Will Artest Fuel Rocket Launch?In a deal that has been widely reported and discussed but will not become official (due to NBA rules regarding provisions in Donte Greene's contract) until August 14, the Houston Rockets will acquire 2004 Defensive Player of the Year Ron Artest from the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Bobby Jackson, Donte Greene, a 2009 first round draft pick and "approximately $1 million in cash considerations" (I've always wondered if that phrase refers to unmarked bills, money orders, savings bonds or something else, because I've never received "cash considerations"--I've received cash and I've received consideration but I've never received "cash considerations"). The Kings may tweak certain elements of this deal to stay under the luxury tax threshold but the gist of the transaction will not change: the Rockets are giving up young, unproven players (and Jackson's expiring contract, which can be a bookkeeping asset for the Kings) to acquire an established player who they hope will combine with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming to give Houston a "Big Three" to rival the trio that led Boston to the 2008 championship and the troika that has helped San Antonio capture three rings since 2003.
Sacramento's motivations and plan are not hard to figure out: Artest is a malcontent who led the Kings to one playoff appearance in his two and half seasons with the team and since he announced that he does not want to be there it is a good idea to send him packing sooner rather than later, because "later" could turn out to be "too late," especially if the volatile Artest ended up doing something that completely destroyed his trade value or even the possibility of trading him (i.e., getting suspended). This deal enables the Kings to get younger and to create some financial flexibility in order to make some more moves down the line. Of course, as John Thompson said in reference to Denver getting little in return for Marcus Camby, "'Down the line,' 'potential'--what that does is get the coach fired. All these guys who make these money decisions never factor that into the Ls and Ws that some poor coach has to sit there and work for." For now, Kings Coach Reggie Theus will have to make do with what he has and hope that the Maloof brothers keep him around until their young guys develop into legitimate rotation players. It will also be interesting to see if Kevin Martin is an All-Star who can truly carry a team or just a very talented scorer.
For this season, it is Houston's end of the deal that will be the most interesting to watch. When healthy, Yao Ming is arguably the best all-around center in the NBA. When healthy, Tracy McGrady is arguably the second best shooting guard in the NBA, trailing only Kobe Bryant. When healthy--and when his mind is right--Ron Artest is arguably the best defensive player in the NBA. Needless to say, that is a lot of talent to have on one team and don't forget that the Rockets have some very solid role players in Luis Scola, Shane Battier, Rafer Alston and Carl Landry. Houston had an astonishing 22 game winning streak last season and 10 of those victories came after Yao suffered a season-ending foot injury.
The questions surrounding this deal from Houston's perspective are two parts physical and one part mental. The two physical questions pertain to the annual injuries suffered by Yao and McGrady: Yao has not played more than 57 games in a season since 2004-05 and McGrady has not played more than 71 games in a season since 2004-05. It is difficult enough to win a championship at full strength and at partial strength the Rockets have not even been able to get out of the first round. Of course, last season Boston assembled a star trio, captured lightning in a bottle and zoomed from being a lottery team to winning a title but it is important to remember that a big part of that success stemmed from all of their key players being healthy for most of the season; in 2006-07, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen (then with Seattle) both missed a ton of games due to injuries but during their careers they both have been durable players and that proved to be the case in 2007-08. Neither Yao nor McGrady could accurately be described as durable players at this stage of their careers.
The mental question for Houston involves the activity inside Artest's cranial cavity. No one questions his talent but Artest has been in the NBA for nine seasons and he has participated in postseason play just four times, only once advancing past the first round. His meltdowns--on and off the court--have been well documented. The bottom line is that he has proven on numerous occasions that he is not a dependable person and there is good reason to believe that he has problems that can only be dealt with by taking medication; I mean that very seriously and not as a joke or a wisecrack: a lot of what Dennis Rodman did was self-promoting shtick, you could almost see him winking knowingly along the way and he played a major role in helping two different franchises win a total of five championships--but Artest has been genuinely and frighteningly out of control on many occasions.
A positive for Houston is that Artest has a solid relationship with Rick Adelman, who coached Artest for half a season in Sacramento. That was the last time Artest played in the playoffs; the Kings went 26-14 down the stretch after acquiring Artest in a midseason deal in 2005-06 but Artest's numbers were hardly spectacular during that run: he shot .383 from the field, .302 from three point range and .717 from the free throw line. On the positive side of the ledger, he played excellent defense and averaged 16.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.2 apg and 2.0 spg. His playoff numbers were very similar (.383, .333, .696, 17.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.6 spg) as the Kings lost 4-2 to the San Antonio Spurs. It is worth mentioning that Artest missed game two of that series, a 128-119 loss for the Kings, because he was suspended by the NBA for committing a flagrant foul against Manu Ginobili in game one.
Artest is an excellent defender, a decent rebounder, a willing passer and a good ballhandler; the only technical weakness in his skill set is that he is an erratic shooter. The problem is that Artest does not seem to recognize this and he has often expressed the belief that he should be his team's primary scoring option. It should be quite obvious that he cannot be the primary scoring option on a team with Yao and McGrady, so it will be interesting to see how well Artest buys into the idea of being the third scoring option. It is also reasonable to wonder what exactly Houston's rotation will look like. Artest is ideally a small forward who can guard players at multiple positions but Shane Battier is an excellent defensive small forward and McGrady sometimes plays small forward as well. If Artest shifts to power forward then he will be playing closer to the basket than usual and cutting into Scola's minutes.
If Artest stays out of trouble, utilizes his all-around skill set and is content to be the third scoring option then Houston could be very, very good--60+ wins would not be out of the question. However, Artest has not played more than 70 games in a season since 2003-04. How realistic is it to assume that he, Yao and McGrady will play at least 70 games each and that all three players will be on the court when the 2009 playoffs begin?
Despite the risks and the questions, the Rockets were absolutely correct to make this deal for one simple reason: they did not give up any assets that were likely to contribute in a meaningful way this season in exchange for a player who has the ability to significantly upgrade the roster and who could very possibly turn Houston into a championship contender. Yao and McGrady are not getting any younger or any healthier, so the Rockets have to be in a win now mode; if this does not work then in a couple years they could be looking at making deals from Sacramento's current point of view.
One funny aspect of this story is that for weeks now the "experts" have been talking constantly about Artest being traded to the Lakers and no one said anything about Houston being in the mix. Sometimes the "insiders" do not have quite as much inside information as they think that they do. By the way, although I think that the Rockets made the right choice in pulling the trigger on this deal, I am not convinced that the proposed Lamar Odom for Artest trade would have been good for the Lakers. The Rockets did not give up anyone who was going to be a big part of their rotation this season but Odom is a solid 15 ppg-10 rpg player and it would be risky to ship him out with Andrew Bynum's health status still up in the air, especially for a player like Artest who could end up missing 20 or 30 games.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM