By Britt Robson
March 30, 2010

The fact that Lakers coaches and teammates are obliquely criticizing Ron Artest just three weeks before Los Angeles begins to defend its title in the playoffs actually says a lot about how reliable the 6-foot-7 forward has been this season.

When the Lakers and Rockets made their virtual swap of free agents Artest and Trevor Ariza last summer, the conventional wisdom was that Artest's rugged defense could really help the Purple and Gold -- provided he didn't suffer an emotional meltdown, hog the ball, draw a lengthy suspension or otherwise find a way to implode the team.

With eight games left in the regular season, none of those cringe-worthy caveats have come to pass for Lakers fans. Instead, we have coach Phil Jackson quoted as saying, "With Ron, there's a little synapse there, a little delayed reaction." We have teammate Lamar Odom quoted as saying, "Artest is still figuring things out, but we expected that." We have L.A. media members with fond memories of last year's championship run who didn't endorse the swap in the first place nitpicking the Artest-Ariza comparison by claiming Artest is less versatile on defense, less in the flow on offense and somehow depriving the Lakers of the confident "presence" they demonstrated last season. We even have Artest himself, in typically wacky (yet thankfully benign) fashion, insisting that Ariza is not only a better fit for the Lakers but also a better player overall because he's won a ring.

Meanwhile, all this chatter is bolstered by the fact that L.A. is four games behind last year's pace and likely to expand that gap thanks to a relatively tough schedule to close out the season.

Artest deserves much better than this.

In some respects, the deck is stacked against him. For instance, he's not an aesthetically pleasing player to watch. He moves more like a bear than a cat on the court, possessing speed and coordination that are easily underestimated because of his bulk and gait. There's precious little grace in his game, especially on offense, where he's stiff with his jumper and off the dribble. Then there is his history and his reputation, which will always be a lodestone on any judgment of his performance. Artest has done and said some crazy stuff, ranging from eccentric to scary. So when he commits infractions common to all players -- an especially wayward shot, a careless turnover, a dumb foul -- he rarely gets the benefit of the doubt.

Not surprisingly, then, the numbers are a lot kinder to Artest than the consensus opinion about his performance.

Yes, the Lakers are lagging behind last year's win total. The chief culprit is a less efficient offense, down from third in the league last year (at 112.8 points per 100 possessions) to 10th this season (109.1 points per 100 possessions). And those who criticize Artest's role in the flow, especially compared to Ariza's, can argue that L.A. is more efficient when it pushes the tempo. The Lakers' pace of play has dropped from fifth to 12th.

But an arguably more significant reason for this year's offensive inefficiency has been the health concerns of the team's top two scorers. Pau Gasol is on pace to play about 15 fewer regular-season games this year than he did last season, a major absence given that the Lakers score seven more points per 100 possessions when Gasol plays compared to when he doesn't. The numbers also indicate that Kobe Bryant's myriad injuries have hampered his ability to elevate his team. Last year's Lakers scored 13.3 more points per 100 possessions when Kobe played compared to when he sat; this season, that positive discrepancy is down to 10.1 more points per 100 possessions.

For the record, the Lakers' offense improves 1.8 points per 100 possessions when Artest plays compared to when he sits. By contrast, L.A. scored 0.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when Ariza was on the court last season -- it was more efficient when he was benched.

It's ironic that Artest is now being chided for not finding his niche in the offense. Heading into the season, people were rightly concerned that he would emulate the horrible shot selection and ball-dominance he demonstrated last year in Houston. Instead, the notorious narcissist has sublimated his ego for the good of the team, favoring rapid ball movement (and consciously feeding Kobe) over silly shots or dribble penetration. He has reduced his field-goal attempts (from 15 per game last year to 9.7) while boosting his accuracy and committing the fewest turnovers per game of his 11-year career. (Incidentally, Ariza has become a flagrant bricklayer in his more prominent role in Houston, ranking sixth in the NBA in three-point attempts per game and 117th in three-point percentage.

Of course, the Lakers didn't acquire Artest for his offense. He came to L.A. to be the defensive stopper, to take some of the burden off of Kobe at that end of the court and instill more toughness and muscle, especially in the playoffs. If Jackson and the Lakers insist on occasionally throwing him out on the perimeter in half-court sets to guard the likes of Marcus Thornton, as happened Monday night in a road loss to the Hornets, then, yes, Artest is going to seem a step slow, particularly in comparison to the leonine Ariza.

But overall, Artest is mostly delivering the goods -- and is an upgrade over Ariza -- on defense. The Lakers have improved from sixth (104.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) to 5th (103.1 points allowed) in defensive efficiency compared to last season. The team is permitting four fewer points per 100 possessions when Artest is on the court compared to when he sits, a better improvement than the 0.6 fewer points per 100 possessions that Ariza contributed last season when he played.

By Artest's own reckoning, Ariza's championship ring with the Lakers trumps all arguments in this debate. Fair enough, to a point: Ariza's two game-clinching steals on inbounds passes against Denver in last year's conference finals will forever be part of Lakers lore. But the Lakers stand a better chance of repeating with Artest on their roster this year instead of Ariza.

Playoff defense is a literally bruising endeavor. Even more than in the regular season, officials let consistent aggression push the envelope on what is permissible. That's when Artest's reputation for tenacious on-ball coverage is most beneficial. Meanwhile, behind the facade of one-game-at-a-time rhetoric, elite teams scheme in the offseason on how to exploit their matchup advantages and neutralize their weaknesses against opponents they hope to face deep in the playoffs. Last summer, the Lakers' most feared foes were probably the Nuggets in the West and the Cavs in the East. Even with his recent weight loss, Artest is some 40 pounds heavier than Ariza and thus better able to try to wear down Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James in an extended series.

Aside from a slightly bizarre incident where he apparently slipped on some stairs and suffered a concussion, Artest has been remarkably controversy-free this season, and reliable enough to rank behind only Kobe in minutes played on the team. Considering his checkered history, he deserves kudos for handling the championship-or-bust pressure while learning the triangle offense and tailoring his role to avoid redundancies and shore up the club's deficiencies. The gentle, and probably motivational (at least in Jackson's case), criticism of his performance proves that no one is walking on eggshells in fear of provoking an outburst or other distraction. Two or three years from now, the Artest-for-Ariza swap will probably tilt in Houston's favor. But right now a team that can boast Ron Artest as its third- or fourth-best player and defensive specialist rightfully expects to be there for the season's final game.

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