I'll be the first to admit, I never thought it would come to this. After his fiasco in 2004-05, I was convinced that we could expect a squeaky clean season for Pacers forward Ron Artest, where he'd display the full range of his impressive abilities on court while staying clear of trouble off it.
Heck, I even touted him as my MVP pick in a SI.com preseason survey (the world needs contrarians -- any master of the obvious can pick LeBron James). So, it was a shock to find that barely a month and a half into the season and with the Pacers playing reasonably well, Artest would elect to "go nuclear" and demand a trade.
Not surprisingly, the Pacers have zero patience with him at this point. They've ignored his later requests to rejoin the team and will deal him shortly, preferably to a Western Conference team.
Wow! Now that's a story!
The question is -- for the teams coveting him, is Artest worth the risk? Who or why would want to take on the challenge of managing the NBA's preeminent walking time bomb?
1) Artest the difference maker
First, we need to evaluate just what Artest can bring to the table. I like to start such analysis not by focusing on "conventional" box scores, but rather on the overall 'on court influence' a player exerts on his team's chances of winning. Since Artest's 04-05 campaign was, ahem, cut short, we'll need to also examine prior seasons.
|Artest's On Court Influence|
Net Pts per 100 possessions
Net Pts per 100 possessions
|* As of 12/28 for the 05-06 season|
Such are very impressive on/off court numbers. Artest ranked #13 in 03-04 and #10 in 02-03 for this particular stat, and he was headed towards another Top Ten campaign this season until he suddenly derailed it.
These are the raw looks, not adjusted for the other players present on the court-on his team and the opposition's. Artest shines in more sophisticated regression-based breakdowns as well, ranking #19 in Dan Rosenbaum's two-year study of 02-03 and 03-04 (see http://www.82games.com/comm30.htm)
So there's no doubt that Artest can improve a team's performance considerably. And that's one reason why Indiana fans should realize that for the second straight season, the Pacers have gone from serious contenders for the title to being in some trouble.
Conclusion: when he's playing, Artest will make a team better.
2) Artest on offense/on defense
Team influence numbers measure a player's role and 'fit' with a given roster rather than pure individual offensive production.
On that front, there exist any number of popular ways to break down box score-type data into ratings, including John Hollinger's intricate PER formula.
I'll take it one step further, calculating the PER rating of a player's counterpart while he was on court. This supposes that, if you're a point guard, I'll also consider how the opposing point guard fared when you were on the court.
The delta between the player's own PER and the counterpart PER is called the "PER Difference." The ratings are scaled such that a 15.0 is the league average, with higher numbers being better for your own stats, lower being better for the counterpart's.
|Artest's PER Rating|
|Season||PER Rating||Counterpart PER||PER Difference|
Artest's brilliant performance during his shortened 04-05 season certainly seems beyond his typical level, but it's clear both his own production and counterpart defense are excellent, making him a very, very good "PER Difference" player as well.
3) Other classic factors
True risk assessment would also look at many other factors, such as:
|http://www.protrade.com/insight/cont...ntentId=712738||A player's age and likely improvement/decline over time: Artest is only 26 years old, not even quite at his prime age.|
|http://www.protrade.com/insight/cont...ntentId=712738||Durability/Injury history: Artest has never played more than 76 games in a season, appearing in 7, 73, 69, and 55 over the last four. This isn't mention the games he's missed this season. So while not necessarily injury-related, with Artest comes the risk of missed games.|
|http://www.protrade.com/insight/cont...ntentId=712738||Passion for the game: Once one of the Artest most passionate players in the league, clearly this label is diminishing. 'Extracurricular' activites -- like his music/rap "career" -- and his on court unpredictability color any current assessment of how much he "cares."|
Artest is known for his physical play in a league where recent rule changes suggest it isn't wanted. Coupled with his reputation, he's is in danger of becoming the next Danny Fortson or Dennis Rodman -- guys referees love to whistle.
|http://www.protrade.com/insight/cont...ntentId=712738||Contract: Here's a bright spot. Artest carries what can only be called a less than market-rate deal. According to the Hoopshype salaries (http://www.hoopshype.com/salaries/indiana.htm) he's earning $6.5 million this season and stands to make $7.1 million in 06-07, and $7.8 million in 07-08. By today's NBA standards, if not for his baggage, he would be severely underpaid.|
|http://www.protrade.com/insight/cont...ntentId=712738||Trade Value: In the off-season, there's reason to believe a number of teams were trying to sway Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh into trading Artest. So the Pacers passed up several much better offers then they can manage now.|
If Artest moves to another team only to blow up again, there's a good chance he could be suspended for a long chunk of time or even perhaps banned from the game entirely. At the same time, if he keeps it together, then his trade value will increase for the new team and they could in turn shop him at a gain.
4) Artest the "headache"
It really comes down to this -- why wouldn't you want a young, skilled, hard-working player in a bargain contract who makes a team's performance better?
In Artest's case, it's all personal. His personal, that is, as NBA teams are hesitant to invest millions in a player with his past.
If you're the San Antonio Spurs do you want Artest? No.
You already have a perimeter defensive specialist (Bowen), a "put your head down and drive to the basket" offensive bull in a china shop (Ginobili), endless leadership, and a fabulous bench.
If you're Detroit could you use him? No.
With the best five man unit and chemistry bar none, the Pistons, even though Artest seems born to be a 'bad boy' in Detroit, will pass.
Which teams could Artest help? All of the others.
Assuming he can stay out of trouble, he'd team up nicely with Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, bring defensive ferocity to a Clippers team that's shaping up, and run well alongside the Warriors' Baron Davis. Artest-Nowitzki?
The mind races at the possibilties for teams to tilt the balance of power. Is Artest worth the risk? To answer as literally as possible, you bet.