Explain to me the logic in this. Trevor Ariza, a player who was instrumental in the Lakers 2009 Championship but who ultimately has achieved very little else in his career so far, refuses to accept the Lakers mid-level exception offer believing himself to be worth much more. Ron Artest, a veteran who has won defensive awards, played deep into the playoffs several times and has a much more complete game than Ariza, jumps at the opportunity to sign for the MLE which is substantially less than what he was earning with the Rockets. A day later, realizing his former team had defiantly moved on, Ariza swaps positions with Artest in Houston and signs, wait for it… for the mid-level exception!

I’m baffled by this. Ariza was a role player at most, not a guy to take over games, but a James Posey-esque character who seems to make big threes and big defensive stops when you need them. But let me make something painfully clear: it’s not like he’s made a whole career of doing this.  His playoff run with the Lakers represented the best two-month patch of his career – he wasn’t even playing at that level during the  regular season. Yet because of a strong playoff run and Finals showing, Trevor Ariza thought he was worth more to the Lakers than the MLE they offered?

Except NOT, because that’s what he signed for anyway?!?

In earlier reports, following Ariza’s meeting with Mike Kupchak, his agent was quoted as saying it wasn’t about money, but rather “respect”. I’d really like to know what Mitch Kupchak could have said/done to “disrespect” Trevor, when the franchise has widely been reported as making him their #1 priority in the off-season. What could have possibly happened in that meeting that triggered Ariza to look elsewhere and sign for the same amount?

If I’m Trevor Ariza, I cannot think of a better situation to be in than having just won a championship alongside one of the game’s greatest ever players, who shared his shooting program with you that you followed like the bible every day. To play for the game’s greatest ever coach. To have locked up your spot in  the starting line up when a guy like Lamar Odom sits on the bench. To have hordes of LA fans admitting YOU were the difference in getting them over the line in June this year. You have a chance to build a dynasty, to win more rings and go down in the history books. And you’re willing to blow all that way for what? More money? A GM who will get on his knees and beg? Look what happened to James Posey. He jumped ship for an ego-appealing contract and his team got destroyed in the first round. His former team, Boston, could very well have challenged for back-to-back championships if he had stayed. Is James Posey happy now? Who knows. Maybe you should call him Trev?

Lets first get one thing straight. I love Trevor Ariza. I wish he played for the Pistons. He’s what I call a natural defender – he’s never had to be taught to play defense, he knew how to do it since day one of his career. The fact he’s developed a reliable outside shot makes him one of the most versatile small forwards in the league. Is he worth more than $5.6 million a season? Probably. Maybe upwards of $7m or $8m. But doesn’t the fact you just won a championship with a relatively young and improving team count for something? Whatever happened to loyalty?

I guess that’s what bothers me about this whole thing, and I really shouldn’t be surprised because I’ve been following the league long enough to know loyalty counts for very little. “It’s a business” is the cliche phrase a lot of players will throw out when talking about contracts or trades. It may be a cliche, but unfortunately it’s 100% true.

And is it just me, or does a decision like this give you a piercing insight into the true character of a player? I honestly haven’t looked at James Posey the same way since he signed with New Orleans. I now think “greedy” instead of “clutch”. I understand that NBA players need to look after their own interests in some respect, need to secure their future and feel they are being “loved” enough by their franchise. I understand, for example, why Ben Wallace left Detroit to sign a $60 million contract with Chicago. Here was a guy that had given his all to the franchise for years and years, worked harder than almost anyone in the league, all the while being relatively underpaid (he earned $5.5m in Detroit’s championship year) and never whining about it. That Chicago contract was his last chance to be financially rewarded in this league. His last big pay day. Detroit was changing styles, Ben no longer played a part in our future plans.

Ariza on the other hand was supposed to be a BIG part in the Lakers future plans. They nurtured him and helped him fulfill all the potential every Knicks/Magic/Lakers fans saw in him. They are very likely going back to the NBA Finals in the next few years. The Houston Rockets? Not so much.

This whole thing is probably a blessing in disguise anyway for Lakers fans. Ron Artest brings to your team something very few players in today’s league have. That nasty old school presence as an enforcer. He also brings a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, but I’ve seen enough from Artest over the past year to make me think he’s changed his ways. Like I said after watching the Magic-Rockets game in Houston, Artest became the rock of that team. All throughout the playoffs, he was the one guy the Rockets looked to for a calming influence on the court, when they needed to be bailed out. I know what you’re thinking: he got ejected twice in the Lakers series, how can I seriously put “Artest” and “calm” in the same sentence? Firstly, Artest never actually hit or assaulted anyone at any point – he was ejected for remonstrating really hard with Kobe, but there was no malice in it. His second ejection was a flat-out joke. Even the way he talked about those incidents after the game made me feel Artest was supremely aware and conscious of his actions at every second – not blinded by the rage and fury that saw him erupt at the Palace brawl.

Ron Artest has changed, and perhaps the biggest proof of that is his willingness to do exactly what Trevor Ariza couldn’t: take a personal sacrifice for the team, for a chance to win. Or maybe the biggest proof is that exactly one year ago Ron Artest said “I will never accept a mid-level exception”. Let’s not also forget that the only team to push the Lakers to seven games was a Ron Artest-lead team. Throw in a healthy T-Mac (which was an assumption Artest made when he joined), and the Rockets very well could have made good on Artest’s pre-season promise to bring home the championship.

More important than anything Ron Artest can do for the Lakers though, is what the Lakers will do for him. Any player of Artest’s level of craziness is inherently unsuited to being The Man on his team. It just doesn”t work. There is too much pressure in having to stand in the spotlight facing the media attention and criticism as a franchise player, when your manic nature already attracts more media attention and criticism than any normal person. Dennis Rodman fit right into Chicago as arguably the most crazy guy to ever play in the NBA, but playing alongside Michael Jordan shielded him from unwanted attention and unnecessary pressure. Rasheed Wallace’s volatile personality didn’t suit being The Man in Portland – every technical foul or ejection in a Blazers uniform seemed to derail him even more, but when he hit Detroit those meltdowns all of a sudden became motivational. Amazing what happens when you’re sharing the load with three other All-Stars.

The same goes for Artest. In those testy moments on the court when the inner-Artest threatens to surface, the fact he’s not bearing the weight of an entire franchise on his shoulders will do wonders for him. The fact that he won’t have to worry about running down the other end to make a statement bucket – Kobe can do that for him. The fact he can take a breather on the bench and try to cool his nerves without his team suffering – the Lakers depth has him covered. These are extreme luxuries for a guy like Artest. You think he’s changed in the last year? I can guarantee you, now that he’s suited up in the purple and gold,  that transition is far from complete.

Are the Lakers now unbackable favorites to repeat? It’s too early to tell, but it certainly changes their identity. I brought up the Rodman analogy the other day, and I think that’s the best way to explain it. When he joined Chicago they became first and foremost a defensive team. His presence, combined with an aging Michael Jordan, meant those Bulls relied far more on their defense to win games than their high-flying scoring ability. It’s ridiculous to think a team can have three members of the All-NBA Defensive First team, but in 1996 that’s precisely what Jordan, Pippen and Rodman did. The Lakers won’t match them with three, but they could certainly have two. In fact, you could argue the two best perimeter defenders of the last decade are now on the same team. The last time that happened was, well, Chicago in the 90′s. But they never had a forward of Gasol’s calibre. Or a young centre as promising as Andrew Bynum. Or the versatility of a Lamar Odom off the bench.

Unbackable? No. Highly likely? Yes.

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