Is Ron Artest The Key To Lakers Struggles?
Like clockwork, every year around this time stories filled with doom and gloom prophecies continuously stream out of Los Angeles and for the last three seasons the Lakers have responded with a trip to the NBA Finals – resulting in two championships.
Make no mistake about it the Lakers are undoubtedly struggling.
Well struggling as much as a team which possesses a 69 percent win rate and second best record in the Western Conference possibly could. Driving the recent hysteria in Hollywood were unexpected home court losses to Memphis and Sacramento in January. Lost in the hoopla were victories against playoff bound squads such as New Orleans, New York, Oklahoma City and Utah. Simply put, when you’re the defending champions every loss is magnified and every triumph is viewed skeptically with a raised eyebrow.
The notable offseason acquisitions have been a mixed bag. Defensive minded forward Matt Barnes fit into the system and played well until suffering a knee injury, while veteran guard Steve Blake has struggled all throughout the season learning the nuisances of the triangle offense.
On the surface, the main cogs critical to Los Angeles’ success are right about where you’d expect them to be or consistent with years past. Kobe Bryant is putting up his usual upper echelon stat lines, Pau Gasol is on his way to securing another All-Star selection, Lamar Odom is having his best campaign in years and Andrew Bynum has been, well Andrew … working his way back from and/or dealing with injuries.
Nothing has changed.
Except for the sudden deterioration of 2004 Defensive Player of the Year Ron Artest.
When the Lakers signed Artest in 2009 on the heels of a Finals victory over the Orlando Magic, there were many who believed the enigmatic forward out of St. Johns would be a detriment to the chances of a repeat title. It’s not hard to understand where those concerns originated from. After all, Artest’s signing meant the departure of the younger Trevor Ariza who’d performed admirably during the 2009 championship run, presumably had a higher upside down the line and was a tad more predictable on and off the court.
However the calculated gamble by Lakers management paid off during the 2010 season as the team won its second consecutive title and Artest served as one of the heroes of their game seven finals victory over Boston.
For Artest it served as a career vindication of sorts. Unfortunately memories are short nowadays.
This season across the board, Artest is averaging career lows in minutes, points and rebounds. The same trend can be found analyzing his Per 36 minute production. His shooting has also been erratic and those ill-advised shot attempts outside the scope of the team’s offense have been a constant source of frustration to head coach Phil Jackson.
To be fair, Artest has never been known for high shooting percentages and he didn’t exactly light up the box score during his first season as a Laker. But just forty-eight games into the 2011 campaign and Artest has been held under double-digit scoring in 29 contests compared to 30 occasions during the entire 2010 season. A similar trend in the rebounding department can also be found (Games with less than four rebounds: 38 times this season to date, 42 all of last season).
Besides the statistical struggles, Artest has also started to find himself on the bench during late game situations and has routinely been scorched on the defensive end which at one point in time was his bread and butter.
The talents of Bryant and Gasol will keep the regular season victories piling up, but for the Lakers to pull off the rare three-peat Artest’s play must improve significantly going forward. The question is can his 31 year old legs still kick it into another gear or has his recent decline been driven more by father time than just an ordinary shooting / defensive slump?
Here are a few Artest Stat Splits (2011 Season)
Home: 25 games, 36% FG, 35% 3PT, 7.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals
Road: 23 games, 44% FG, 42% 3PT, 9.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals
On 1 Days Rest: 30 games, 40% FG, 37% 3PT, 7.6 points, 2.9 rebounds
On 2 Days Rest: 5 games, 38% FG, 35% 3PT, 10.4 points, 2.4 rebounds
Hawks Raving About Damien Wilkins
Guys averaging twelve minutes per contest off the bench aren’t exactly going to receive an abundance of press coverage, but seventh year forward Damien Wilkins is earning his respect from where it matters most – his teammates and coaching staff.
The Hawks officially signed Wilkins for the remainder of the season last week after initially signing him on December 3, 2010. He was waived on January 5 and then signed to consecutive 10-day contracts.
However there seemed to be little doubt all along from Hawks head coach Larry Drew on Wilkins’ spot on the team and in his rotation.
"He brings the intangibles that all coaches love," said Drew in reference to Wilkins. "When I had the opportunity to get him, I told Rick Sund that we had to have him."
Wilkins’ numbers are modest, averaging just 2.5 points and 1.8 rebounds in 22 contests with the Hawks. But on a team laden with All-Star caliber talent and solid veterans, scoring prowess wasn’t what the Hawks were looking to achieve when bolstering their roster.
The aspect often overlooked on extremely talented teams remains on the defensive side of the floor. Wilkins has earned his time giving all out effort and contributing a defensive mindset to the second unit.
"Well first of all he’s a really good defensive player," said Drew. "He’s defensive minded. I don’t think you find many players as defensive minded say back in the day when I played. There was always just a group of them. You could just pick them out. I don’t think guys come into this league in that state of mind anymore, although we have good defenders. But he does bring a presence defensively that I thought we really needed on this club and that’s one of the reasons when his name came up amongst a couple of other guys his name stood out front."
The Hawks are poised to record their fourth consecutive postseason appearance and the hope is the addition of established role players such as Josh Powell, Wilkins and Etan Thomas while not flashy will help push the club past the second round of the playoffs.
The lack of mainstream attention hasn’t affected Wilkins’ approach to the game and the veteran seems more than content to tend to the dirty work to free up Atlanta’s stars.
"As long as I could keep hanging on and being on a significant team like this that can do some things in the playoffs I’ll continue to be a guy who doesn’t get talked about," said Wilkins to HOOPSWORLD. "I’ll be an unsung hero of sorts if that’s the case. I don’t do this for ink anyway. I do it because I love doing it. I play this game because it’s buried in me and I love to win. I’m glad I’m finally part of a team that can compete in a postseason series finally since my rookie year."
The NBA will always be a stars league, but having role players able to give you mistake free basketball during key stretches is what separates the elite from the good. Only time will tell if the Hawks can make the jump to the next level, but Wilkins is thriving in his role even without the publicity.
"I know what coach Drew tells me that he wants from me," said Wilkins to HOOPSWORLD. "That’s all I’m really concerned about. I don’t concern myself with anything else. I’m glad the guys have taken well to me. I’m glad that I’m able to fit in."
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