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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 24, 2010

NBA: Artest has been an awkward fit with Lakers

By Bill Plaschke
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES ó The long list of those who think the Los Angeles Lakers miss Trevor Ariza just increased by one.

Even Ron Artest agrees?
ďHeís a better player than me,Ē Artest said Tuesday.
But Ron-Ron, nobody ever said he was better, we just said he was a better fit.
ďHeís a better player,Ē Artest repeated emphatically. ďHeís won a ring, I havenít. I canít even compare to him. Heís a better player.Ē
Artest also agrees, incidentally, with the part about Ariza being a better fit.
ďHe probably is,Ē Artest said. ďHeís a role player, a great role player. I havenít been a role player. Many times Iíve had to carry the load, this is a different look for me.Ē
It is this different look that has some of the Lakers covering their eyes. Entering the seasonís final stretch, basketballís wackiest star is performing his nuttiest act yet.
Ron Artest is barely raising an eyebrow. He hasnít figured out the flow of the Lakers offense this season, he has sometimes seemed a step slow on defense, and heís made little impact on the teamís toughness.
In a move engineered by the Buss family last summer, Artest was signed here from the Houston Rockets to replace Ariza, who then signed with Houston, after balking at the Lakersí contract offer.
It is a move that some Lakers folks would now take back. It was a move that many of us thought should never have happened in the first place.
Ariza didnít have Artestís star power, but he was a better offensive complement to Kobe Bryant, a more versatile team defender, and a guy who had survived the championship battle to win a ring.
He was a known quantity who would have been an invaluable soul in the difficult quest to win a second consecutive title. Artest was a Lakers unknown who is still, well, a Lakers unknown.
ďWith Ron, thereís a little synapse there, a little delayed reaction,Ē Coach Phil Jackson said. ďThatís just Ron, regardless. All the guys have had to get used to it.Ē
The adjustment has been fine in the locker room, where, contrary to initial fears, Artest has been a model of unselfishness and deference. The adjustment hasnít been so easy on the court, where heís been just as quiet.
After 70 games, the team is 52-18, four games behind the pace of last seasonís Lakers. Less than a month before the playoffs, the difference between the two versions can be found in the difference between Artest and Ariza.
This yearís team seems unsure of itself. Last yearís team had no doubt.
While Artest is averaging fewer points, rebounds and assists than Ariza, he has better shooting percentages, but itís not about their numbers, itís about their presence.
The Lakers are still waiting for Artest, 30, to fit into an offensive flow where the younger Ariza existed seamlessly. The Lakers are still waiting for Artest to shut down more opponents like he shut down Denverís Carmelo Anthony at the end of last month, and make the sort of big defensive plays Ariza made regularly.
ďArtest is still figuring things out, but we expected that,Ē said teammate Lamar Odom.
Expected it, or feared it? Remember, the Buss family suddenly acquired Artest and dumped Ariza seemingly without similar enthusiasm from either General Manager Mitch Kupchak or Jackson. While both men publicly endorsed the deal, one must wonder whether today they are still shaking their heads.
Artest is certainly shaking his head. While his previous comments about Ariza were made with a straight face, it was clear that they contained some annoyed sarcasm.
Here he is, on his best behavior, and itís still not enough? He didnít force the Lakers to sign him. He didnít ask to shoulder Arizaís memory. Heís just trying to fit in, and growing increasingly frustrated that heís not.
ďPeople see me play, they know what type of player Iím about,Ē he said. ďíWhat I was before, itís not as important, whatís more important is winning and playing team ball. I could be averaging a lot of points and making people real happy, but that means somebody else would not be reaping the benefits. They won a championship last year, a lot of guys deserve to still shine.Ē
Spoken like a great teammate. If only he were so eloquent on the court, where, as Jackson noted, there often seems to be something missing.
ďI donít know. I donít know,Ē Artest said, pausing. ďI mean, Iím making my mark defensively. My defense has been unbelievable. I donít know whose defense has been as unbelievable as mine.Ē
He also notes that he has lost 15 pounds during the season, saying heís down to 253 and slowly working into postseason shape.
ďItís OK to put it on me, talk about me, that means Iím still alive,Ē Artest said.
The Lakers can only hope.