There are many things that Ron Artest does well. He is one of the best defenders in the NBA, a prolific scorer and an even more prolific Twitterer. But an ability to simply "blend in" has never been Artest's forte. Yet that's exactly what the Lakers are asking him to do this season.
In what was easily the biggest gamble of an NBA offseason that had its fair share of big-time wheeling and dealing, the Lakers passed on re-signing playoff spark plug and fan favorite Trevor Ariza to sign Artest with the hope that he would somehow morph into something he's never been before -- a role player.
It was the basketball equivalent of replacing the popular, yet still fifth lead character on a hit sitcom with a talented, yet at times troubled A-lister: Either he's going to fit in and take the show to another level or self-destruct and take everyone down with him. In a town that loves drama, there won't be a greater one this year than the reality show that will unfold at Staples Center.
Before training camp started, Lakers coach Phil Jackson didn't hesitate when asked about the defending champion's main goal in preparation for the regular season. "We want to try and make this transition for Ron Artest seamless," Jackson said. "Our No. 1 objective is to get Ron acclimated."
He is the only new player on a roster that simply switched out Ariza, a small forward who signed with Houston, for Artest, a small forward who left the Rockets for a five-year, $33 million contract with Los Angeles. Artest is a better all-around player, but he and Ariza couldn't be more different off the court. While Ariza was quiet, shied away from the media and went about his business mostly unnoticed, there is nothing quiet, shy or unnoticed about Artest.
"Ron Artest isn't only high-profile," Jackson said, "but he makes himself high-profile in a lot of cases."
Artest, 29, may be one of the league's most well-known players, but he often carries himself like a struggling rapper trying to make a name for himself with a grassroots marketing campaign and a penchant for saying yes to just about anything. Just weeks before the season he was on TV raising money for the Hasidic Jewish movement Chabad-Lubavitch, volunteering at an Iranian basketball camp, walking dogs at an animal shelter and taking some of his Twitter followers to a WNBA game, breakfast and bowling. Every time you turned around Artest was at another event, one more random than the next.
He seems to have made a point to win over Los Angeles one Lakers fan at time, though he doesn't exactly see it like that. "These things that I do aren't for anything. They have no purpose," Artest said. "I'm not promoting anything or selling nothing. I just want to have fun and meet my fans."
There are many things that Artest does that have no purpose. For example, for an interview with SI.com the other day, Artest hired Natalin Avci, a 23-year-old Turkish model he had met recently in a hotel lobby, and a camera crew for a photo shoot for the heck of it. "The only purpose is to have fun," Artest said.
That would appear to be one of the driving forces behind many of Artest's decisions, including the one that could drive him to get out of his Lakers contract early.
"I signed for five years but I want to box, I want to fight a heavyweight fight in four years," Artest said on more than one occasion. "I started training already and I'm doing good and I think in four years I'll be ready to fight my first professional fight. I want to get four professional fights under my belt and see how I do and take it from there. That's been my goal for a long time. Whether I get knocked out or knock somebody out, I just want to fight."
On the court, his performance this season will be judged in large part on whether the Lakers are able to repeat with him instead of Ariza. "I know the pressure is on me. I'm the one change that they made," Artest said. "I have to take responsibility. You can't put it all on Kobe [Bryant]. I know what I have to do."
When Artest signed with the Lakers, many pointed to Jackson's success with handling talented yet troubled players such as Dennis Rodman. Artest, however, will not be a Rodman-type player in the Lakers' triangle offense. "Dennis Rodman is my favorite player, but I really think that I'm more of a Scottie Pippen," Artest said. "I'm not a rebounder like Rodman, but I can score."
Jackson agreed, saying, "Dennis was interested in defense and rebounding and he worked in our triangle very well, but he would pass up a shot when he was wide open and give someone else a shot. Ron is a guy who likes to score and will score and so it's a different role he'll have on this team. Personality-wise, Dennis was a guy who could probably go through the day without talking, while Ron is very verbose. There's quite a difference."
Artest's biggest early challenge will be finding his place on a team that features a league MVP (Bryant), a two-time All-Star (Pau Gasol), a top sixth man (Lamar Odom), a developing 21-year-old center (Andrew Bynum) and a Hall of Fame coach.
"On paper, we're certainly a better team [with Artest]," Jackson said. "He's a terrific player. But sometimes it's chemistry that counts between players and that's the thing that's going to measure out."