On the NBA | As good as it could get

By David Aldridge
Inquirer Staff Writer

Ron Artest finally got traded. A nation pauses to reflect.

It's amazing that so many people:

(a) think the Pacers are fools for waiting six weeks to deal Artest after his initial trade demand, and (b) think the Pacers made a bad deal in acquiring Peja Stojakovic from the Kings.

I'm sorry, were the Heat shopping Dwyane Wade without our knowledge? Did Kevin McHale's Blackberry malfunction while he was offering Kevin Garnett to Indiana CEO Donnie Walsh?

A three-time all-star for a talented knucklehead is about as good as anyone could expect. Especially one who doesn't impact the team's luxury-tax situation down the road.

Trades come about much like houses are bought. You don't make your last, best offer right out of the gate, do you? You try to get the number down if you're buying, or up if you're selling. And teams don't make their best offers the day after someone is put on the trading block as publicly as Artest was.

"We had waited a long time to get the offers we did get," Walsh said by phone on Friday. "They were good. They were a lot better than everybody said we were going to get. The same guys that are writing we got hosed were saying we wouldn't get anybody."

This isn't about Artest's basketball abilities, which are numerous and well-documented (though he is not, as Sacramento co-owner Joe Maloof suggested this way on Thursday, one of the five best players in the game. The Maloofs are so enthusiastic and cute when they talk about their Kings).

This isn't even really about Artest the person, who is big-hearted and utterly without conceit.

But Artest is damaged goods. He's a fixer-upper. He's the Benz after the accident. He's down to his last strike with a commissioner who will throw him out of the league the next time he gets out of line. He knows it. The Pacers know it. And more to the point, the other teams around the league know it.

Not only did Walsh and team president Larry Bird manage the situation well, they shrewdly found a division - the Pacific - chock full of teams that were desperate to get Artest. The Lakers, Clippers, Warriors and Kings each made offers, and if the Pacers couldn't get the player they wanted from one, like rookie forward Ike Diogu from Golden State, they moved to the next team, creating a crabs-in-a-barrel effect.

And people seem to forget: The Pacers would have ended this three weeks ago if Clipper Corey Maggette's foot wasn't so damaged - and, you should know, if he wasn't so hard to get insured as a result.

Once the Maloofs finally decided to pull the trigger on a deal two weeks ago and put Stojakovic on the table, Walsh and Bird didn't wait any longer.

"There was another team I would have gone right to if this didn't work," Walsh said (and my guess - just a guess - is that it was Denver). "But no, I wasn't going to sit around when we were offered a good player and say, 'I'll just wait until the trading deadline.' "

No, the 28-year-old Stojakovic isn't nearly as good without Chris Webber and Vlade Divac. No, he doesn't play much defense. Yes, he's been pouting most of this season, which happens to be a contract year.

But he immediately solves two problems the Pacers have struggled with all season: His arrival allows Stephen Jackson to move back to shooting guard (Jackson's been getting torched trying to guard bigger threes), and he provides Jermaine O'Neal with a legit option when he's double-teamed in the post.

Even with Artest, the Pacers weren't going to beat the Pistons. Detroit is on one of those season-long rolls and has the look of a champion. Indiana is too brittle. (Point guard Jamaal Tinsley and O'Neal can't stay healthy.) Everyone acts as if the Pacers were a finished product. They're not. And they couldn't keep waiting for Artest. Nor could they have him on the roster; O'Neal was not going to play with him anymore. Period.

"I may not want to believe it, but it appears that this thing has knocked us off track this year," Walsh said. "I'd be curious to see if our players get back on track. We're headed in a direction where we can at least get a vision of our team and see where we're going in the future. We had to do something. Jamaal played about 1,300 minutes last season, and Jermaine played about 1,500 minutes. We were doing it on fumes. We still are. Last year was devastating and we didn't recover from it. Maybe we still are."

The Pacers can continue building their team. The Kings, who didn't have anything to lose (they probably weren't going to re-sign Stojakovic at big prices, anyway) get a guy who can guard the likes of Kobe Bryant and Jason Richardson and the division's other big scorers. Maybe they make a run into the playoffs. Maybe they don't.

But with Artest, they won't be boring.

If Artest is smart, he'll keep it down to a dull roar.