So says a Mavs official
At right price, Artest might be Mavs' championship key
By JIM REEVES
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
DALLAS -- This one is a character tester.
This one will make you check your hole card.
This one could have you mumbling to yourself all season.
Ron Artest: Should the Mavs take the gamble or play the hand they've been dealt?
Gut instinct says leave him alone. He's T.O. in baggy shorts. He's Randy Moss on hardwood. He's very bad news. Let someone else borrow that trouble.
But in the back of my mind, I wonder: Is this the elite player who could put the Mavs over the top, the missing piece that could make them as good as the San Antonio Spurs? Or even better?
And the whisper that comes back is, yeah, that's exactly what he could be.
If the Mavs want to win an NBA championship this season, it's a risk they have to take.
But only if the price is right.
"They [the Indiana Pacers] are asking the world," one Mavs official said after Wednesday night's 102-96 victory over Phoenix. "We're not going to mortgage our future for him."
The official company line has become almost a mantra when Artest's name comes up.
"We like our team," coach Avery Johnson said before the game.
"We like our team," echoed owner Mark Cuban during his pregame ritual on the Stairmaster. "You can talk about any player in the league and speculate.
"What I will tell you is, just because a player demands something doesn't mean it's going to happen."
But the Pacers have said they intend to try to accommodate Artest by the end of the week.
"What better way to defuse the situation?" Cuban said. "I don't know Ron at all, and there's no reason to do our homework and find out."
Whoa. Avery had just told the media in his pregame briefing that homework is exactly what the Mavs do in situations like this, and Cuban is no dummy.
So why was Cuban being so coy?
Of course they've done their homework. If the Mavs' brain trust hasn't collectively discussed the pros and cons of bringing Artest to Dallas, then I'll happily volunteer to wear Mark's silliest Mavs T-shirt to a home game sometime this season.
This subject is so sensitive around the AAC, even Big Nellie backed away when it came up.
"Anything I say could be misconstrued," Don Nelson said. "Ask Mark or Donnie."
I already know what they'd say: "We like our team."
Nellie knows that Artest could be to the Mavs what Brett Hull once was to the Stars or Charles Haley was to the Cowboys.
Artest is arguably a top-10 talent with exactly the skills the Mavs need. He's a good offensive player, a strong rebounder and a great defensive player. He would bring an element of toughness that the Mavs lack.
"It's something you'd have to be interested in," former Mavs guard Derek Harper said. "There are some things you put up with if you have a chance to win a championship."
Artest is Bruce Bowen with an offensive game. He could be the second option behind Dirk Nowitzki that the Mavs have so desperately needed.
"Like a lot of other teams, we always do our homework," Avery said. "If we thought there was something out there that could put us over the top or put us on the next level, we would make those calls.
"We just haven't made that call yet. All we're saying is that for our basketball team, [Artest] is not the right fit."
It's the fit that Avery seems most concerned about, not the baggage that Artest brings.
Forget about getting him for Jerry Stackhouse or Keith Van Horn. The Pacers, the Mavs official said, want to start with Josh Howard or Devin Harris, and work from there.
And what about that baggage? What about the mood swings and the violent behavior? What about the CDs and the acting and the other distractions? Do the Mavs really want to expose their young players to this guy?
Yet, one of Artest's most vocal critics, The Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, agrees that he could be a difference-maker for a good team.
"I've been calling for him to be traded here for three years, but if I was a team hanging around near the top, he'd be worth the risk," Kravitz said. "The thing is, nobody thinks he's a bad guy. There's no looting or pillaging here, no beating up the wife, or drugs or anything like that. He's just scattered."
Hmmm. I suspect Kravitz has used harsher terms than "scattered" to describe Artest's behavior over the years.
Hull was crazy. Haley was crazy. But Artest is crazy in a you-never-know-what-you're-gonna-get kind of way. He's constantly at the center of some melodrama.
"It's never destructive to other people, but it's destructive to the team," Kravitz said. "Still, you always have the feeling that the light's going to come on at any moment.
"He gives you just enough to make you think he's going to get it some day."
And, of course, every coach believes he's the guy who can flip the switch.
"I've played with players like that before," Avery said. "I wouldn't have a problem coaching that type of player.
"When Nick Van Exel came here, he was supposed to be such a headache. What a headache he was ... He was a headache to the opponents. It's all about the environment, the relationship that particular player has with the coach, with his teammates."
One problem: In Indianapolis, Artest had no relationship with his coach or his teammates. The consensus locker room response to the Pacers agreeing to trade him? Good riddance.
"I guess a leopard never changes his spots," former teammate Reggie Miller told Kravitz earlier this week.
Maybe not. Maybe gut instinct is right. Maybe you don't touch this guy at all. After all, the Mavs are 16-6, the third-best record in the league, without Artest. The risk is enormous.
On the other hand, the reward just might be the same.