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Why the Lakers Don't Need Trevor Ariza

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So far, you've read my headline, and you're thinking, "Did he really just say that?" Yes, I did. Somebody had to say it. It had to be said. And while I'm at it, I'll say more or less the converse, as well:  Signing Ron Artest was a great move for the Lakers, and he is definitely an upgrade over Trevor Ariza.

I'm not just talking about talent. With regards to talent, Ron Artest is better than Trevor Ariza. Surely, even those who oppose this "trade" (for such it essentially was) would have no trouble admitting that. Instead, the questions that arise about Artest are those of fit, of chemistry, and of the effect he will have on the Lakers. In regards to those factors, those who criticize this move see Ron Ron as a bad fit in the offense, a destroyer of team chemistry, a drama queen, and a player who, despite his many talents, will have a stronger negative impact on the Lakers than positive.

They are valid questions, and those who oppose this move raise valid points, so while this is still fresh — and, it must be pointed out, the effects of this trade are still pure speculation — let's take a stab at answering some of those questions.

Let's review a bit, shall we? Our own C.A. Clark has done a great job reviewing the key talking points on both sides of the issue, and I strongly recommend you check that out. Meanwhile, Timbo has brought us a sampling of opinions from the Houston press, and then an in-depth biography or Ron Artest. As far as "the rest of them" go, the good news here is that the reaction is fairly balanced – for every talking head saying, "That was dumb," there's one saying, "Pencil in the Lakers as repeat champions," and vice versa. Meanwhile, the critics, for their part, raise very valid concerns. That's why I'd like to take a moment to look at where they're coming from, and to evaluate whether those concerns will be major issues or minor afterthoughts in the three years to come. Here's a sampling:

Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times: "Less than three weeks after the parade, the NBA champion Lakers have already met the biggest threat to their throne. Themselves. What are they thinking? What are they doing? They just won a title that would not have been possible without the strong defense and stunning shooting of a 24-year-old kid with a limitless ceiling. Yet they send the kid packing for an aging nut whose greatest hits have occurred on the heads of fans. They just won a title with a locker room bathed in the soothing light of unselfishness, teamwork and a quiet temerity. Yet they cut the power and added the darkest of moods, a guy who has made a career out of hoarding the ball, the attention, and the anger. Tell me again, why did they get rid of Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest?"

Empty The Bench: "If you’re Ariza, you feel disrespected. It’s hard not to take this personally when you just played a critical role in helping anybody win a NBA championship for anybody, let alone a storied franchise like the Lakers. This is the team synonymous with your city, the place where you grew up, where you played college ball. This is the team you dreamed of playing for as a pro ... and the team that, in the end, declined offering you the security of the long-term contract that you’ve damned well earned. Any other competitive team would be thrilled to have you, and you’d likely be the crucial missing piece for any one of them. You are that good. (Maybe.) And when you win that second ring with somebody else, you’ll be in store for an even bigger payday than this one. And then the Lakers will be sorry ..."

Hardwood Paroxysm: "That said…WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON?!  This would seem to be an arrangement from which neither party really gains.  Artest seemed to have a pretty good thing going in Houston, and though Yao’s likely out for the season, Ron would have plenty of room to flex his alpha dog complex.  The man needs the ball on the offensive end, which leads some rather random results.  It’s what happens when talented players live and die by the contested, fadeaway jumper.  With the Rockets, there is no question that Artest was the man on the offensive end.  There’s no Yao or T-Mac in sight, meaning most of the playmaking responsibilities would fall on the shoulders of Artest and one Aaron Brooks, who still has quite a bit to learn in the way of being an NBA point guard. …

Beyond that, Artest only makes sense offensively in situations where his skills can be utilized without damaging the team concept.  Los Angeles, home of the triangle offense, is not that place.  Artest’s tendency to stop the ball, throw possessions into the wind, and take what can only be described as "Ron Artest Shots" can’t fly well with Phil, with Kobe, with Pau, with Tex Winter, or with just about anyone who has come to know and love (or at least respect) the most dominant offensive unit in the game.  The Lakers are just too damn good offensively because of the triangle, not in spite of it as some Jordan-esque logic might suggest.  They were able to dissect a fantastic defensive team in the Finals because the talent was there and the system was there.  Artest brings plenty of one, but substitutes the other for generally poor basketball IQ and the possibility of going bonkers at any particular time.  Sweet."

Meanwhile, the reaction here at SS&R has been mixed, as well. Here are some comments from those who are currently busy either drowning their sorrows or banging their heads against walls:

"How the hell could we lose Ariza??? I woke up feeling sooo peaceful only to hear of this unrivaled TRAGEDY!! Ariza fits perfectly well into the triangle offense. What the hell is going on in this freaking world? Is it being run by freaking Celtics? That has to be it. This is going to take some time for me to get over."

"Ariza was a role-player who knew his place and was a BETTER perimeter defender than Ron. Ron is a chuck-chuck-chucker and it’s gonna make for an interesting night when Ron puts up 20 shots and Kobe puts up 25… Or a boring night if you are one of the front-line players. The Lakers’ glaring weakness was at the PG position and this does NOTHING to correct that."

Let's deal with these concerns one by one, shall we? The idea here isn't to blame anyone for reacting negatively to this move – there are valid concerns on both sides of this issue. Instead, the hope is that by the time we're done here, you'll have a better sense of what to expect in response to some of the key questions pertaining to Artest's effect on the Lakers, and thus, a better idea of how to feel about the 2009-10 Lakers, sans Trevor Ariza.


Don't Blame Mitch – Blame Ariza

A post on Bleacher Report suggests that Ariza "certainly proved that he's worth every dollar of the $7-8 million per year he was seeking," and then went on to make this ridiculous — yet fairly common — assertion:  "It's unfortunate that the Lakers didn't see it that way, because their offer of $5.6 million a year for three years was bested by only a reported $200,000 per year by the Houston Rockets."

Considering the offer Ariza has reportedly accepted from the Rockets, this reaction has been a fairly common one, blaming the Lakers for not paying him what he was worth when he was willing to sign with the Rockets for — wait for it — what the Lakers offered him. Did you get that? The Lakers offered him the same deal he has reportedly accepted from the Rockets, but Ariza didn't take it.

Why is this? His agent is much to blame, but ultimately, the buck stops at Ariza's doorstep. His agent represents him; if he is misrepresented, then it is his responsibility to step up and say, "Dude, you're ruining my career and I want no part of you." Adrian Wojnarowski summed it up well:

This was a failed power play, an embarrassment of the highest order. Looking back, Ariza will rue the day. He’s a good player, but he’ll never be a star elsewhere. He’ll just be another player on another team.

"He was way too emotional about this," said a league executive who had talked to [Ariza's agent David] Lee in recent days.

If anything, the Lakers should be applauded for making the right offer to Ariza — an offer that he eventually proved, through his acceptance, was a good one. Instead of accepting what was a great offer and getting his client good money on a great team, Lee tried to take the Lakers for more than his client was worth in this market — much like he successfully did with Andrew Bynum — and the Lakers were fed up with it. A lesson to David Lee:  The number one rule of negotiating, from international politics to sports contracts to open air markets in West Africa, is, Don't offend the other party. And if you were looking for a good number two rule, it would probably be, Don't let yourself be seen as unreasonable. David Lee did both of these things, and Trevor Ariza got screwed.

The Lakers aren't to blame for not offering Ariza more money; they clearly offered him what he was worth. David Lee, and ultimately Trevor Ariza, are to blame for trying to pull a power play on the Lakers, and for acting like Ariza was indispensable. As they found out, he is not.

Consider this:  Ariza went from playing on a championship contending team that had recently been given odds of repeating, in arguably the most desirable city that hosts an NBA franchise, for a fan base that worships its key role players as though they were stars... to playing on a lottery-bound team in hot-as-hell Houston. And for what? Not more money, that's for sure. Woj wasn't kidding when he said Ariza would rue the day. I think he's rueing it already.

Don't get me wrong. As a Lakers fan, Trevor Ariza quickly became one of my favorite basketball players. He played a huge role in the Lakers 2009 NBA Championship, and for that I am extremely grateful to him. But this isn't about Ariza, it's about the Lakers; it isn't about the past, it's about the future. And as far as the future goes, Ariza handled his poorly, while the Lakers handled theirs expertly. I feel for Ariza, but I don't regret the decision the Lakers made even a little bit.


Artest is a Defensive Upgrade

Trevor Ariza is a very good perimeter defender, with the potential to become even better. Ron Artest is a former Defensive Player Of the Year, and one of the best defenders in the league. So let's be clear about one thing:  As good a defender as Ariza is, Artest is better.

No, this is not about the fact that Artest once one the DPOY award. This is about size, strength, toughness, and most of all, versatility. In the wake of this move, some have reacted to the idea that Ron Ron is a better defender, suggesting that Artest's best days are behind him while Ariza is a top-notch perimeter defender.

The keys here are man defense and versatility. First, don't expect Artest to get the kind of steals Ariza gets. He's not playing the passing lanes and gambling for the steals the way Ariza does. At the same time, gambling is just that – a risk that, if not successful, can put the rest of the team in a tight spot. Artest is much more about simply locking down his defender, making him work hard, and forcing him into tough shots. In that respect, he's one of the best defenders in the NBA, and still ahead of Ariza.

Don't believe me? Try this little exercise: Remember how hard Kobe Bryant had to work against Ron Artest in the 2009 playoffs, when Artest was guarding him. Artest did not shut him down, but he made him work extremely hard for his points. Now imagine Ariza defending Kobe. Do you see Kobe having such a tough go of it against Ariza? Sure, Ariza might come up with a steal or two, but in my mind, Kobe would score much more easily against Ariza than Artest.

Even more importantly is the fact that Artest has the versatility to defend multiple positions. Ariza can defend quick, athletic wing players, even possessing the quickness and length to frustrate speedy point guards, but he doesn't have the size or strength to match up well with bigger, stronger small forwards. Let's try that exercise again, only this time, imagine how Ariza and Artest match up with LeBron James. No contest, right? Again, Ariza might come up with a steal or two, but LeBron is too big, too strong, and every bit as quick as Ariza. Artest, on the other hand, is one of the few players with the build to be able to stay with LeBron on the perimeter, and yet not be overpowered by his size and strength.

Now, imagine Artest getting stuck guarding the opposing team's center, because of rotations and defensive switches. Are you worried? It's not a matchup I'd have confidence in over a long period of time, but again, Artest's size, strength, and defensive skill would give me confidence that as a help defender, when necessary, he could hold his own against anyone from the quick point guards to the big centers. That's what you get with Artest, and maybe the only other guy in the league with the body and skill set capable of doing that is LeBron James. As good as Ariza is defensively, he is not better than Artest, and he does not have the defensive versatility that Artest does.


Kobe's Rodman/Pippen

Perhaps most important about this acquisition is what Ron Artest does for Kobe Bryant. Defensively, he can cover everyone that Kobe can — and when it comes to the bigger guys (read: LeBron James), he can do it better. While Ariza was a solid perimeter defender, those who suggest he was the Lakers' best perimeter defender are wrong. That title still belonged to Bryant, when the Lakers played the likes of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Brandon Roy, Paul Pierce, etc., that became obvious. With Artest on board, Bryant no longer needs to take those assignments. Ron Artest will take them, and Kobe Bryant will be able to frustrate lesser players and put more energy into offense.

Ask yourself also this:  Over the last several teams, who has been the Lakers "enforcer"? The answer is Kobe Bryant. Doesn't make much sense, does it? The concept of the enforcer is a lesser player with the strength, toughness, and attitude necessary to protect his superstar. Instead, Kobe Bryant was playing the role of best player in the NBA, who had to protect his teammates and himself.

These are the things that Scottie Pippen and guys like Dennis Rodman and Charles Oakley did for Michael Jordan. Jordan was an excellent defender, but the big difference between Jordan and Kobe is that Jordan didn't have to defend the other team's best player. That job fell to Pippen, who let Jordan do his work against lesser players. Jordan also didn't have to protect himself. Guys like Rodman and Oakley made sure that guys got the message that their superstar wasn't to be messed with.

This is what Ron Artest can do for Kobe Bryant. Kobe can guard the other team's best player, but he no longer needs to. He can save himself more for offense, both as a scorer and a creator, and for the latter years of his career. And when someone needs to stand up and let the other team know the Lakers won't be pushed around, it won't always have ot be Kobe. Ron Ron will no doubt gladly step up in that regard from time to time. (Though he may have to fight Fisher for that honor.)


The "Crazy Pills" Factor

Ron Artest did earn that nickname by being a cool, reserved player. You know his history. You know his quirks. We won't rehash them here. What we will do is talk about how that might come into play while he is with the Lakers.

The most important thing to look at here is recent history. Sure, Ron Artest has made some HUGE mistakes — but he's far from the only one. But instead of going down a list of other NBA players, or professional athletes in general, who have made such mistakes in the past, let's make this a bit more personal.

How about you? Have you ever made any mistakes? Any stupid decisions? Acted the total ass? Because I'll tell you right now, if you haven't made some HUGE mistakes in your life, you're either very, very young, or the very rare exception that proves the rule. In fact, the biggest difference between Ron Artest and you or me, when it comes to big mistakes, isn't that he has made them — it's that he has made them in public.

So let's most past the tired rehashing of his past mistakes, shall we? Let's talk about what we see now. Because what I saw last year, in Houston, was a great teammate and a man trying to show that he has grown up, that he has matured, and that he is not the same guy that unloaded physically on a fan who was dumb enough to throw beer on him years ago in Indiana. Theatrics? Sure, that comes with the territory — but the same can be said for half of the players in the NBA. Emotion? Absolutely, he's a very emotional player. But I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me what is so inherently wrong with those traits.

Despite them, I see a player who has grown up, matured, and knows very well that he has everything to prove in this moment. And don't be foolish enough to think that he's not aware of it. No one can be more aware of the fact that this moment, this opportunity with the Lakers, can be the turning point in his career — the point where he can be like Kobe Bryant, rehabbing his image despite earlier mistakes, or Shaquille O'Neal, stubbornly repeating the same old mistakes, to the point that fewer and fewer people are giving him a pass these days.

I'll grant you that this is pure speculation. I don't know the future any more than you, and I can't predict what Artest's mindset will be, or what he will do. But based on what we can observe, I believe his recent past gives me more reason to expect his best behavior in Los Angeles than it does to expect a return to his more distant past. His willingness to accept a salary that he had previously scoffed at, and his clear priority on winning over money, fame, or the ability to be "the man" only reinforce that idea for me.


Enter Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant

Ever attached at the hip, these two, aren't they? Once again, to a large extent this comes down to Phil and Kobe.

Consider this:  For quite a long time, Ron Artest has been "the man" on his team. The best player, the leader. And even if not the most talented or most efficient on the court, the most dominant personality. Even in Houston, where he was the clear third option while both McGrady and Yao were healthy, I doubt that the team leaders carried the weight necessary to lead Artest. Tracy McGrady has never struck me as a natural leader, and this year he seemed apathetic at times. And respect? I doubt Artest had any great respect for McGrady, any more than any other player in the game. He's talented, but in the NBA, who isn't? While Artest's suggestions, at times, that he is on the same level as Kobe and LeBron, are quite absurd, the idea that he is on equal footing with McGrady is much more plausible. And Yao? A fantastic teammate and a great leader by example, no doubt, but he is too passive and not a strong enough or dominant enough personality to keep Artest in check.

In Los Angeles, this will not be a problem. There is no question, in either Artest's or Bryant's minds (or anyone else's, for that matter), what the pecking order is on that team. And Kobe Bryant definitely is a strong enough and dominant enough personality to keep Artest in check.

And how about Phil Jackson? He handled Rodman when he was still merely a very good coach. And Ron Artest is no Dennis Rodman. Jackson managed the egos of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant for years, and even added Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the mix for a year — coming just short of another title. Heck, even Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant presented bigger challenges, in terms of personality and struggle for control, than Artest does. Do you really expect Artest to get out of hand with Jackson at the helm?

And we're not even getting into Derek Fisher, one of the best leaders and most respected players in the NBA, and Lamar Odom, a lifelong friend of Artest's.

Of course, all of this has been said before, but I think most people are approaching it the wrong way. They're thinking about the things that Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson (and Fisher and Odom) would do if Ron Artest got out of hand, if he needed to be kept in check. I don't believe this will really even get that far.

What this is really about is the fact that for most of Artest's career, there has been a leadership void on his team. Now there is not. Rarely has Artest played for a coach who commanded his respect without demanding it. But now he will play for just such a coach — one whom he respects in the utmost even before he shows up to training camp. Jackson doesn't have to fight for Artest's respect; he doesn't have to earn it. He already has it.

The same is true of Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, and Lamar Odom. The friendship and respect are already there. The leadership is already there. In the past, Artest has stepped into the void simply because such a void existed. He has become "the man" because no one else filled that role, either in personality or in ability. In L.A., there are no such voids to step into. Those spots are already taken, and then some.


What L.A. Gains vs. What They Lose

Let's wrap this up by talking about skill sets. To me, the other points are moot. I don't expect Ron Artest to be the problem that he has been in the past. I don't expect him to be the dominant personality in the locker room, in practice, or on the court, and so I don't expect him to have the opportunity to disrupt team chemistry or become a distraction — even if he was so inclined, which I don't think he is.

Trevor Ariza did three or four things very well, and they were things that fit perfectly with the Lakers. The question is, how does Artest stack up in those areas, and what else does he bring to the table that Ariza didn't?

Ariza shot well from the three-point line — but for the 2008-09 season, Artest shot 5% better from the same distance. Of course, Ariza shot .476 from long range in the playoffs, but ESPN's David Thorpe raises a good point about Ariza's hot shooting (via TrueHoop):

"We don't know if Trevor Ariza just made some shots last season, or has actually improved as a shooter. But if he is now a much improved shooter, he has superstar potential."

Remember how well Sasha Vujacic shot the ball in 2007-08? Feel free to look up his stats for 2008-09.

Ariza drove to the hoop and finished well, certainly better than Artest can. But Artest is very effective in the post, as Henry Abbott points out — Ariza is not at all. Comparing the two, I'd suggest that Arest has the ability to get more high quality opportunities close to the hoop than Ariza. And, as Abbott also pointed out, Artest's effectiveness in the post will lead to all sorts of cutting options for his teammates.

Ariza was a very good perimeter defender, but he is not the lockdown man defender Artest is, and has nowhere near the versatility Artest does. Artest is bigger, stronger, more physical, and tougher, and he can guard the opposing team's best player, regardless of who that is. Most importantly, he takes over for Kobe on defense in ways that Ariza never quite could.

Lastly, Ariza's shot selection was actually very good. He was unselfish, he didn't take contested jumpers, and he never fell in love with the long ball. He hit it at a great rate, especially late in the year, but whenever the lane opened up, his first love was still attacking the basket. This is the one strength that I think Ariza enjoys over Artest.

But again, I go back to the fact that for most of his career, Artest has been the man. In Houston, that changed — and while it took him about a month to adjust, he took significantly fewer shots, and was more efficient, after he made that adjustment. That lasted, for the most part, until April, when Yao Ming went down. And guess what? Artest was once again "the man" on that team.

Ron Ron's shot selection will NOT be as good as Ariza's was. He will take more shots than Ariza did, and some of them will be very ill-advised attempts. But I also don't think it will be an issue to the extent that most are expecting, for the same reasons that I have already articulated. That void existed on other teams; the opportunity was there for Artest to step up, be the team leader on the court, take the most shots, and dominate the ball. That opportunity does not exist with the Lakers. Once again, there is no such talent void for him to step into.

Of course, I'm aware that from a certain perspective, Ariza fit into the triangle offense better than Artest might. But frankly, I don't care. Looking at Ariza's strengths, the primary things he brought to this team, I find very little that Artest can't more than compensate for. In my mind, Artest either excels in the same ways as Ariza, or more than accounts for his weaknesses with even bigger strengths, in almost every significant area. And then, when all that is said and done, he brings even more things to the table that Ariza never did. You know what we call that? It's quite simple, and it's something we all knew before we started trying to qualify things and take silly angles: Artest is better than Ariza!


Offense vs. Defense

I want to close with this final thought: Defense wins championships. We all know this. We repeat it ad nauseum. So why is it that whenever we want to criticize the Lakers, whenever we want to suggest that they're not good enough to win a championship, it's always about defense and toughness — but whenever they make an effort to improve in those areas, the discussion always revolves around the triangle offense?

The Lakers already largely addressed the criticisms about their defense and toughness, such that it shouldn't even be that much of a question anymore. This move completes that process. With Artest, the Lakers have the potential not only to have addressed their weaknesses, but to actually become the best and toughest defensive team in the NBA, and perhaps one of the best and toughest in NBA history. And that's what wins championships, right?

So why are we talking about how Artest fits into the triangle and how many offensive possessions he will use or waste?

Do we really think that an offense featuring Kobe Bryant and a slew of very, very talented scorers will have any problem scoring? Are you really worried about the Lakers offense? Do you seriously question a team that features Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, with Fisher shooting threes and just maybe Andrew Bynum getting a chance to get closer to his January 2008/09 form? As far as I'm concerned, adding Artest and his occasional ill-advised offensive ball-hogging to the mix simply makes the Lakers the best offense in the league by a slightly smaller margin.

So do us all a favor:  If you really, truly believe that winning a championship is about defense and toughness, then shut up about how Artest will fit into the triangle offense and who's possessions he'll be taking.

I think you know my final conclusion. Without a shred of evidence to base this on, and reserving the right to admit I was wrong once we actually see this team on the court, it is my prediction that most of the classic Ron Artest problems simply won't be major issues in Los Angeles. I believe the strength of leadership and character, and the dominance of personality, that already exist in Los Angeles will simply prevent Artest from stepping into the role he has so often occupied on other teams. Should he ever need to be brought back under control, I have no doubt that the relationships, the leadership, and the authority are all present in abundance to do so with few problems.

Meanwhile, I think that the physical skills and abilities, and especially the strength and versatility, that Artest brings to Los Angeles significantly outweigh the specific things that allowed Ariza to fit in so well as a role player with the Lakers. Simply put, the Lakers got a better player, and it will make them better. End of story.