lamar Odom -- pending his decision to re-sign -- as their sixth man, and the Lakers are loaded. The Cavaliers (with center Shaquille O'Neal) and Spurs (with small forward Richard Jefferson and rookie power forward DeJuan Blair) have improved, but no move thus far can match the impact of Artest's arrival.
One franchise that could have outbid the Lakers for Artest was Portland, which has a need at small forward and would have benefited from Artest's scoring and defense. But the Trail Blazers have trumpeted their players as reliable, young citizens who don't cause trouble. It's doubtful they could have changed course to make room for the complicated biography of Artest.
Instead, the Blazers attempted to spend their money on small forward Hedo Turkoglu. But after agreeing to terms, the former Magic forward backed out and reached a deal with the Raptors, who badly needed his secondary ball-handling skills to help point guard Jose Calderon. Had he gone to Portland, Turkoglu would have been the Blazers' third playmaking option after shooting guard Brandon Roy and the point guard (currently Steve Blake and/or Jerryd Bayless), so in that sense he'll play a bigger role for Toronto.
Now the question becomes whether the Blazers should make a run at another free agent or carry their cap space into 2009-10 and be available to take on a big salary up to the trading deadline in February. If they don't like the market now, then something new could pop up during the first half of the season.
Meanwhile, the Celtics landed their targeted free agent when Rasheed Wallace agreed to come off the bench behind big men Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. He'll do splendidly in that role, but did the moves of rival contenders -- the Lakers, Cavs, Spurs and Magic (who acquired swingman Vince Carter) -- offset this improvement by Boston? Now that the Celtics will be pacing through the regular season to maintain the health of their quartet of thirtysomethings (Garnett, Pierce, Allen and Wallace), it looks as if they'll be depending more than ever on 23-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo for speed and energy.
Rondo appeared to be available last month, but if the Celtics find themselves back in the Finals against the Lakers, they'll need him to fully exploit his mismatch against the 35-year-old Derek Fisher. Perspectives can change quickly in this league.