Just two days after the start of free agency, the Lakers have pulled off a tremendous coup by signing Ron Artest and waving goodbye to Trevor Ariza. As a Laker fan, I am sorry to see Ariza go; after all, he was a big reason why the Lakers won the NBA Championship last month. Sure, Kobe Bryant was the lynchpin for the Lakers but it was Ariza’s defense ,his ball-hawking steals and threepoint shooting that rescued the Lakers first against the Nuggets and then, in the finals, against the Magic. Who can forget that fourth game in Orlando when he exploded for 13 points in the third quarter and almost singlehandedly propelled the Lakers to a lead they would never relinquish? At only 24, he has a bright future ahead of him and it’s too bad he had such a dunderhead for an agent. David Lee tried to play tough with the Lakers and overplayed his hand by negotiating through the media, making pronouncements such as ” Lakers will not get a hometown discount for Ariza “. As a result Ariza now finds himself stuck with a rebuilding team playing for the same money that he had been offered by the Lakers.
By signing Ron Artest for the midlevel exception ( $ 18 million over three years) the Lakers achieved several things. 1) At this stage of their careers, Artest is an upgrade over Ariza, particularly on offense.A tenacious defender Artest is a tougher, more physical player who will not be pushed around . He will bring a much needed touch of nastiness to a Laker team that has been characterized as ‘soft’. Opposing players will now think twice about teeing off on Kobe. Artest’s bulk also makes him better able to defend players like Carmelo Anthony or Lebron James. 2) Artest is also a better shooter than Ariza . Defenders will not be able to sag off on him the way they did on Ariza. He provides yet another scoring option and should reduce some of the pressure on Kobe. 3) Another big plus is that signing Artest means that other contenders such as Cleveland and Boston will not be able to make a run at him. 4) Artest’s contract 3-year is the perfect length. He is 30, the same age as Kobe : the Lakers should be set for awhile and yet have the flexibility to sign complementary players as Kobe starts to wind down.
With this signing, the Lakers are in a good position to repeat as NBA champions though I am not one of those Laker fans crowing about a possible three-peat. There are so many things that can go wrong . It is so difficult to repeat let alone threepeat. Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown still have to be signed. Derek Fisher is a year older and they are still searching for his successor. Phil Jackson’s health may not permit him to return. Other contenders are also improving themselves with trades. The San Antonio Spurs strenghthened themselves immeasurably by signing high scoring small forward , Richard Jefferson thus addressing a glaring weakness of last season’s team. If Manu Ginobli rebounds from injury and Tim Duncan has something left in the tank, they will team with Tony Parker and Jefferson to make a serious run at the Lakers and the Denver Nuggets.( As I write, the news is that the Boston Celtics have offered a mid-level extension to Rasheed Wallace . In many respects this is simlar to the Lakers signing Artest ; both Rasheed Wallace and Ron Artest are talented players with hair trigger tempers that could be a liability. By the same token , they could be the last piece required for a championship team.) Still, providing that the Lakers keep the team intact, they have to be considered favorites or at least joint favorites.
It is surprising to hear so many voices criticizing the signing of Artest. The criticisms are twofold .1) His penchant for drawing technical fouls 2) That he will destroy the team chemistry since he has a big ego and will demand the ball more than the unassuming Ariza thus reducing scoring opportunities for Kobe and Pau Gasol . I think that these fears are groundless. For one thing, Phil Jackson and Kobe will be able to rein him in. If Phil could handle the craziness of Dennis Rodman in Chicago, he can certainly handle Ron Artest. Besides, Ron at this stage of his career has calmed down a lot as he showed last year in Houston.The other thing is that Ron badly wants a ring and will do everything he can to earn it, including concentrating on defense and taking fewer shots. Sure, he will have to renounce his ball-hogging tendencies but I expect that he will do so to fit into the team concept.
A word here a bout Mitch Kupchak, the Laker GM. He came in for heavy criticism three or four years ago , not least from Kobe Bryant . He has since proven himself a worthy successor to his mentor and predecessor, Jerry West. First, Kupchak displayed a fine eye for talent in his first round pick to selecta young 7 foot center, Andrew Bynum, fresh out of high school . Then he showed great courage in withstanding calls to trade away Bynum for Jason Kidd. His biggest coup was trading for Pau Gasol while simaltaneously getting rid of the under-achieving Kwame Brown. Another important trade he made, one which was unnoticed at the time , was for Trevor Ariza. And now, the ‘swap’ of Ariza for Artest should make the Lakers contenders for at least the next three years.
When the Lakers won the championship last month , NBA commissioner David Stern handed the trophy to Joey Buss, the owner’s son. Mitch Kupchak was nowhere to be seen. If the Lakers do win the championship again next year, I hope that they recognize Mitch Kupchak’s contributions by making sure that he is on the dais when the trophy is presented. He has been a big part of the Lakers recent success and it is only right that his efforts be acknowledged.
Update ( 7/09) : Contrary to the first reports, Ron Artest’s contract is for 5 years not 3. The annual rate is the same ( $ 6.6 million / year ; $ 33 million total). This is the identical amount that Ariza for signed with Houston and what he would have got from theLakers had his agent been more reasonable .