In a sickening development for real Californians, last year’s best team in the league actually got better in the offseason. By “trading” free agent Trevor Ariza for free agent Ron Artest, the Lakers addressed the Achilles heel that got them beat in the finals against the Celtics. In that series, Paul Pierce did a heck of a job guarding Kobe Bryant, using his strength to push him off the spots on the floor he was trying to get to, and his length to force him to fade away a little bit more than he wanted to. Kobe was a mere mortal when guarded by Pierce, and that, combined with Phil Jackson’s refusal to play anything but the triangle, cost the Lakers the championship.
What does this have to do with Ron Artest? Well, it means that the Celtics can no longer put Pierce on Kobe. Neither Trevor Ariza, Luke Walton nor Sasha Vujacic are much of a threat offensively. Ray Allen was a perfectly adequate defender on all of them. Ray Allen can’t guard Artest though. He’d be eaten alive by Artest’s strength in the pinch-post of the triangle. That means Pierce on Artest, and Allen on Kobe, and Kobe can go back to being superhuman. In the event the Lakers match up against the Celtics again in the Finals, Artest could make the difference.
Getting Artest will also have a huge effect on how the Lakers match up against their two closest rivals in the West, the Spurs and the Nuggets. The Spurs made a great move in the off-season by acquiring Richard Jefferson. Jefferson is nearly a clone of Paul Pierce: same height and build. He’s not as gifted offensively, but he’s a slightly better defender. Did the Spurs pick him up with Kobe in mind, after watching the Lakers-Celtics finals? I think that’s quite likely. Unfortunately for the Spurs, the Lakers trumped their move by acquiring Artest. Jefferson will be spending all his time trying to keep The Beast out of the paint, and Mason and Ginobili will still be chasing Kobe.
As for the Nuggets, the Artest move finishes them. The Nuggets surprisingly gave the Lakers all they could handle last year, for the first 5 games of their playoff series. The one big edge they had against the Lakers was Carmelo Anthony. The Lakers just couldn’t guard him. He dwarfed Ariza and Bryant, punishing them inside, and no one else on the Lakers could stick with him athletically. Well, that’s over now. Carmelo ain’t going to be steam-rolling Ron Artest. I hope these teams match up again in the playoffs this year. Artest against Carmelo will be going into my mental video archive. Right next to Rodman-Kemp, and Rodman-Malone. Sorry, Denver.
The Lakers do have one remaining Achilles heel, and that is, of course, point guard. I hate, I mean I love, Derek Fisher: he’s proven himself one of the all-time gamers in league history. But he’s 35 now, which is 65 in point-guard years. He’s always struggled to contain the Tony Parker’s of the league, but at this point its nearly an impossible task for him. That just may cost the Lakers this year. Behind Fisher is Jordan Farmar, who has never impressed me. Too error-prone, too streaky, poor court-vision, no mid-range game, nothing special defensively.
On the other hand, when has Phil Jackson ever needed a point-guard while setting the record for most coaching championships? I mean, seriously, BJ Armstrong? Paxon? Kerr? Fisher is a heck of a player, but has he ever been considered a top point-guard? One of the fascinating aspects of the triangle is that it nearly renders the point guard position irrelevant. Or maybe that’s just a fascinating aspect of having Jordan, Pippen, Shaq, Gasol and Kobe…
You get the feeling the Lakers could trot Fisher out at 50, tottering on a rubber-tipped cane, and still win it all.
Other posts in this series: The Spurs.