Coming off of a championship-winning 2008-09 season, the Los Angeles Lakers were expected to go into the league’s summer free agency period with modest goals of retaining two of their most-important players that were hitting the market: Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom. While it took nearly a month of negotiations, they eventually reached a deal with Odom, arguably the NBA’s most skilled Sixth Man.
Their negotiations with Ariza, on the other hand, didn’t last nearly as long, and by July 2, the Lakers had reached an agreement with Ron Artest, who played with the Houston Rockets in the previous season. In order to make room for Artest, the Lakers had to cut ties with Ariza, who signed with the Rockets the same day. Essentially, they swapped places.
Artest was six years older than Ariza at the age of 30, but that was more of a positive than a negative on a veteran-heavy, championship-contending team like the Lakers. Plus, Artest was a more established player on the defensive end with a few accolades under his belt, including a Defensive Player of the Year award from 2004.
The biggest question with Artest was whether or not he could leave his long history of antics — both on and off the court — behind him to help a star-studded Lakers team compete for another championship. There was also doubt among the fanbase about whether Artest was an upgrade over Ariza, who became a fan favorite during his brief stint in his hometown of Los Angeles.
The answers to those questions weren’t made clear right away, but by the end of his first season with the Lakers, he had already cemented himself as a franchise legend.
In 77 starts for the Lakers in the 2009-10 regular season, Artest was a little underwhelming, with averages of 11 points per game on 41.4% shooting from the field, including 35.5% shooting from behind the arc. In the season prior with the Rockets, Artest averaged 17.1 points per game and shot 39.9% shooting from 3-point range while attempting 5.6 3-pointers per game. Few people expected Artest to average 17.1 points per game as the third or fourth option on offense, but many had assumed he would be able to sustain his 3-point efficiency, and he didn’t.
In that regard, Artest’s first season with the Lakers was disappointing. However, he was able to make up for his shortcomings on offense by being a stabilizing force on the defensive end.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers allowed 4.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with Artest on the floor, which put him in the 89th percentile in defensive point differential among all players that season. He also ranked second on the team in steals behind Kobe Bryant. Defensively, he had a bit of a bounce-back year.
But ironically enough, Artest’s most memorable play for the 2009-10 season wasn’t a lockdown defensive possession or a hustle play for a loose ball — it was a 3-point shot.
After going 12-4 in the first three rounds of the NBA Playoffs, the Lakers found themselves in the same position that they were in three years ago: An elimination game against the star-studded Boston Celtics, except this time it was a Game 7.
Bryant was ice cold from the field to start the game, and the Celtics led by as much as 13 points early in the second quarter. With Bryant struggling to hit his shots, Lakers needed one of their other wings to generate some offense along with Pau Gasol, and Artest emerged as the unlikeliest of heroes.
In a game-high 46:01, Artest scored 20 points, including a team-high 12 points in the first half, to go along with his 5 rebounds and 5 steals. His final three points came with just a little over a minute in the fourth quarter, with the Lakers leading the Celtics 76-73.
The Celtics were laser-focused on Bryant on the left wing, knowing that Bryant had made a career of hitting big shots. Once Artest’s defender, Rasheed Wallace, helped Ray Allen double team Bryant, Bryant had no choice to but to give it up to Artest with the hope that he’d make a 3-pointer with five seconds left on the shot clock.
Kobe passed him the ball. The rest is history.
For that shot, his legendary Wheaties press conference after the game, and the five seasons he spent in Los Angeles, Artest — or Metta World Peace — is a Laker worth appreciating.