The Los Angeles Lakers are, without a doubt, the hottest team in the NBA. With 15 wins in 16 games since the All-Star Break, against the toughest portion of their schedule no less, the Lakers seem to have confirmed suspicions that their early season struggles were a bit of a mirage. That veteran leadership and championship pedigree didn't just disappear. The method to their hotness has been a vastly improved defense; the Lakers were giving up 105.7 points per 100 possessions before All-Star Weekend, and have allowed just 98.2 points per 100 after.
When the terms championship pedigree, veteran leadership and vastly improved defense are combined to form a team that seems to be peaking at just the right time, there is but one inevitable conclusion. Obviously, the Lakers have flipped the switch. They are trying now, focused, locked in. It's a nice, easy answer that explains exactly how the Lakers can go from looking like a decaying empire to looking like a dominant juggernaut. But the easy answer is the lazy answer. It's not technically incorrect, but it's also nowhere near the whole story. Have switches been flipped? Absolutely, but not in the sense that you are used to. The biggest team improvement has been on the defensive end, and that improvement has been keyed by Andrew Bynum. Was Bynum's effort pre-ASG poor? No. Bynum hasn't flipped the "effort" switch, he's flipped the "having confidence in a previously injured knee" switch. He's flipped the "figuring out how to be a game changer without scoring 20 points per game" switch. And he's not the only one whose switch needs further definition.
Matt Barnes flipped the switch ... from injured to healthy. Steve Blake flipped the switch ... from timid and slumping to slightly less timid and not slumping. I suppose one could say that Pau Gasol flipped the actual, proverbial, switch, as his play has packed a lot more punch lately, but his improvement has not coincided completely with the team's overall improvement. He started playing better well before the Lakers began this epic run. Lamar Odom? He's been "on" all season long. And if we're honest, even as the Lakers have played so well as a team, Kobe Bryant's switch has gone in the wrong direction, from "efficient and balanced" to "slightly less efficient and a little too aggressive". However, one Laker's performance fits right into the mold of that easy definition. One man on this team is playing with significantly more drive and focus than he did when the Lakers were struggling. Whether you use statistical review or casual observation, the conclusion is the same. Ron Artest has absolutely, unequivocally, flipped the switch.You can see it in the way Artest bullies into the lane. You can see it in the comfort with which he now takes shots. You can see it in the way he is locking down on his man and creating steals. He's throwing down (and screwing up) monster dunks. But mostly, you can see it in his visual joy for the game. He's jumping around, blowing kisses to the crowd (both home and away) and flexing his biceps. Sometimes, he's doing all three at the same time. That joy, that bon viveur, was completely absent in Ron Artest's game earlier this season. He didn't look like a man who enjoys playing basketball. He looked like a man who was struggling with the speed of the game on both sides of the ball. That Artest struggled offensively was troubling, if not all that surprising, but Artest's defensive struggles were downright scary. Dude was brought in to be the team's primary defensive option on the perimeter, he was in the second year of a 5 year contract, and it already looked like he was turning into the small forward version of Derek Fisher. That struggle was apparent in every Artest action, and even spilled over into the locker room in the form of a little bit of off-court drama involving Artest and coach Phil Jackson.
No more. Defensively, Artest is back to being his old self again, and offensively, it certainly seems like a corner has been turned. Forget that his outside shot is falling a little more consistently, what has me happiest about Ron Artest's offensive progression is how many more (relatively) easy buckets he's getting at the rim. He doesn't have the speed of a Matt Barnes, or the precision of a Rick Fox, but Artest can make up for both with brute strength, and he is now finding those layups from the wing position that are so prevalent in a well run Triangle.
Statistically, Artest's improvement can best be seen on the offensive end. His scoring has increased from 7.9 points/game pre-ASG to 10.7 since the break. He's shooting 51% (eFG) from the floor, as compared to 46% previously, and he's getting to free throw line a bit more, too. Defense has always been tough to measure statistically, but he has increased his steals more than 33% from 1.4 to 1.9 per game.
Turning to advanced metrics, Artest's personal defensive rating (which is extrapolated from his portion of the team's overall defensive rating) has improved from 107.1 to 102.5. That might sound fantastic, but it is actually surprisingly disappointing considering the team as a whole has gone from 105.7 to 98.2, meaning the difference between Artest's personal number and the team's overall number has actually increased (in a bad way). Good Lord, that seems overly complicated. Basically, the team seems to be giving up 4.3 points more per 100 possessions with Artest on the court now, a difference that was only 1.4 points per 100 possessions previously. But none of that matters, because those same advanced metrics will tell you that Artest was a massive anchor on a tremendous offense before the All-Star Game, with a personal offensive rating of 101.6 compared to the team's 112.4. After the break, even as the Lakers offense has dipped ever so slightly down to 111.9, Ron Artest's personal offensive rating has increased nearly seven points to 108.3. These aren't fool-proof numbers (both Artest's dramatic offensive "improvement" and his surprising defensive "failings" seem likely to be the result of relatively few shared minutes with Andrew Bynum), but the overall context is clear. Ron Artest is much closer to being part of the solution than part of the problem these days.
Early in the season, I wrote a piece illustrating concern over Ron Artest's poor play. That piece was written because I believed Artest to be the one guy on this team who didn't have a "switch" to be flipped. Of all the insults thrown Artest's way over the life of his career, I don't ever remember poor effort being one of them. "He's crazy, he's often stupid (especially on offense), but the guy has always played basketball like his life depended on it, because it does", I thought to myself. Well, folks, I was wrong. Ron Artest does indeed have a switch, and that switch has been residing in the off position for most of the season. The entire Lakers team is playing at a higher level, but only one guy on the team is playing better just because he decided to. I'm not thrilled that decision needed to be made, but I guess I'm happy he had the capability to make it.