Commentary

From the edge, Artest gives Rockets a missing element

Originally Published: July 30, 2008
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Ron Artest to the Rockets? All I can do is imagine Houston general manager Daryl Morey listening to Seal on his iPod: "But we're never gonna survive unless ... We get a little crazy."

Yep, the Rockets just got nuts. And that's a good thing. Nice guys don't get past the first round of the playoffs.

Ron Artest
Rocky Widner/Getty ImagesNo doubt, Ron Artest brings a line-crossing resume to the Rockets.

Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, and Shane Battier are all good players and fine people. But not one of them strikes fear in an opponent. Thanks to a trade with Sacramento, the Rockets have added Artest, someone who goes back and forth across that mythical line like he's playing hopscotch. You really, really don't want to mess with the Rockets now. That goes for opposing fans, as well.

Go ahead and group the Rockets with the Hornets and Spurs -- not just because they're in the same division, but because they can legitimately challenge the Lakers for their Western Conference crown.

As one Western Conference scout said when asked about the trade, "Wow. They just moved up, for sure. They were missing that element, that danger, that toughness, that [expletive]. And now they have it."

Yes, Artest is a risk. When the Indiana Pacers were ascending in the East, Artest single-handedly caused the avalanche that wiped them off the mountain. There's the history of his problems off the court and in the stands. And you never know where basketball ranks on his priority list at any given moment.

But the Rockets had to do something like this. How many consecutive first-round losses could they stand? (Um, six, apparently.)

It's as safe a play as any team could make with Artest involved. He already has a built-in comfort zone in coach Rick Adelman, whom he thought so highly of when they were in Sacramento together that he volunteered to give up his salary if it would keep Adelman around.

And all it cost them was reserve Bobby Jackson, first-round pick Donte Greene and next year's first-round pick.

At first glance it seems as if the Kings gave up on Artest too easily, that his value was sliding like the real-estate market and they were so afraid they wouldn't get anything back before he left as a free agent that they dumped him to the first reasonable bid. Also, they didn't succeed in dumping the two years and $16.5 million remaining on Kenny Thomas' contract. But after hearing it explained to me by a source familiar with Sacramento's thinking, it makes sense.

They weren't going to win a championship with Artest. They weren't going to win a championship with whatever key player they got for Artest. By going for draft picks and the expiring contract of Jackson, they're sticking with their long-term strategy of good young players until they can be major players in the 2010 free-agent market. That summer they can have Beno Udrih, Kevin Martin, Spencer Hawes, Jason Thompson, Quincy Douby, Greene and three more draft picks under contract, plus some $25 million-plus in salary-cap room.

The only question is whether the Sacramento fans, who no longer dole out unconditional love for the team and don't fill the stands every night anymore, will be patient enough to wait two years. But if Knicks fans can hold on to their season tickets and keep showing up amid all of the other options in New York, then Sacramento ought to be able to hold on to its fan base until help arrives.

Back to the real focus of this trade: the Rockets and what it means for them right now. There was some speculation in NBA circles that McGrady would get traded this summer. Instead, the Rockets went the other way. They're building around McGrady, even if the addition might seem to be an odd fit, like the new bowl dropped between the old columns of Chicago's Soldier Field.

This doesn't come to mind first when you think of Artest, but he's most valuable to the Rockets for his offense. The Rockets were fine defensively. They had the fourth-best scoring defense in the league, with Battier around to provide Artest-level perimeter defense without all of the suspensions.

Artest adds another 20-point scorer to take the load off McGrady's chronically injured back and help an offense that ranked 22nd in the NBA in 2007-08.

Much more than that, he gives the Rockets an edge, in addition to making them one of the most fascinating teams in the league. As long as they stick cameras in the locker rooms to hear the coaches' halftime speeches for national TV games, they might as well leave them up to capture Artest, Yao and T-Mac. They don't even need microphones; I just want to watch them interact. Does either Yao or T-Mac have the temperament to establish himself as the alpha male and keep the team from veering off in whatever direction Artest tugs?

It might seem as if the Rockets got antsy and made a desperate, short-term move -- remember, Artest can leave them next season -- and got too worried about the window closing, even though their two superstars are both under 30. The truth is, they were running out of time, spinning their wheels and going nowhere. There's no guarantee Yao will be the long-term solution; he hasn't played in more than 57 games in any of the past three seasons, and a summer of playing for China's national team won't make him any fresher for next season. And McGrady never has played in 80 games in a season.

Thanks to Artest, it's possible to imagine a new numerical benchmark for both T-Mac and Yao: at least eight games in the playoffs.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.

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