By Skip Bayless
Page 2

That tremor you just felt wasn't "King Kong" opening. It was the NBA's balance of power shifting.

Two charades just ended, in Indiana and Miami. Ron Artest, going. Pat Riley, returning. Both developments were inevitable, and have been in the works for weeks.

But only one makes sense: Riley's.

That's because Artest blew the whistle on Pacers general manager Larry Bird, while ex-Heat coach Stan Van Gundy basically swallowed his whistle when forced out by Riley.

I'll explain.

Pat Riley
AP
Pat Riley makes the Heat better -- there's just no way around that.

But here's the upshot: The Heat suddenly get a real coach -- one of the NBA's top five. And some lucky team gets to steal a top-10 player: Artest, who could turn any of six Western Conference teams into a championship contender.

The San Antonio Spurs -- until this week easily the NBA's best team -- now have to worry about facing Artest's team in the Western Conference playoffs and Riley's in the NBA Finals. Yet both these moves have been underestimated because of two media-driven stereotypes: Stan Van Gundy, "good guy." Ron Artest, "bad guy."

Look deeper.

When Riley stepped down -- or up -- to become Heat GM, he chose a career assistant to replace him because: (1) He didn't want a proven coach to make him look even worse by having far more success, and (2) he wanted a coach he could control.

Yes, Van Gundy is a good guy and a media favorite, but he was a lousy hire. He's nothing more than a glorified assistant, a seat-warmer, a follower to Riley's leader, a guy who often sweated more than his players. Especially after Riley pulled off one of the top two or three trades in league history -- stealing Shaquille O'Neal from the Lakers -- Van Gundy was overmatched.

No way Shaq ever looked at Van Gundy and thought anything but: "You're kidding me." As Heat games turned into celebrity-studded events, Van Gundy looked more and more like a guy who had won a backstage pass in a radio station contest. Van Gundy coaching South Beach's team always felt something like "The King of Queens" hosting a Grammys after party.

During the offseason, Riley basically rigged the roster for Van Gundy to fail or quit. Van Gundy could sooner juggle chainsaws than the nitro egos of newcomers Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and Jason Williams, mixed in with Shaq and Dwyane Wade. Worse, Riley stated publicly that he wanted to coach again.

Riley finally put poor Van Gundy out of his misery just as -- what a coincidence -- Shaq was returning from an ankle injury. Van Gundy, NBA lifer that he is, took the high road, insisting he was quitting to spend more time with his family. Yet he remains employed by the team and will collect a large portion of his reported $3 million salary this season and next.

This is basically hush money.

Van Gundy is being paid to participate in a charade that will help keep his reputation and Riley's image intact. He agreed not to criticize Riley, even though he would have been justified in going down with his guns blazing. He remains a "good guy" -- a very respected (and hire-able) member of the NBA's assistant coaching fraternity -- while Riley doesn't look quite so Machiavellian.

Still, all that really matters here is that Riley just made a move almost as great as trading for Shaq. There's only one coach capable of cracking the whip on this roster and this overweight superstar. That coach is the GM who assembled this team: Riley.

Shaq fears and respects Riley. Riley knows that Wade still needs to play Robin to Shaq's Batman if the Heat are going to conquer Gotham City again. If Riley gets Shaq back in shape and in sync -- the Very Big Fella needs to lose 20 pounds while getting at least 20 shots a game -- look out, all you Jokers and Riddlers.

The Heat just went from the East's third-best team, behind Detroit and Indiana, to potentially the favorite.

Indiana, on the other hand, is about to become playoff fodder.

Now it comes clear: That sly fox Bird was running a little con game on the league when he agreed to pose for the cover of Sports Illustrated's NBA issue standing literally behind his man Artest.

Bird was quoted as saying: "Like me, he plays the game to win. Because of his intensity and desire to win, Ronnie's a guy I would pay money to watch play. … Look, Ronnie made a horrible mistake going into the stands [in Detroit last season], but he tucks his shirttail in and comes to battle every day. That makes me proud."

This isn't to suggest that Bird didn't believe those words. He still does. But he also was trying to rebuild Artest's trade value.

If Bird's two prized offseason additions proved to be as good as he anticipated, he obviously planned to quietly shop Artest in December. Sarunas Jasikevicius, Bird's Euro-toughened, 29-year-old rookie shooter, immediately looked like an NBA veteran, while rookie forward Danny Granger soon looked like a 17th-pick steal.

Yet together, these two won't ever measure up to the impact Artest can have.

Ron Artest
AP
Some team is gonna get a big boost when it adds Artest.

He rivals Bruce Bowen as the league's best on-the-ball defender. Yet Bowen is more of a pest. Artest is a 6-foot-7, 255-pound bully. Bowen irritates you. Artest scares the hell out of you.

Artest makes all his teammates feel a little tougher. Artest gave the Pacers a defensive identity, as well as an overpowering offensive option. Artest could manhandle most of the two guards or small forwards who try to guard him. He knows all the low-post tricks and he has made himself into a pretty good outside shooter.

He's not the greatest athlete or leaper, but he plays basketball the way Brian Urlacher plays football: all-out. He can score 30 while holding the opponent's top scorer to 15. Artest is a difference maker.

So why in the name of, well, Bird, would Bird trade him? He's a bargain All-Star who's signed for four more years at team-friendly salaries ranging from only $6.8 million to $7.5 million.

One explanation making the NBA rounds is the "knucklehead" theory. One GM said: "Most people in the league believe that you can get away with having one knucklehead on your team, but not two. The Pacers have Artest and Stephen Jackson -- and sometimes you wonder about Jermaine O'Neal.

"So maybe Bird decided he needed addition by subtraction. Maybe he decided that as much as he likes Artest, a cloud would always hang over him with the Pacers and that he and the team just needed a change of scenery."

So, apparently, Bird explored some trade options. That's what keeps getting overlooked. Artest's initial "I want to be traded" salvo came in response to a rumor that Indiana and Sacramento had discussed an Artest-for-Peja Stojakovic trade.

Artest can act dumb, but he ain't basketball-stupid. He called out Bird and coach Rick Carlisle, loudly wondering why he has been phased out of the offense even though he often has mismatches.

Good question. But obviously, you can't ask it publicly without alienating your coach and teammates. Unlike Van Gundy, Artest took the low road.

Then again, is it fair to condemn Artest by saying, "The Pacers stood behind him through last year's suspension. How could he turn on them?"

No.

Once again: Artest didn't land a single punch when he went into the stands after the cup-thrower in Detroit. The only ones he threw were at the guy who was sucker-punching him from behind.

The only one he landed was on the jaw of the idiot who squared off with him after he had returned to the playing floor.

And for that he was suspended for the rest of the season: 73 games. That was excessive. Yet Artest stayed in superb shape and looked like an MVP candidate in the preseason.

Terrell Owens will always be more trouble than he's worth. Not Artest.

Yet Artest undercut Bird's plan to trade him by demanding a trade. Now he looks like a "bad guy" again. Now Indiana's leverage falls. Now Bird is backed into a position of basically having to give away a difference maker.

This bridge is on fire from both ends. According to GMs who have called about Artest, Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh is saying Artest will be traded by the weekend.

The Pacers will not be as formidable without Artest.

But some team is about to get scary better. Walsh has been telling GMs that he's leaning toward trading Artest to the West.

Artest would immediately give the Suns, Mavericks, Rockets, Clippers, Grizzlies and Timberwolves a defensive identity they don't have and make them threats to the Spurs. That, of course, would depend on what they had to give up for Artest.

Yet even worse for the Pacers, his salary is so low that they'll have to package other contracts (Austin Croshere? Jeff Foster?) to get back a high-paid, star-quality player and make the deal work under the cap. So the Pacers could really get the worst of this if getting rid of Artest requires a three-for-one swap.

I spoke Wednesday night with a Western Conference GM who said: "I hate the thought of having Artest on my team, but he's just what we need. You're gambling he'll be on his best behavior and maybe want to prove something to the Pacers, but I'm going to make an offer for him."

In fact, this GM was considering offering an All-Star for Artest "because it isn't very often that a player of this caliber comes on the market and could come with a Croshere or a Jeff Foster."

The Pacers will regret trading Artest. And they'll miss him most when they're eliminated early in the playoffs by Riley's Heat.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.




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