Twice last week, when the Lakers needed a bucket at the end of the game, the ball ended up in the hands of Ron Artest. And he missed.
It seemed fitting, because Artest has not seemed himself — however you wish to define that — lately. This was the guy was the Lakers MVP of Game 7 of the NBA finals. The guy with the game-winning putback in Game 5 against Phoenix. With the key threes against Utah last playoffs. By the time he was on a Wheaties box it looked like Ron Artest had finally fit in.
But right now, Matt Barnes is fitting in more. Artest played just 17 minutes against the Rockets (the Lakers fourth loss in a row) and he was not sent in to stop Kevin Martin or the surprisingly hot Shane Battier in the fourth quarter.
Artest’s points, rebounds, assists, shot attempts, pretty much everything are down from last season. He is averaging just 8.7 points per game. That is largely because he is playing fewer minutes than last season, with Barnes getting more run.
When you watch him, on offense he seems to be breaking out of the triangle more often, and Synergy shows his isolation offense has been terrible. He is shooting the three better than ever, he is still strong when he plays catch-and-shoot (41.7 percent from three) but he seems less content to do that.
But it’s not about the offense, right? Artest is supposed to be the Lakers defensive stopper. Except that Phil Jackson seems to be using him less and less for that. The stats show that when teams try to run isolation on Artest he is still very effective. However, he doesn’t seem to be fighting through picks with the power and fervency for which he is known.
For his part, Jackson told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles that everything is just fine.
“I told him he’s still our defensive stopper,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said when asked after Thursday’s practice if Artest’s role was in fact changing this year. “He was out there at the end of the Memphis game the night before. Some of the guys are a little older. The guys who are older than 30, in back-to-backs, I want to watch their minutes if I can….
“Ron’s still a guy that we depend on to stop people,” Jackson reiterated. “He says, ‘I don’t care if I play two minutes or 42 minutes as long as we win,’ so that’s the right attitude.”
Artest echoed that.
“Rather than be frustrated, I’d rather just stay ready,” Artest said before Friday’s win against the Kings that stopped the Lakers’ slide. “If I play one minute for the whole game it doesn’t matter, it’s just about us winning. That’s it.
“I love playing basketball so much and right now I feel like I came back improved [from last season], but I’m not the coach so it’s not my job to determine my role on the team. … My job is to go in there and try to execute what the coach wants me to execute. That’s it. It’s really simple.”
Having Barnes or Artest gives Phil Jackson options. But as the season wears on and heads to the playoffs, he will need last season’s Artest if the Lakers are to climb the summit again.