Artest versus Ariza"You're a player but only because you be playin' yaself."--Jeru the Damaja, "Ya Playin' Yaself"
A prime example of the media's never-ending quest to completely misunderstand how basketball games are won and lost is the sudden elevation of Trevor Ariza to "elite" status. I've lost track of how many different outlets have recently slapped that title on Ariza, who averaged 8.9 ppg and 4.3 rpg last season as the L.A. Lakers' starting small forward; Ariza would not have started for most of the championship teams of the past two decades and, by any objective reckoning--either using a skill set based evaluation or even the "advanced basketball statistics" that are so popular in some quarters--he is at best an average starting small forward. Ariza is a good finisher in the open court, he can make open three pointers and he is a good defender but he is below average at creating a shot (for himself or others), ballhandling, passing and free throw shooting. Ariza is a classic role player--a Bruce Bowen/Shane Battier/James Posey type of player--who started for the Lakers because the Lakers are woefully thin at the small forward spot, something that I have written about for years; most elite teams have a starting small forward who is a major offensive threat: the NBA's other Conference Finalists in 2009 started LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Hedo Turkoglu at small forward. The 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics started future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce at small forward; Trevor Ariza would have been the third small forward in their rotation behind Pierce and Posey.
Being a Laker should have been a dream come true for Ariza; he went to high school and college in L.A. and playing alongside Kobe Bryant meant that Ariza never had to create a shot for himself or anyone else: he simply waited for Bryant to draw a double team and then either drilled wide open three pointers or slashed to the hoop for dunks. Bryant not only created open three pointers for Ariza but Bryant also taught Ariza how to make those shots. You could not design a more perfect situation for Ariza--and now Ariza has thrown it all away because either he or his agent vastly overestimated his value. The Lakers quite understandably did not want to pay Ariza "elite" level money but they offered him fair market value to re-sign with them. Instead, Ariza decided to shop his wares on the open market and the Lakers took the opportunity to sign Ron Artest, a former All-Star and the 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Artest is a legitimate starting-quality small forward at both ends of the court, a lockdown defender who is more physically powerful than Ariza while also being nearly as quick; Artest also can create shots for himself and others. Some foolish people used to say that good players do not want to play with Kobe Bryant--and that such players would certainly not take less money to do so--but Artest gladly accepted a pay cut to team up with Bryant. Artest has the talent of an "elite" player, though it must be said that he does not consistently play at an "elite" level; however, considering that Bryant won a championship with one "elite" player and a cast of role players--including starting small forward Ariza--it is intriguing to wonder about just how well Artest may play when he joins forces with Bryant.
Artest can do everything that Ariza does and then some; from a talent/skill set standpoint there is no comparison whatsoever. Ironically, Ariza ended up signing with the Rockets for even less money than the Lakers offered him; Ariza gained nothing financially but instead of being a starter on a championship contender he will now go back to being a journeyman player on a team that has no realistic shot to win the title.
There are only two possible drawbacks for the Lakers:
(1) Ariza proved that he could accept his limited role, while Artest has often tried to be his team's number one offensive option even when he had teammates who were better suited to do so. Clearly, Bryant should be the Lakers' number one offensive option and Pau Gasol should be the number two offensive option. Lamar Odom has flourished as the third option but the shot distribution dynamic will be interesting to watch in 2009-10; will Odom accept possibly dropping to the fourth option and will Artest be content as either the third or fourth option? This was not an issue with Ariza because he knew that he could not create shots, but Artest likes to have the ball in his hands even though his shot selection can be highly questionable at times. Ideally, the Lakers would like to see Artest only shoot three pointers when he is on balance and receiving a pass from a double-teamed Bryant, as opposed to Artest dribbling for 10 seconds and firing an off-balance trey. Artest will also have a mismatch advantage against many smaller forwards and Coach Phil Jackson will surely encourage Artest to take those players into the post and go to work; Bryant will be on board with that as well: Bryant always has encouraged Luke Walton to go into the post against smaller players, so he certainly will want Artest to do that as well.
(2) Artest has a well-documented history of serious anger management problems, on and off the court; his issues go well beyond anything that Dennis Rodman went through: a significant portion of what Rodman did was a harmless act that did not impact his on court performance (such as his varying hairstyles/bizarre clothing choices) but when Rodman lost focus during games all it took was for Jackson or Michael Jordan to give Rodman a certain look and Rodman got back down to business. In contrast, Artest has committed repeated acts of violence that resulted in league suspensions and/or the involvement of law enforcement personnel. There is a real--and frightening--possibility that Artest could just snap and go off. That said, Jackson and Bryant are probably the coach-player duo that is best equipped to keep Artest in line; Jackson has a unique way of establishing parameters without making his players feel hemmed in, while Bryant commands universal respect (which is not the same thing as being liked--it is much more important) among his peers and will constantly challenge Artest to match his work ethic and focus.
Thanks to Ariza's miscalculation, he "played himself" and the Lakers managed to make a major talent upgrade. It will be interesting to see how Houston utilizes Ariza, because objectively speaking he is not even the team's best small forward; Shane Battier should be the starter, though because of Battier's unselfishness and willingness to accept coming off of the bench Coach Rick Adelman may install Ariza as the nominal starter while still giving Battier at least as many minutes as Ariza gets. Unless the Rockets make a major deal or Tracy McGrady miraculously becomes fully healthy they will not have a player who commands a double team, so Battier and Ariza will not get as many open three point shots as they did last season when they played alongside Yao Ming and Bryant respectively.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:01 AM