Artest has been slow to pick up the Lakers' playbook, but he's improving every day
Lakers coach Phil Jackson's second-quarter lineup Tuesday night against Golden State featuring both Sasha Vujacic and Adam Morrison on the floor at the same time was certainly curious.
And by curious, I mean "reeked of showcasing," considering they are principal players being mentioned in the rumored deal for Kirk Hinrich, with the NBA's trade deadline looming Thursday.
But even if the Lakers don't pull the trigger on any roster-rattling moves this week, there's one player already on the team who could make up for any boost the Lakers would get via adding a new body just by continuing to improve.
His name is Ron Artest.
Artest has been slow to fully integrate into the Lakers' system, kind of like when Steve Buscemi joined the cast of "The Sopranos." But Artest's production has picked up recently, and he seems primed for his breakthrough performance, like the episode in which Buscemi beat up the massage parlor owner.
Coming into the game with the Warriors, Artest was averaging 14.2 points and shooting 48.4 percent from the field and 47.6 on 3-pointers in February, making it his best month of the season in all three categories.
Jackson, who gave the Lakers' key offseason free-agent signee an "incomplete" as a grade when asked about Artest a month ago, said his starting small forward is improving. He just wishes the improvement was more consistent, rather than so feast-or-famine.
"Ron is kind of like an X factor out there," Jackson said before the Lakers' 104-94 win over Golden State. "Some nights he's killed [the opponent], he's been very effective. Other nights, he's hurt [our] team."
Artest finished with 15 points, four rebounds, six assists and three steals Tuesday after a first half in which he totaled only two points on 1-for-7 shooting.
"We told him he hadn't paid any rent for his keep in the first half the way he played out there and he got it going in the second half," Jackson said.
Things are lining up for that comment by Jackson to be applicable to the second half of Artest's season, not just his game against Golden State.
"I'm recognizing the triangle," Artest said. "That was the biggest problem at first, just knowing where everyone was going to be at and knowing where I was supposed to be at. Before I could focus on myself, I had to focus on the triangle and everything else will come after that."
Part of Artest's arrested development with the team has been because of injuries. He had been playing all season with painful plantar fasciitis in both of his feet, an ailment that bothered him up until a recent game against Toronto. Then there was the Christmas Day fall that caused him to miss five games while recovering from the aftereffects of a concussion.
When you're trying to pick up an offense as intricate as the triangle, every day counts toward lessening your learning curve. Jackson says Artest is still a little behind because of the time he missed in late December.
"In film sessions I keep asking him various things like, 'Do you recognize what we're doing?'" Jackson said. "He was out the last time we played [the Warriors] and we ran a couple things that he wasn't familiar with, so we're just trying to keep him going in a direction and keep recognizing what we're attempting to do and what we do."
Despite the delay in getting Artest to fully grasp the offense, he has managed to carve out a niche as the Lakers' most reliable 3-point shooter (he leads the team with 77, his 39.5 percent mark ranks 28th in the league and fans have even come up with a nickname of "double dipping" for his shooting stroke, which features an additional flick of the wrist after launching a shot). And he has improved in making the right pass to keep the offense flowing -- particularly when feeding the post -- evidenced by his six assists against the Warriors.
"His recognition is much better," Jackson said.
Shannon Brown knows about Artest's recognition as well as anybody. Brown came to L.A. in a midseason trade last season and had to learn the Lakers' system on the fly as the team prepared for a playoff run.
"I think sometimes he's getting caught up trying to figure out when to run the triangle and when to possibly make a basketball play," Brown said after scoring a career-high 27 points just more than a year after being with the team.
The adjustment period hasn't been nearly as glacial on the other end of the floor for the 2003-04 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
"One thing we've been happy with is his defense," Jackson said. "His defense has been an effective opportunity for us to limit our help and limit how much we have to go over and shade the area where he's guarding."
Artest has tried to fit in almost to a fault. His admiration for Kobe Bryant has had a lot to do with that. He'll often be asked about the state of the team and tell reporters they need to ask Bryant his opinion on the subject. Wednesday he answered how the Lakers were doing but used a Bryant quote to do it:
"At this point and time, I think it's about, as Kobe would say, putting one foot in front of the other," he said.
With Bryant out of the lineup the past four games, Artest has let his instincts take over, and that freedom of not always deferring to Bryant, combined with his improved recognition, has Artest ramping up to be a different player.
If he can keep improving when Bryant returns, the Lakers can be a different team.
"He's definitely going to get the hang of it, and when he does, the sky's the limit for us," Brown said.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.