- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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It wasn't that long ago when Ron Artest was a King.
In 2007-08 he played a lead role for Sacramento, averaging 20.5 points.
Last season, he came to Los Angeles and did less, playing the role of a knight or a bishop, but earning a championship ring fit for a king.
Now the ring is up for raffle on his personal website (having already raised more than $465,000 that will go toward mental health awareness charities, culminating in a drawing to be held on Christmas Day) and Artest seems to being playing the part of a pawn on this year's Lakers team.
He is averaging career lows in points per game (8.2), rebounds (3.3), assists (1.8), field goal percentage (39.5 percent) and minutes played (27.1).
He's routinely being relegated to the bench in fourth quarters in favor of free-agent acquisition, and fellow small forward, Matt Barnes. When he does get crunch-time minutes, he often seems out of step. The flow he played with in late-game situations last postseason, when he often came through as a hero, is just not there.
In two games during the Lakers' recent four-game losing streak, Artest took -- and missed -- the last shot in L.A.'s most important possessions of the night. The one time during the streak he came through late against Indiana, he made the 3 he took with less than three minutes left, but it was improvised out of the offense, a difficult step-back shot that makes a team feel more lucky than good when it sees it go down.
In the fourth loss in Houston on Wednesday, the 31-year-old defensive specialist played just 17 minutes and did not get in off the bench during the fourth quarter as the Rockets' offense racked up 33 points on the way to the win.
When Artest arrived in L.A., he knew that a team loaded with the offensive talents of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom wouldn't need him to drop 20 every night. But he certainly believed he would still be the guy relied upon to stop the other guy from dropping 20 on the Lakers.
"I told him he's still our defensive stopper," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said when asked after Thursday's practice if Artest's role was in fact changing this year. "He was out there at the end of the Memphis game the night before. Some of the guys are a little older. The guys who are older than 30, in back-to-backs, I want to watch their minutes if I can."
The explanation sounds nice, but seems hollow when you consider that Houston's Shane Battier and Kevin Martin -- the type of wing players Artest specializes in shutting down -- were hurting the Lakers down the stretch.
And the other 30-somethings on the team -- Bryant, Odom, Gasol and Derek Fisher -- all logged at least 27 minutes of PT in the back-to-back compared to Artest's 17.
"Ron's still a guy that we depend on to stop people," Jackson reiterated. "He says, 'I don't care if I play two minutes or 42 minutes as long as we win,' so that's the right attitude."
Actually, Artest does Jackson one better.
"Rather than be frustrated, I'd rather just stay ready," Artest said before Friday's win against the Kings that stopped the Lakers' slide. "If I play one minute for the whole game it doesn't matter, it's just about us winning. That's it.
"I love playing basketball so much and right now I feel like I came back improved [from last season], but I'm not the coach so it's not my job to determine my role on the team. My job is to go in there and try to execute what the coach wants me to execute. That's it. It's really simple."
While Artest's numbers have nosedived, Barnes' are on the rise. His points, assists, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage have all improved from last season, even though in Orlando he started and in L.A. he comes off the bench.
You could say that Barnes' contributions come at Artest's expense. What made last season's championship run so magical for Artest was his late points in Game 3 in Utah. And his game-winning putback in Game 5 against Phoenix. And his late 3 in Game 7 against Boston. Those all came in the fourth quarter, a time that's increasingly belonging to Barnes.
But Artest doesn't see it that way.
"You don't worry about that stuff, we're on a team," Artest said. "If it was tennis, it would be different. I would have to play. You know, but this is not tennis."
So Artest and Barnes are attacking the small forward position like tennis double partners. Only with these two, the better sports analogy might be like tag-team wrestlers.
"We talk before every game and we know our job is to try and take the leading scorer out," Barnes said. "We figure with him being one of the best defenders in the league and me being a good defender, that we got to make their leading scorer work every night and that's how we got to look at it, whether it's him on the court or me."
Added Artest: "We work together. That's the correct way to play. We don't want to be out there [when] you can't really give 100 percent. You get somebody in there that can give 100 percent. So you go hard and give it all you got and let somebody else come in there and give it all they got."
Barnes has made the partnership an easy one.
"Everyone said, 'You're going to get to play with Kobe and Pau,' and that's great and amazing, two of the best players in the world, but I was very excited to get a chance to play with Ron," Barnes said. "He's someone from afar that I've always just admired how hard he plays and his approach to the game."
It's been commendable how well Artest has handled his reduced role so far.
After the Indiana game ended when Artest pulled down a late offensive rebound and worked the ball back outside to Bryant, who missed a long 3 at the buzzer, Jackson got in Artest's ear as the two made their way off the court, telling him he wanted him to call timeout with 8.6 seconds left after grabbing the rebound.
He's been critiqued for doing just the opposite in the past.
"He had a habit of calling timeouts himself which, that did not go well between the two of us, but he figured it out after a while," former Kings (and current Rockets) coach Rick Adelman said Wednesday in Houston. "He figured it out that that was my job and not his, but that's just Ron."
Call timeouts with one coach and get scolded. Don't call timeouts with the next coach and get scolded too.
But rather than let it lead to aggravation, Artest is accepting his situation in pursuit of achieving another championship.
Artest, who tweeted in frustration during the first round of last season's playoffs that he wished Jackson would "close his yapper" rather than talk to the media about Artest's poor shot selection, has not lashed out this season.
"I think Coach will fix it," was the first thing Artest said to reporters about the four-game losing streak, without a trace of sarcasm in his voice, after the loss to Houston.
"He's unique," Adelman said, trailing off with a chuckle. "He is. He's a unique guy -- a unique player, a unique guy."
Artest knows he's unique. And he knows that uniqueness will always be valued by a team. That's why he can support Barnes without feeling threatened.
"Matt's tough," Artest said. "He don't back down. He's not going to give an inch and it takes toughness to do that."
He then made clear the distinction of what he brings to the table that Barnes does not.
"I'm taking inches," Artest said.
And for now, he's also taking orders from Jackson, the true king of the Lakers empire. There is still room for Artest in Jackson's kingdom as long as he continues to accept that it's a role that will be ever changing.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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