The Fall And Rise Of Ron Artest

After a winter full of shooting slumps and trade rumors, the Lakers' eccentric small forward has reemerged as a productive force at both ends of the court.

Through most of the 2009-10 NBA season, a schism divided Laker fans into opposing camps. On one side were those who endorsed management's offseason decision to part ways with Trevor Ariza, a hero of the 2009 championship push, and sign Ron Artest to take over the small-forward position. On the other were those who thought Ron too old, flakey and shot-happy and who regarded Ariza as a better fit. This debate came to an end with a minute left in Game Seven of the NBA Finals last June. That's when Artest hit the biggest shot of his career, a three-ball that extended the Lakers' lead over the Celtics to six points and propelled the champs to their second straight title. It's not fair to Ron, Trevor or the front office that a move be judged based on whether a single shot goes down, but when the Lakers and Celtics play a Game Seven, rationality hits the open road. Fair or not, Ron's clutch basket forever validated the Lakers' decision to sign him.

But we Laker fans are nothing if not insistently demanding, and with four years left on his deal heading into this season, Artest remained under pressure to do what he's paid to do: play stellar defense, make open shots and create exactly zero off-court drama. Trouble on all three fronts has flared up this season, beginning last December.

Over the first six games of that month, Ron fell into a deep shooting slump, making just 10 of 39 field-goal attempts. Though his command of the Triangle offense had improved from his first season with the team, he looked increasingly unsure of his role in the Laker attack. Even worse, his defense was slipping. On Dec. 21, Ron shot 2 for 7 and pulled in a single rebound in the Lakers' galling 19-point home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Four days later, LeBron James ripped through Artest en route to a triple-double in the Heat's Christmas Day win at Staples Center. The low point of Ron's Laker career was reached on Jan. 2, when the Lakers lost at home, again by 19 points, this time to the Memphis Grizzlies. In 25 minutes that night, Artest went scoreless, committed three turnovers and saw Rudy Gay, the man he was assigned to guard, blow up for 27 points. You can't say that at this juncture anyone regretted the Artest signing -- banners, after all, hang forever -- but the widespread belief was that if the Lakers were going to three-peat, they'd do so in spite of Ron more than because of him.

The situation got still uglier in February. A few weeks before the league's trade deadline, ESPN's Marc Stein reported that Ron had asked out of Los Angeles. His beefs, according to Stein's unnamed source, were that Ron felt unfairly scapegoated for the Lakers' sloppy regular-season performance and that he wasn't happy with being marginalized in the offense. Ron himself quickly denied the story, but the incident seemed to confirm that he retained his legendary ability to generate off-court distractions. A few days later, ESPN's Chris Broussard reported that the Lakers offered Artest to the Charlotte Bobcats for either Stephen Jackson or Gerald Wallace. Nothing came of the talks, apparently after Ron made clear that he had no interest in playing for Charlotte.

That all unfolded less than two months ago, but in the weeks since Ron has rehabilitated his image among Laker fans and once again become a vital component of the team. It hasn't drawn all that much notice. Understandably, everyone has been more transfixed by the emergence of Andrew Bynum as a rebounding, shot-blocking monster and by Lamar Odom's superb play and campaign to become Sixth Man of the Year. But amid the Lakers' 15-1 charge since the All-Star break, something unexpected has happened: Ron Artest has become good again.

Let's start with his defense, since that's where his contributions are most critical. These days, Ron is providing the ferocious, disruptive perimeter D that was missing earlier in the year. He looks quicker, both laterally and vertically, and he's putting his immense physical strength and fast hands to excellent use. He's had classic Artest shutdown performances against the likes of Kevin Durant and Joe Johnson. His steals are up, from 1.39 per game before the break to 1.94 since. As a team the Lakers have posted a defensive efficiency (i.e., points allowed per 100 possessions) of 101.8 since the All-Star break compared to 105.7 beforehand. Ron's energy and playmaking have crucial to this improvement.

On offense, his scoring numbers are up across the board. Behold:


2 PT %

3 PT %

EFG %

FTA / 36

FT %

TS %

Pts / 36

Pre-ASB

42

35

46

1.8

62

48

10.1

Post-ASB

44

43

51

2.2

69

53

11.9

The first two columns show accuracy on two- and three-point shots. "EFG %" is effective field-goal percentage, which is raw field-goal percentage adjusted to give an extra 50% credit for three-pointers. "FTA / 36" is free-throw attempts per 36 minutes. "FT %" is free-throw accuracy. "TS %" is true-shooting percentage, a measure of overall scoring efficiency that takes into account both three-pointers and free throws. And "Pts / 36" is points scored per 36 minutes.

As you can see, Ron has improved his shooting from the field in all areas. He's also getting to the line more frequently and converting more of his freebies. And he's become substantially better at finishing near the rim. Last year, according to HoopData, Ron made just over 50 percent of his point-blank attempts, a pretty terrible rate. (League average is around 60 percent.) This season, that mark is up to 59 percent. But in March, it's all the way up near 66 percent. Because of his huge frame, Ron has the ability to post up most opposing small forwards. Successfully converting these looks gives him something new in his toolbox to replace the off-the-dribble burst he's lost to age.

By far the most encouraging development is how he's knocking down threes. The Lakers are not a team blessed with great outside shooters: they rank just 16th in the NBA in three-point percentage. You can win an NBA title without a potent three-point game, but it's not easy. The Laker offense has pretty much everything else going for it, though, so if Ron can remain a dependable outside threat, it'll be awfully hard for anyone to stop them in the playoffs.

What's behind Ron's return to form? I'm not sure, and I don't recommend trying too hard to puzzle it out. This is one strange, inscrutable dude. We'll let Phil Jackson worry about keeping him focused and moving in the right direction, while we kick back and appreciate how far the man's come since the dark days of winter.

Ron Artest is back, everyone. Acknowledge him.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. Some of the numbers in this piece are courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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