When you're the reigning champions, your first thought is not often your first thought. Bringing back the same team that won the previous year, all healthy and still motivated, is much more important. With that in mind, consider it a positive thing that only one significant player in the Lakers' rotation has changed. Bringing back the same key members at all four other positions, as well as the same bench (though, hopefully sans 2009 funk), is a good thing for the defending champions. If they can keep them healthy, they're the odds-on favorites.
The one question mark, then — at least, when it comes to on-court personnel — is the single position that saw significant change during the off-season: Small Forward. Of course, unless you've had your head in the sand, you know the story well enough. While Trevor Ariza became a key player in the Lakers' 2009 Championship run, he ended up leaving for Houston when the Lakers signed Ron Artest — practically a straight swap, as the two are playing the same position, for the same price, on each other's former teams.
We wish Ariza the best, and he will doubtless have a soft spot in many Laker fans' hearts for many years to come, but the 2009-10 season is upon us, and it's time to look forward. And looking forward, the only question that really matters in all of this is, How do the Lakers look at Small Forward this year?
Let's immediately dispense with the usual drama, shall we? Clearly, we all know that Artest is a wild card, for behavioral reasons as much as anything else. In as much as we can see, Ron Ron is saying all most of the right things, displaying the attitude of someone who is genuinely willing to dispense with the drama in favor of winning a championship. Nonetheless, actions speak louder than words, so only time will tell on this one. Likewise, there is decent reason to believe that his tendencies to hog the ball and jack up shots will be kept under control with the Lakers; his desire to win, and the fact that he'll be playing with a true alpha dog leader in Kobe, under a coach he respects, all strengthen that possibility. But again, we won't really know until we see, will we?
Here at SS&R, we've made our positions pretty clear in favor of this "trade." In as much as we're inclined to peer into our crystal balls, we see maturity and the desire to win overriding Ron's "other" impulses, and we have quite a bit of faith in the leadership of Phil, Kobe, and Artest's good friend Lamar Odom.
And that's it. It's all speculation, and we've had our go at speculating, and now we're done with that. Let's move on to more relevant (not to mention interesting) issues pertaining to the Small Forward position. I'm going to break these down into four sections: offense, defense, match-ups, and versatility.
The obvious question: Is Ron Artest as good a fit for the Lakers triangle offense as Trevor Ariza was? To an extent, the simple answer is, "No." But then, that answer is really over-simplified, to the point of possibly missing the point entirely.
Yes, Ariza was a better fit for the offense the Lakers ran last year. But stop for a moment and ask yourself this question: When is the last time you remember the Lakers running essentially the same offense two years in a row? The answer is that it's been a while. To Phil Jackson's credit, he has continually done a fantastic job of adapting the offense to fit the needs of the team, and the abilities and strengths of the players. A few years back, that meant putting it all on Kobe, while the youngsters and starting scrubs tried to figure out the offense. More recently, that meant incorporating more of a running game. Last year, in fact, the approach was often to get down the floor quickly, look for a shot out of early offense (not triangle), and then set up the triangle only if there was nothing there.
In fact, many people would tell you that the Lakers don't even run the triangle very much anymore. In the strictest, purest, narrowest sense, that's true to a large extent. It's certainly very different from the offense run by the "threepeat" Lakers that featured Shaq in the post.
The point is that we shouldn't be asking how Artest would fit into last year's offense, because this year's system will be different from last year's. It will be adjusted to fit the strengths of the current roster.
Specifically, that should mean a heavier emphasis on the post game, as the Lakers will have four major post threats in Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Artest, and Kobe Bryant. In fact, Derek Fisher also has a decent post game against smaller point guards, though he doesn't get many opportunities.
There are two points I want to make here. The first is that having what will most likely be the most deadly post game in the league is a Good Thing. There are certain basic rules that generally hold true in basketball. These include things like, defense wins championships, bigger is better, you need a superstar to win a ring, you need a solid big man to win a championship, etc. As far as I'm concerned, dominating the post is "another one of those things" — and this is a team built to dominate in the post.
Specifically, Ron Artest at the small forward position has size and strength that will be challenging for any small forward to defend, and completely disastrous for some. And if you're worried about his ability to fill Ariza's long-boming, precision shooting role, then maybe you should re-check the stats. Last year, he shot an excellent .400 from three-point range. In fact, it was the second-highest three-point percentage of his career — and while I haven't done any in depth studies on it, my first guess would be that some of that was because he played on a team where he was second of third fiddle, receiving spot-up three-point opportunities off of kick-outs from Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.
So while there may always be concerns about his tendency to get trigger happy and jack up ill-advised shots, I don't think it's quite as easy as some would have you believe to say that Ariza was a better fit for this system. Artest will be able to spread the floor with his good three-point range, and when he's not spotting up, he should be posting up in a system that loves solid post players.
As a quick reminder, let me also point out that there is a significant learning curve to the triangle offense. Ron may not look comfortable yet, and he may not be at his most efficient in the first few months — but do the Lakers a favor and don't overreact if that's the case. Remember, while we as fans hate to lose any game, and hate for our team to play at any less than full potential, the reality is that we can afford for Ron Ron to be learning the offense for most of the year. It really only becomes important that he have it down pat once the playoffs arrive. So don't be too quick to proclaim the "trade" a bad one in mid-November. Give him at least until the All-Star break before you start making judgments on how he fits in the offense.
Finally, while I'm not especially worried about how Artest will fit into the triangle offense, my second point is even more important than all of that. The Lakers offense was devastatingly potent last year. It was similarly so (at times, even more so) the year before. But despite all of that, what was it that drew the primary criticism? What was it that fans, pundits, and critics alike felt should be the primary focus, instead of offense? It was the same thing that has been unanimously cited as the primary reason for the Lakers' 2008 Finals loss: defense and toughness.
Why is it that everybody loves to quote, "Defense wins championships," but as soon as a team like the Lakers makes a move like this one, they're so quick to criticize it ... for offense-related reasons? Notice, you rarely hear people worrying about how Artest will affect the Lakers' defense. Sure, we'll miss those highlight reel steals, but the defense will be fundamentally as solid as before, if not more so. No, the primary complaints regarding Artest (aside from his personality issues) have to do with him hogging the ball, jacking up poor shots, disrupting the offense, etc.
So I ask again, why should this Lakers team — the one that had so much offensive firepower in 2007-08, but not enough defense and toughness — be at all worried about offense? And another, similar question: Do you really expect the Lakers, with all of their weapons, to have trouble scoring? Sure, they might be slightly less efficient offensively than last year's team, but at the end of the day, this team is going to put up points. Period.
So let's put our money where our mouth is, shall we? We say that defense and toughness are more important considerations, especially to this team, than offense. Then let's stop worrying about the offense and focus on how this strengthens the Lakers in those two most important areas. All of which leads me to...
Trevor Ariza was a good defender, but don't fool yourself. He was not a "great" defender, and he was definitely not an "elite" defender. Most of all, he was not the Lakers' primary or foremost perimeter stopper. I'm sorry, but that was still Kobe. Ariza was an excellent help defender, he played the passing lanes well, and he had a knack for the highlight defensive plays. Given the circumstances under which he made several of those plays — in the playoffs, in tight games, with all of America watching — it is to be expected that his defensive prowess was overblown by hype and highlight.
Ron Artest is in many ways his opposite. You won't find him making many highlight plays, and he is not going to collect a bunch of steals. That's because Ron Artest's approach to defense is much like that of the team he just left, the Houston Rockets. As Dexter informed us going into that playoff series in May, the Rockets were one of the best defensive teams in the league, but it wasn't by virtue of blocking shots or generating steals. It was because they were extremely good at forcing their opponents into less than optimal shots. Their opponents worked hard for the shots they got, and they were often not the shots they would have liked to get.
This is the kind of defense you can expect from Ron Artest. He won't be looking to pick his guy's pocket, but his man will have to work very hard for his shot. When he does get a shot off, it will probably be a contested jumper, and a shot that the Lakers are more than glad for him to take.
This is the kind of defense the Spurs play. It's not about the gimmicky stats, it's about lowering their opponents' field goal percentage. In a lot of ways, it's a question of highlights versus fundamentals. Artest won't get those highlights, but with him on the floor, the Lakers will be able to play more fundamentally solid and sound defense.
Artest is a defensive upgrade for another reason, as well. For the first time, Kobe will no longer be the perimeter stopper for the Lakers. Like I said, some claim that was already the case with Ariza, but they're just crazy. With Artest, that's legitimately true. Remember, Michael Jordan was an excellent defender, but Scottie Pippen was the guy tasked with guarding the other team's best player, and he was their true wing stopper. That freed Jordan up, and having Artest on the Lakers will do the same for Kobe. Since we're so often reminded of the miles Kobe has on his legs, that can only be a good thing.
And of course, while we're at it, Kobe can also relinquish another role that MJ never really had to play — that of enforcer. I'm sure Ron Ron will be hurt if anyone other than Crazy Pills himself gets to play that role. It'll be nice to have a teammate who can (and will) stand up for Kobe, for a change, rather than vice versa.
Finally, Artest provides a major defensive upgrade for certain specific scenarios, which leads me to...
At the risk of getting ahead of myself — and of inviting Blazer outrage — I'm going to go ahead and go with the general assumption that the only team really capable of posing a genuine threat to the Lakers in the West is the Spurs. Personally, while San Antonio is impressively retooled for the upcoming season, I just don't think they have what it takes to withstand the Lakers' overwhelming arsenal.
Thus, I think L.A. has a good chance of returning, for the third straight year, to the NBA Finals. Should that happen, they will almost undoubtedly face one of three teams: the Celtics, the Cavaliers, or the Magic. The general consensus seems to rank those three teams in the order in which I listed them.
Should the Lakers face the Celtics or the Cavaliers, having Artest at the Small Forward position is a major upgrade over Ariza. While Ariza is a very good defender, one of his bigger weaknesses is that he's a thin, wiry guy, and doesn't have the strength to go body-to-body with LeBron James and Paul Pierce. Few do, especially with the former. Ron Artest is one of those few. He's had some recent success in guarding LeBron, and causing him to struggle, as you may remember. LeBron is very strong, and Artest is one of few who has the strength to push him back.
Meanwhile, Pierce doesn't have the speed necessary to really cause problems for Artest. And again, Artest's size and strength can be a real problem for Pierce. This will force Pierce to go to the pick-and-roll to be effective. Fortunately, the Lakers are much improved in pick-and-roll defense, and I expect the addition of Artest to further strengthen them in that area.
The Magic are the one potential exception. With Vince Carter's skill set, Kobe may be more suited to guarding him. This, however, is an acceptable option in my mind, as I think Kobe matches up well with VC. Carter can still get up for impressive dunks here and there, but he's not quite as explosive as he used to be. Then again, if Artest can guard Kobe — and he does so as well as anybody can claim to — then I'm sure he can handle Carter, as well.
Manu Ginobili is the one star wing player, on a team that can threaten the Lakers, that really might be a problem for Artest. In this one scenario, Ariza would likely be a better defensive matchup. However, in that specific scenario, Kobe or Odom would probably do a decent job on Ginobili. In fact, the Lakers might find a way to work in Sasha Vujacic against Ginobili, as he seems very well suited to defending a player like Manu.
Bottom line, the Celtics and Cavaliers seem like the biggest threats to the Lakers' hopes of repeating, and thus, the specific advantage that Artest gives L.A. in a match-up against the superstars of those two teams is well worth the trade-off of having to deal creatively with Manu Ginobili. In the playoffs, winning isn't about some conceptual, generalized idea of which player makes your team "better" defensively; it's all about match-ups. And in the more likely scenarios, Artest strengthens the Lakers in several very key match-ups.
This positional preview has focused on Ron Artest at the Small Forward position, for a very plain and simple reason. He will be the main guy at that spot. Nonetheless, the Lakers have quite a bit of potential versatility at this position.
Lamar Odom will probably split time between the Small and Power Forward positions, coming off the bench for Gasol and/or Artest. At the 4, he has become a very strong player, a key to the Lakers' defense, and someone the Lakers really rely on. In game closing situations, he will likely play at the Power Forward spot, with Gasol at Center and Artest at Small Forward.
However, Odom can also be a nightmare matchup when subbing in for Artest at the 3 spot. He's got the speed and quickness for the position, and his length, strength, and versatile skill set pose problems for opposing Small Forwards both offensively and defensively. His jumper has often been suspect, but it seems to be improving — especially when he doesn't fall in love with it, which is something he's been very good about lately. With Odom in the 3 slot, the Lakers would tower over just about any team in the league, and bigger often is better. The fact that, in doing so, the Lakers could go bigger without really giving up much in speed or quickness doesn't hurt, either.
When Artest or Odom isn't on the floor at the Small Forward position, Luke Walton will be claiming the remaining minutes. Walton also has a decent post game, but his true advantage lies in his heady play, his understanding of the offense, and his passing ability. In fact, with Walton on the floor, not many points will be scored from the 3 spot; instead, he will become the Lakers' facilitator. While it may be tough finding him minutes, there will certainly be situations and match-ups where his skill set will be advantageous at that position.
In addition, Walton has been a surprisingly good defender, of late. Generally ragged on for his defensive slowness over the years, it must be said that he did an excellent job defensively throughout the playoffs, whenever he was on the floor, especially against Carmelo Anthony.
Bottom line, the Small Forward position will likely be an advantage for the Lakers against 27 or 28 of the other teams in the league. Only the Cavs are likely to have a clear advantage there, but even then, the Lakers will fare better against LeBron with Artest than they would have with Ariza.
At the end of the day, Artest provides many of the things that the Lakers were said to be needing just a year ago: defense, toughness, strength. In fact, in about 15 months the Lakers have gone from being considered "soft" to having undoubtedly the toughest back court — with Artest, the Mamba who feels no pain, and the Bulldog — and potentially the toughest team overall, from 1 to 5. Thus, in a league where defense and toughness wins championships, and on a team that isn't likely to have much trouble scoring points, this change at the Small Forward position should undoubtedly be considered an upgrade, at least until proved otherwise.