The long list of those who think the Lakers miss Trevor Ariza just increased by one.
Even Ron Artest agrees?
“He’s a better player than me,” Artest said Tuesday.
But Ron-Ron, nobody ever said he was better, we just said he was a better fit.
“He’s a better player,” Artest repeated emphatically. “He’s won a ring, I haven’t. I can’t even compare to him. He’s a better player.”
Artest also agrees, incidentally, with the part about Ariza being a better fit.
“He probably is,” Artest said. “He’s a role player, a great role player. I haven’t been a role player. Many times I’ve had to carry the load, this is a different look for me.”
It is this different look that has some of the Lakers covering their eyes. Entering the season’s final stretch, basketball’s wackiest star is performing his nuttiest act yet.
Ron Artest is barely raising an eyebrow. He hasn’t figured out the flow of the Lakers offense this season, he has sometimes seemed a step slow on defense, and he’s made little impact on the team’s 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 Lakers’ 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 didn’t have Artest’s 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.
“With Ron, there’s a little synapse there, a little delayed reaction,” Coach Phil Jackson said. “That’s just Ron, regardless. All the guys have had to get used to it.”
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 hasn’t been so easy on the court, where he’s been just as quiet.
After 70 games, the team is 52-18, four games behind the pace of last season’s 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 year’s team seems unsure of itself. Last year’s team had no doubt.
While Artest is averaging fewer points, rebounds and assists than Ariza, he has better shooting percentages, but it’s not about their numbers, it’s 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 Denver’s Carmelo Anthony at the end of last month, and make the sort of big defensive plays Ariza made regularly.
“Artest is still figuring things out, but we expected that,” 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 it’s still not enough? He didn’t force the Lakers to sign him. He didn’t ask to shoulder Ariza’s memory. He’s just trying to fit in, and growing increasingly frustrated that he’s not.
“People see me play, they know what type of player I’m about,” he said. “‘What I was before, it’s not as important, what’s 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.”
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.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Artest said, pausing. “I mean, I’m making my mark defensively. My defense has been unbelievable. I don’t know whose defense has been as unbelievable as mine.”
He also notes that he has lost 15 pounds during the season, saying he’s down to 253 and slowly working into postseason shape.
“It’s OK to put it on me, talk about me, that means I’m still alive,” Artest said.
The Lakers can only hope.