Is the honeymoon over for Ron Artest?

In the midst of the Los Angeles Lakers' 1st four game losing streak since the Clinton administration 2007, us proud members of Lakers nation are searching for answers everywhere we can.  No stone is going unturned, no nook or cranny unchecked.  What's wrong with Pau Gasol?  Why can't the Lakers, equipped with Kobe Bryant, close out games well?  Why is the defense so poor?  Where did the Lakers shooting go?  There are so many questions, and so many potential answers, that can properly explain how the Lakers have gone from looking dominant to looking like a doormat in just over a week.  But I'm pretty sure I've found a significant part of the problem, and his name is Ron Artest.

Ron Artest is suffering through one hell of a sophomore slump.  His numbers are down from last season in all relevant categories (points, minutes, rebounds), and besides, last season's numbers weren't all that impressive to begin with.  After many thought he would be more comfortable in the Triangle offense with a year's education (as tends to be the trend), he has been as lost as ever.  It is no surprise that his shooting % has decreased as compared to last season, even though one would look at the prior year's numbers and think he had nowhere to go but up.  And we haven't even begun to discuss his heavy hand in helping the Lakers end game execution plummet like a stock market crash.

In three of the six Lakers losses, Ron Artest has had chances in the final minute to help the Lakers overcome a late deficit, and he has failed every time.  In the other two close losses, Artest didn't even figure in the (offensive) crunch time lineup.  That conveys a rather clear message; Teams are daring the Lakers to let Ron Artest try and beat them, and living with feasting on the results.  Courtesy of 82games.com, a quick review of Artest's "clutch" stats confirms the grisly picture.  In tight ballgames down the stretch, Artest is shooting just 20%, and even worse, 80% of his shots in these situations are coming within the first 15 seconds of the shot clock.  Lineups that include Artest are giving up 117 points per 100 possessions, and scoring only 86 in return.  Obligatory small sample size disclaimer and all, but good God, Artest has been a massive dose of end game fail.

It goes without saying that we should all be very concerned with the play of Ron Artest, and this litany of reasons I've just provided ... well, they don't matter in the slightest.

This may come as a shock to you, but outside of a few extremely choice games in last year's playoffs, Ron Artest was an offensive disaster last season.  He's been even worse on that side of the ball this season, but not significantly so.  Take a look at his pace adjusted stats:

Stats per 36 min FG  FGA  FG%  3P  3PA  3P%  FT  FTA  FT%  ORB  DRB  TRB  AST  STL  BLK  TOV  PF  PTS
2009-2010 4.2 10.2 0.414 1.5 4.1 0.355 1.8 2.6 0.688 1.4 3.2 4.6 3.2 1.5 0.3 1.7 2.3 11.7
2010-2011 4.4 11.2 0.396 1.4 3.8 0.365 1.2 1.5 0.8 2 2.3 4.4 2.3 2 0.6 1.2 2.9 11.4

 

Does anything on that table strike you as majorly concerning (besides the whole damn thing, of course)?  In staying within the context of Ron Artest, these numbers are almost exactly the same.  OK, so he's taking an extra shot per 36 minutes, and yet scoring fractionally less points than he did last season.  Overall shooting slightly down, 3 pt shooting slightly up, all other stats basically negligible ... Artest is providing as close to a carbon copy of last season as one can reasonably expect.  He has (sadly) been the model of below average consistency.  So why weren't we killing Artest last season?

Well, we did, sort of, but we also forgave quite a bit of Artest's offensive foibles for one very good reason.  The man was a defensive force.  He was the catalyst behind the Lakers transition from decently good defensive team to a "Yeah, we just held a playoff team to a six point quarter" defensive juggernaut.  Despite failing to properly grasp the offensive system, despite us cringing nearly every time Artest took a shot, the vast majority believed Ron-Ron to be a positive addition to the team.  Then, he went and nailed probably the two most important shots of the postseason and, combined with his unmitigated joy and wackiness in celebration, Artest forever carved out a place in all our hearts.  But he would never have had the chance to do so if not for the fact that, even as he was struggling through the 82 game grind on one side of the court, Ron Artest was still a valuable player because he remained one of the best perimeter defenders in the game.

Therein, my friends, lies the ubiquitous rub.  I'm severely concerned about Ron Artest, because he is failing the Lakers on both sides of the court.  Just look at some of the performances that have contributed to L's for our team:  Melo went for 32 points on 25 shots, 56% shooting in the loss to the NuggetsJason Richardson exploded with 35 points on 20 shots, 65% shooting in the loss to the SunsKevin Martin put in 22 points on 17 shots last night, and that could have been so much worse as many of Martin's misses were wide open looks in the 1st half.  In Laker victories, Martin was again impressive on opening night (26 points on 17 shots), Rudy Gay did major damage to Artest in the Lakers victory against the Grizz (30 points on 18 shots), and even Michael Beasley found Artest to be a friendly foe, putting up 25 in Minnesota. 

These are not just isolated incidents.  You won't believe who the worst defender, statistically speaking, in the Lakers starting five is ... just kidding, we all know it's Derek Fisher, but Ron Artest is 2nd.  Once again according to 82games.com, using opposing PER as a measure of individual defensive performance, Ron Artest is allowing his opponents to put up a 17.7 PER.  Amongst Laker starters, only Derek Fisher is worse (giving up an obscene 20.9 PER).  Kobe and Lamar are both holding their guys below "average" (which is 15) and Gasol is right on the edge with a 15.0 opposing PER.  When the bench is included, only Steve Blake joins Derek Fisher in the "worse than Ron Artest statistically" category.  Compare this to last year, in which Artest faced the top opposing perimeter player every night, and still held his opponents to a 12.9 PER.

Artest's struggles are made even more apparent because of how strongly his backup is playing.  Matt Barnes is crushing Artest's production on both sides of the ball.  Forgive the simplicity of comparing the two players on PER alone, but Barnes' PER is 17.6 compared to Artest's 12.1, and Barnes is holding opponents to an obscene 7.5 PER when he is on the court.  Shannon Brown has similar numbers to Barnes, and if you look at it all as one big picture, there is absolutely no surprise in the fact that Artest is losing significant 4th quarter minutes to some combination of Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown.  When it comes down to it, having Artest on the floor down the stretch does not appear to improve the Lakers chances of winning, and the fact that he sucks offensively is far less important than you might think.

This is where I talk about how Ron Artest has a history of wearing out his welcome.  Obviously, the Ron Artest of today is a far cry from the guy who got suspended for a year for entering the crowd, or even the bad apple that Sacramento was ready and willing to toss aside.  However, there are other ways to fray the nerves of teammates, coaches, and fans alike.  Artest was a model citizen in Houston, and that didn't prevent the Rockets from willingly parting ways with him.  You don't need to be a pariah or a cancer to become unwanted on a basketball team.  Poor decision making and poor performance can do the trick, too.  It just takes a little longer.

Is that where this story is going?  I sure hope not.  For one thing, the Lakers are still on the hook for 3 more years of the Ron Artest show after this one, and it would be a massive disappointment if Year One ended up being the overall highlight of the entire experiment.  But more importantly, I like Ron Artest.  Considering what we've seen from him over the past 6 months, both on and off the court, it's nearly impossible not to like him.  Ron Artest finding a home in L.A. was one of my favorite 2010 storylines.  I want things to be different for Artest this time around, for this to be a completely different genre, instead of the same story with a stronger starting point.

But, as with all things involving the Lakers, winning is the bottom line.  Ron Artest needs to improve his play on the side of the ball we need him most, to get back to being the defensive stopper that we all swooned over last season.  If he can't, and with a capable replacement waiting in the wings, I fear that Artest might be heading down a familiar road, and the Lakers may end up as just another, considerably more glamorous, feather in his cap.

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