LA Linked

In the summer of 2009, the Los Angeles Lakers had a relatively simple decision to make. They had just defeated the Orlando Magic in five games to reclaim the Larry O’Brien trophy. In that series, starting small forward, Trevor Ariza averaged 11.3 points a game, while shooting 49.7% from the field, including 47.6% from three.

Ariza broke through as the Lakers starting small forward with his defensive length and an above average three point shot. The hometown product was in his fifth year in the league and already on his third NBA team. He spent one year at UCLA before being drafted in the second round by the New York Knicks. He was then traded to the Magic, who ultimately traded him to the Lakers. With his stellar finals performance, Ariza proved he could withstand the bright lights of the post-season as well as the pressures of playing alongside Kobe Bryant. Ariza had officially mesmerized Lakers nation, having them believe he would soon develop into a Scottie Pippen-type player to Kobe’s Michael Jordan.

With his contract up, it was widely assumed Ariza would take whatever offer was on the Laker table, sign with his hometown team and continue to grow into Kobe’s strong-armed sidekick. Negotiations stalled. Ariza asked for 7-8 million a year. The Lakers offered 5-years, $33.7 million or about $5.8 million a season. Ariza had other teams interested, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets. The Lakers number would go up, he thought. He had LeBron James recruiting him via text, for God’s sake. He had the leverage.

But he didn’t. The Lakers are big business and they’re good at it.

The Lakers offered the same deal to Ron Artest. He accepted.

The Lakers didn’t need a Pippen-type player. They had Lamar Odom and arguably the best big man in the game in Pau Gasol, plus a still developing 7-foot center in Andrew Bynum. The knock on Pau and the Lakers team was they were soft. They needed to get bigger, stronger…meaner. With the Artest signing, the Lakers got what they were looking for in spades.

And with that, Trevor Ariza was on the move once again. This time to Houston where he would replace Artest, essentially signing the same deal the Lakers were offering – five years, $33.9 million.

The free agent small forward swap between the Rockets and the Lakers has forever linked Ron Artest to Trevor Ariza and vice versa. The statistics will be compared. The question, “did the Lakers make the right decision?” will be repeatedly asked.

“Of course I was upset, but there is nothing I can do about,” Ariza was quoted as saying to the LA Times.

Although the Lakers ultimately chose Artest over him, Ariza held no ill feelings toward Ron. In fact, it was Artest who had the difficult time shaking Trevor Ariza’s shadow, routinely mentioning Ariza in post-game interviews. There was also Artest’s bizarre tossing of Ariza’s shoe in his first game back to LA. Artest even admitted to the LA Times before the 2010 playoffs that he “can’t compare” to Ariza and that “he’s a better player.”

Still, common sense (of which Artest has little) says the Lakers made the right call, having won a championship last year in large part to Artest’s defensive prowess on Kevin Durant in the first round and Paul Pierce in the Finals. It was Artest’s 20 point outburst in game 7 against the Celtics that sealed the Lakers back to back championships.

Houston quickly soured on Ariza and his poor shooting percentages and traded him to New Orleans in the off-season where he partnered with another great player, Chris Paul.

This season, both players underperformed with similarly disappointing stat lines. Artest’s inability to grasp the triangle had worn on Laker faithful. Rumors of Lakers management making Ron available via trade coincided with the rumors Artest asked for a trade. Both rumors were denied. Ariza got off to a hot start for the Hornets pacing New Orleans to an 11-1 start. But as the season progressed, his shot continued to look worse. Both players seemingly were not living up to their identical salary of $6,322,320.

The post season, however has brought Artest and Ariza back together, which has surprisingly brought out the best in both players.

Regular season:
Artest: 8.5 pts 39.7% fg, 35% from three, 3.3 rbs., 2.1 asts., 1.5 stls.
Ariza: 11.0 pts. 39.8% fg, 30.3% from three, 5.4 rbs, 2.2 asts, 1.6 stls.

Post-season:
Artest: 13.4 pts., 52% fg, 43.8% from three, 5.0 rbs., 2.1 asts., .8 stls.
Ariza: 16.2 pts., 41% fg, 38.9% from three, 6.8 rbs. 3.0 asts., 1.6 stls.

On the court at the same time (Post-season): via StatsCube
Artest: 14.4 pts. 55% fg, 50% from three, 5.3 rbs, 1.3 asts.
Ariza:  17.9 pts. 45% fg, 44% from three, 5.5 rbs., 2.5 asts.

Like everyone else, I fell for it. I fell for the comparisons. I wondered if the Lakers made the right decision. Truthfully, I still wonder. Count me as one of the Lakers fans who thought losing Ariza was a major step back. I was obviously wrong. Watching Ariza now, something is just off. He is a tremendous talent, but the confidence needed to be great just doesn’t seem to be there.

The great players in this league are 50, 40, 90 guys –  they shoot 50% from the field, 40% from 3 and 90% from the line. In my mind, Ariza had the tools to be that player. Instead he has regressed from the 2009 Finals. This season he shot 39% from the field, 30% from 3 and 65% from the line. 39, 30, 65 is no where close to his ability. That’s just a lack of confidence – five teams in seven seasons will do that to a man.

In the coming days, the Lakers will likely defeat the Hornets in the first round and a new storyline will emerge. But for Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza, the link between them will never fade.

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