An Aside on #37 For the Los Angeles Lakers:
By the time Ron Artest signed with the Lakers this summer, his label as an “enigmatic” or, less kindly “unstable” personality had already crystallized into cliche thanks to many well publicized incidents (exhibits A, B, C, et. al.). And, it must be said, Ron didn’t exactly try to play down his eccentricities – the whole Michael Jackson Saga*, culminating with Ron choosing his jersey number (37) to pay tribute to the number of weeks (37… duh) Jackson’s “Thriller” spent at the top of the charts, was only one example held up by the national sports media (i.e., espn.com, foxsports.com and other such pundits) of why the Lakers had erred in “trading” Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest. Marc Stein, of the Espn.com “Power Rankings” repeatedly asserted the “Artest as distraction” meme, claiming Ron-Ron’s volatile way would disrupt the delicate chemistry of the Lakers.*Ahem. Note: Ron says ni*** like 60 times in this one, but it’s clearly a term of affection. Still, probably NSFW. Though you really shouldn’t be watching or listening to Ron Artest on YouTube at work anyways, regardless of his word choice.
Well, with 10% of the season in the books, and the Lakers sitting at 6-1 despite missing their 2nd best player for all seven games, and their 3rd or 4th best player for the last two, the great Ron-Ron chemistry experiment seems to be going pretty well. What is interesting, however, is Ron appears to be paying his dividends precisely in the area where he was supposed to be a liability: our team chemistry and effort.
On the court, there is no doubt Ron has looked a bit rusty – or maybe we (Laker fans) simply perceive the differences in his game, and his deficiencies compared to Ariza, as “rust.” After all, I doubt a 30 year old tank of a man is going to get any better at finishing around the hoop in traffic – I miss the sheer ease, the effortless manner in which Ariza would soar to the hoop, contorting his body for a emphatic slam or acrobatic layup. Ron, I am sad to say, is significantly more ground-bound – as several blown layups, and one serious rejection of a dunk attempt – courtesy of the rim – have shown. Even when he does dunk, there is visible effort and strain, an element of unease, where it appears likely Ron might lose a finger or strain an arm. And we certainly won’t be asking Ron to guard Tony Parker, like we would Ariza – but that is the point of this post – they are different players, and as much as we want to view each in contrast of the other (see: reporters asking Artest how he felt when Ariza dropped 33 points the other night), to do so would be to shortchange the both of them. Lakers fans, especially, would do well to put on the blinders and ignore Ariza’s boxscores, because as tantalizing as hypothetical situations always are, they have even less of a bearing on LA’s chances of taking home the L.O.B. this year than Adam Morrison.
Instead, what sticks out from Ron’s contibutions to the young Lakers season is not his spot up shooting (not bad, and getting better), his passing (surprisingly good), his on-ball defense (typically excellent), but that very air of straining, pressing. In a word: determination. Now, Ariza was certainly a “hustle player,” but that same stoicism and fluidity that made his forays to the hoop so exciting also robbed his game of urgency – even when Trevor was making a huge play, he looked casual. Now, this can be a good trait, e.g. Tim Duncan, but Duncan is assured of asserting his philosophy, his style, on the rest of his squad, by nature of his being the Pack Leader, the biggest baddest wolf on his team. Ariza, and Artest, have no such luxury on the Lakers. Even aside of one Mr. Big Bad Mamba himself (and that is no small aside), The Spaniard and Young Money (a.k.a. Drew) are more essential components from a pure X’s and O’s perspective. Not to mention the ultimate Alpha Male: the Slovenian Jordan, Mr. Sasharapova…. pause. Given this arrangement, Ariza was something of a stealth ninja – making plays in the cut, the gifted and willing recipient of opportunities created by the Lakers’ big dogs. Artest, in contrast, inspires his teammates to make more opportunities for the whole team, through sheer effort, and what an effort it has been so far.
I knew that Ron’s determination was something special when my mom** looked up from the LA Times crossword puzzle with a few minutes left in the anticipated Mbenga – Young Gasol tilt of last week, and remarked, “Wow! I really like that Artest. He just tries so hard!” This was of course answered with my dad and I explaining that Ron was talented, but crazy, liable to beat your ass, etc., but all my mom would say was, “Well, I don’t know about that, but just look at him! He’s just working so hard out there! I think that’s what this team needs.”**one of the gifts of moving home post-college is getting to see my mom try to make sense of all of the sporting events preempting dancing with the stars and desperate housewives on our tv.
Wow. Check, and Mate. I had just been shutdown by my mom – and she was right, I realized as I watched the game unfold. For every blown layup or questionable dribble (of which there were pleasantly few), there was Ron up in Rudy Gay’s grill on the permiter, slamming into Zach Randolph in the post, rolling over Kyle Lowry for a loose ball, hustling into position to can a 3, bull-rushing the hoop for two freethrows, and just generally giving off the vibe of a man possessed. Although this game provided Ron’s best (or 2nd best) boxscore of the season, it also highlighted his-non-stat-line contributions. In our first game ever starting D.J. Mbenga, hopefully one of few, Ron made an almost literal impression on the game, a physical stamping of his effort and drive onto the proceedings. Of course, if Ron really were inspiring his teammates to defend harder, make sharper cuts, get after the ball with his same pitbull mentality, then it would show up in the +/- stats, right? Plus/Minus, for those unfamiliar, is an NBA stat, rapidly growing in popularity and prevalence, that attempts to measure a player’s overall impact on offense and defense by measuring the difference in their team’s points scored and points allowed when they are on or off the court. This is a simplification of course, and there’s all sorts of algorithmic figurings going on to try and isolate the impact of one player from the 5-man unit and whatnot, but essentially, if you’re a player who helps his team win on both sides of the floor, you’ll have a good plus/minus score.
Well, Ron Artest has a GREAT plus/minus score. Best on the Lakers, in fact, according to both the official NBA +/- score and the preeminent independent NBA analysis site, 82games. By the NBA’s rankings, in fact, Ron has had double the impact of the 2nd best player (guess who? rhymes with Sobe Giant).
I found it very gratifying to see the numbers confirm what I had already seen with my eyes: when Ron is on the floor, the Lakers defend harder, get after the ball more, and are more likely to run the offense inside-out. Now, +/- is context dependent, and clearly Ron owes a lot of his success TO #24, and for that reason +/- isn’t the stat for saying who is better than who – but rather for measuring a player’s importance to, and effectiveness within his team. And suffice to say, in this young season, Ron has shown that his bulldog determination may end up being the championship ingredient the Lakers need to get past a retooled Orlando, rejuvenated Boston, or the resplendent Lebron (is there someone else important on the Cavs? yeah, I didn’t think so either). And even my mom can see that.
Up next: Pondering the sources of the Suns’ rejuvenation.