We've already discussed the Lakers' acquisition of Ron Artest (3 years @ the Mid-Level Exception), and the odds are we're not done with it. For my money, it was a great move. Two of the Eastern Conference's three best teams, Cleveland and Orlando, made significant roster upgrades (though I admittedly don't think Cleveland's will be enough to win the East next year), as did San Antonio. Boston was rumored to be trying to do the same.
It was therefore a good thing, in general, for the Lakers to also improve their roster, rather than being complacent while their biggest challengers made moves aimed directly at taking Los Angeles down.
Now, Boston has reportedly reached a deal with Rasheed Wallace, also for the Mid-Level Exception, adding him to the team without losing any major players. In my mind, this makes them at least as likely as any other team to represent the East in the 2010 NBA Finals.
If you ask me, that makes Artest even more important, specifically for the impact he would have in a Lakers-Celtics matchup.
Remembering the 2008 Finals matchup between the Lakers and Celtics, several things stand out in my memory — few, if any, positive. Among those unfavorable memories are two key disadvantages the Lakers suffered against the Celtics.
First, of course, was that Kobe Bryant was unable to be very effective on offense. This was no fault of his own — the Celtics trapped him at every turn, and when he was able to split the double team, a help defender was immediately waiting to seal him off. What should he have done, sprouted wings and flown over the green-clad defenders? Michael Jordan and LeBron James would have been equally ineffective, individually, against that defense. And yet, when Kobe made the pass to find the open man, the Celtics' rotations were so crisp and quick that the open man was no longer open by the time he received the ball. That is how good the Celtics' defense was that year.
The second unfavorable memory that sticks out to me was the Lakers' inability to come up with an answer for both Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Simply put, whichever player Kobe wasn't guarding simply had his way against the Lakers. When Ray Allen was on fire, Kobe would switch over to him, essentially shutting him down... only to have Paul Pierce make easy work of the Lakers' defense. But when Kobe would switch over to Pierce, Allen would have his way. As a result, the Lakers simply couldn't handle the Celtics defensively — and to make things worse, Bryant's constant defensive scramble left him less energy to combat the Celtics' strong defense on the other end of the court.
Trevor Ariza would have helped in this situation, but I question whether he could effectively match Paul Pierce's strength over the long haul. Ron Artest, on the other hand, is exactly the type of defender to match up effectively with Pierce. The Lakers' pick-and-roll defense was stellar in the 2009 playoffs, theoretically removing one of the ways in which Pierce repeatedly punished the Lakers. With Artest on him, he would have a hard time freelancing effectively, as well.
Kobe, meanwhile, would be left to guard Ray Allen — certainly a less physically demanding task for Bryant, and a matchup which could really frustrate Allen and potentially take him out of the game. Alternatively, the Lakers might opt to put Derek Fisher (or Shannon Brown, if the Lakers retain him) on Allen, opting instead to put Kobe Bryant on Rajon Rondo (or whichever quick point guard the Celtics' starting lineup features). This would allow Kobe to either freelance defensively, daring Rondo to hit long jumpers, or to focus his defensive energies on Rondo, keeping him out of the paint and eliminating the Celtics' primary source of ball penetration. While L.A. has used Kobe on Rondo in the past, it has usually meant putting a less capable defender on Paul Pierce and/or Ray Allen.
This is a classic example of the way in which Artest can take over Kobe's "primary defensive stopper" duties, allowing Kobe to conserve energy, saving him more for offense — and potentially prolonging his career by saving him from the added wear and tear.
With the acquisition of Rasheed Wallace, Boston now essentially features an All-Star starting lineup. The biggest question for them now is simply whether Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will be healthy come May. If they're smart, they'll take the San Antonio/Gregg Popovich approach, saving their key players' health and energy rather than worrying about their regular season win-loss record. If they can do these things, then I expect them to be the Eastern Conference favorites.
If that prediction is correct, then I expect Ron Artest to be a key player in the 2010 NBA Finals.