Flunking Artest

by Jeff Fogle 17. February 2011 00:40

We expected more from the LA Lakers with a day of rest after suffering back-to-back losses.

It's been common this season to hear analysts and fans suggest that something just isn't right with the Lakers. And, you've often heard references to "frustrations" Phil Jackson and company are having with mercurial Ron Artest. With the Lakers stunning loss Wednesday night to historically bad Cleveland...in what should have been a motivational bounce back spot after losses to Orlando and Charlotte...on a night where Artest managed 1 point and NO rebounds in 18 minutes of action (all well below norms)...it's time to take a closer look.

First, let's start with the obvious. Artest's minutes are down significantly from last year. Here's a numerical representation of the "frustration" Jackson is having with Artest.

Oct/Nov: 33.9 last year, 27.7 this year
December: 36.5 last year, 25.9 this year
January: 29.4 last year, 29.9 this year (little change)
February: 36.8 last year, 30.1 this year thus far
March: 35.9 last year
April: 29.3 last year in 7 "half speed" games before playoffs

Round One: 37.2 vs. Oklahoma City
Round Two: 34.5 vs. Utah
West Finals: 38.0 vs. Phoenix
Championships: 35.9 vs. Boston

We're talking about a guy who's normally going to get 35 minutes or more per game when it matters, sinking down to under 30 minutes per game because he's out of synch with his coach and teammates.

Now let's look at production. John Hollinger's PER tells the story fairly well in terms of Artest's offensive decline:

2006-07: 18.60
2007-08: 18.79
2008-09: 15.58
Last year: 12.06
This year: 10.78

PER is a stat that emphasizes scoring effectiveness and rebounding. It's easy to forget that Artest used to be a force on both sides of the ball. He was asked to be more of defensive specialist last year, which is why 12.06 was fine with the Lakers. When on point, Artest is a GREAT defensive player. PER shows that he's dead weight in terms of offense and rebounding right now.

We can deduce from outside the bubble that Jackson wouldn't be cutting Artest's minutes if he was playing great defense. Ergo, Artest has become a monkey wrench on both sides of the ball.

During halftime of the Denver-Milwaukee telecast, ESPN showed highlights of the Lakers' loss. Studio analyst Tim Legler referred to a "lack of competitiveness" from the Lakers, noting several instances late in the game where they allowed easy Cleveland baskets. This is what he was talking about (from the fourth quarter play-by-play at ESPN's website):

4:35: Ramon Sessions makes a driving layup 
3:51: Ramo Sessions makes 1-foot two-point shot
3:21: JJ Hickson makes layup
2:27: JJ Hickson makes dunk and free throw

That was four chippies in five possessions. The Cavs had a 12-point lead after Hickson converted his "and-1." Cleveland wouldn't make another field goal the rest of the game because the Lakers had to foul.

Clearly the Lakers lost the will to fight in the final minutes. It's hard to say though that the team lacked competitiveness over the full 48 minutes:

*Paul Gasol had 30 points and 20 rebounds, the only player besides Kevin Love to earn a 30/20 this season.

*Kobe Bryant took 24 shots and led the team in defensive rebounds. An 8 of 24 night (including 1 of 6 on treys) may have been evidence of frustration, as Kobe just kept right on shooting (only 2 assists on the night). But, it wasn't a lack of fire. Kobe had 7 turnovers too. Sometimes competitive fire disrupts your offense!

*Andrew Bynum, still not back to full health, took 12 shots in his 22 minutes, but committed 5 fouls. He wasn't backing away from people. He was fouling them because he's not up to full speed yet.

*Derek Fisher was 8 of 12 from the field, and also had 5 fouls.

*Shannon Brown off the bench took 14 shots in 27 minutes and had 15 points.

Relatively quiet nights belonged to:

*Artest, who posted that 1 point, 0 rebound performance (no personal fouls) in 18 minute that we mentioned earlier.

*Lamar Odom was just 2 of 6 shooting with only 4 rebounds in 35 minutes.

It's tough to assign defensive blame without breaking down the full game play-by-play and rotation by rotation (or, non-rotation as the case looked to be quite often). It seems safe to say this:

*When Artest is where he's supposed to be in terms of intensity and mentality, and Bynum is healthy, this is a very good defensive team. Their efficiency numbers since acquiring Artest show that. Artest takes care of a big threat on the other team. The remaining Lakers rotate well enough and use their size to protect the basket.

*When Artest is "disrupting" his own team (or sitting on the bench), and Bynum is hurt, you're left with an aging, slow unit that has trouble defending anybody, even an opponent as historically bad as the Cavaliers.

Fisher 36
Bryant 32 (with a ton of minutes)
Odom 31
Gasol 30
Blake 30
Walton 30

Maybe age is catching up with Artest at 31. Bynum is only 23, but moves like an old man when he's hurt!

Can this Lakers group go the distance if "last year's Artest" never returns? That's starting to look more and more unlikely. Yes, the team won two years ago without Artest. The key players were two years younger. A healthy Bynum would seem vital.

Artest is certainly the type to show up when a championship is on the line like nothing happened. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the Lakers season doesn't really start until they lose their first playoff game.

Nobody's going to think much of the loss to Cleveland, or this 3-game losing streak, if the Lakers do return to postseason form in a couple of months. If they don't though, this may go down as the night where it really registered what kind of disruptive impact Artest was having on the team. Given opponent and context, it may be the single most embarrasing loss by a defending league champion in years. Artest was invisible for 18 minutes, and the absence of last year's Artest was felt dramatically in all 48.

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