Artest makes it a trio, boosting the Rockets' offense, title hopes
For most contenders, the lure of Artest was in his much-lauded defensive skill, while the concern was that he wouldn't tone it down on the offensive end and take a back seat to other star players who scored more easily.
For the Rockets, however, getting Artest is mostly about offense. Houston already had the second-best defense in the league a year ago, and in Shane Battier has one of the league's premier wing defenders.
My spies in Houston tell me the idea is to line up Artest at power forward, where he has the muscle to bang with 4s in the post, and then dare bigger opponents to match up with him at the other end. He was extremely effective doing this in Sacramento, and will have a lot more opportunity to do so in Houston since a big chunk of his minutes figure to come at the 4.
And while the Rockets see him as their No. 3 offensive weapon behind Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, it's a strong third. Houston ranked only 17th in offensive efficiency last season, and McGrady sometimes broke down under the strain of having to create offense for everybody else -- most visibly in Game 2 of the Utah series this spring. Houston badly needed another perimeter player who can create his own shot, and Artest fills that hole.
Meanwhile, adding a fourth perimeter player should be of huge benefit to Yao Ming as well. Opponents will be much more reluctant to double him and will have to recover once they do, with McGrady, Artest, Battier and Rafer Alston all competent 3-point threats and Brent Barry and Luther Head poised to come in firing off the bench.
Plus, when McGrady checks out with an injury -- something that's a pretty good bet to happen at some point this season, based on recent history -- Houston has another creator to fill in without too great a drop in quality.
The big idea is that Artest, between his scoring and his underrated playmaking skills, will add enough offense to get Houston well into the upper half of the league in offensive efficiency. From there, the Rockets' suffocating D -- with Artest adding yet another stopper to the mix -- can accomplish the rest. If it comes to fruition, Houston could find itself hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy next June.
Obviously, this move comes with a certain level of risk it's Ron freaking Artest, people. But considering Houston's position, you have to like the gamble.
For starters, he likes the coach. Artest played for Rick Adelman in Sacramento and had a very successful run, helping the Kings rally to a playoff spot and scare the daylights out of San Antonio in the first round in 2006. Sure, he might still go crazy at some point, but this is infinitely better than Artest not liking the coach.
Second, the trade didn't cost them much. Houston gave up two first-round picks, but one was the 28th pick in this year's draft (Donte Greene), and the other is in 2009 and is also likely to be in the 20s. Otherwise, they gave up only reserve guard Bobby Jackson, whose minutes will be replaced by two players of comparable quality (Barry and Head), and a chunk of owner Les Alexander's money, which matters only if your name is Les Alexander.
Additionally, Houston has an out. With Artest having only one year left on his deal, it's a relatively low-risk proposition for the Rockets. If he plays hard and behaves, great -- they're title contenders. If not, they'll let him walk and be out only the two late first-rounders.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there's The Window issue. Look, Houston's time is now -- and when I say now, I mean right now. Among the starters, McGrady is a very old 29, Yao is 28, Battier is 30 and Alston is 32; behind them, presumptive sixth man Luis Scola is 28, Head is 25 and Barry is 36.
With McGrady and Yao becoming increasingly brittle, it's incumbent on the Rockets to do whatever they can to contend for a title while their two stars are still capable of reaching the mountaintop.
By themselves that wasn't possible, as the past two seasons showed. With a third star and a team-oriented, defensive-minded squad around them, however, things start looking awfully interesting not to mention awfully similar to the reigning champions in Boston.
It's a roll of the dice, sure, but it's a calculated risk with limited downside. Given the cards Houston had to play, it's a tremendous move.
As for the Kings, this is probably about as good as they could have hoped to do considering Artest's volatile nature and expiring contract. Greene was only the 28th pick in the draft, but he had a great summer league and appears to have a solid future as a perimeter-oriented 4 man. The 2009 pick also will help in the rebuilding process -- even if it's likely to be in the 20s -- and while Jackson doesn't offer much long-term help, he's a known quantity in Sactown and might be able to fetch something extra at the trade deadline if he plays well.
Moreover, the trade gets Sacramento under the luxury tax, an important consideration for a team that isn't going to be making the playoffs anyway.
And perhaps best of all, it finally establishes Sacramento as Kevin Martin's team. For the past two years, the Kings have appeared to have a hard time understanding that their most efficient scorer should be getting a bigger chunk of the shots; now that the options of forcing it to Artest or Mike Bibby are gone, Martin can get on with pumping in 25 a game and not worry about going entire quarters without seeing the ball.
But ultimately, this deal is about Houston going all-in to get a ring from its McGrady-Yao nucleus while it still can. And if Artest can use his walk year as motivation to stay well-behaved for a year, the Rockets just might pull it off.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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