In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original NFL Every Play Counts at Fanhouse.com.
It took Ron Artest fewer than 30 seconds late in last Thursday's Houston Rockets loss in Portland to demonstrate both why he could be the missing piece for the Rockets, and why his addition remains a risky one.
While the end of the fourth quarter would end up overshadowed by the dramatics of overtime, which saw three scores in a span of 1.9 seconds capped by Brandon Roy's buzzer-beating three-pointer, both teams had a chance to win in regulation. After a timeout, Houston inbounded the ball with 16 seconds on the clock and the score tied. Artest got the ball and never looked for a teammate, firing up a contested three-pointer that had little chance. On the other end, Artest atoned with a fine defensive play, using his quick hands to strip the ball from Roy on the way up to shoot at the buzzer, forcing the extra session.
I used the game at the Rose Garden as an in-person Every Play Counts, trying to keep a close eye on Artest throughout the evening with the goal of answering the question of how the Rockets are a different team with Artest in the lineup. That remains very much an open question, and will be until they get healthy. When I posed that query to Houston coach Rick Adelman before the game, he said he wouldn't know until Shane Battier, last year's starter at small forward, is back in the lineup. Until then, we can only guess at how Adelman will use Artest and Battier together. Still, it's not too early to draw some conclusions.
It was a quiet night on offense for Artest, as he scored nine points on 3-of-9 shooting. However, he didn't need to score to make his presence felt. Alongside Tracy McGrady on the wings, Artest creates matchup problems for opponents. Inevitably, teams will put their best perimeter defender on McGrady. Often, as was the case with the Blazers (Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw), this player will be the bigger wing, leaving the smaller one (Brandon Roy) defending Artest. At a listed 260 pounds, Artest is a handful for shooting guards in the post and can make defenses pay for going small in a way that Battier never could.
On the other hand, Battier is much better suited than Artest for playing off of McGrady and/or Yao Ming on the weak side. Artest isn't going to scare anyone as a spot-up shooter--last year's 38.0 percent shooting from three-point range was something of an aberration, while Battier is a career 38.9 percent shooter. Portland did not fear Artest from outside the arc, allowing more help opportunities.
This early in the season, Houston is still learning how to integrate Artest, and Adelman pointed out that the process has been complicated by McGrady's inconsistent availability due to injuries. The Rockets' starting lineup has struggled to score at times, though the team started quickly throughout their recent three-game road trip. As far Artest himself, he has been an abnormally inefficient scorer thus far, shooting 33.3 percent from the field with a 46.4 percent True Shooting Percentage.
How can Houston get more out of Artest? One way may be getting him regular touches in the post, especially when the aforementioned mismatches present the opportunity. That figures to create higher-percentage shot attempts. Putting Artest in the post also tends to make more use of Artest's passing ability, and watching him play reminded me that when he is playing unselfishly, Artest is an underrated passer.
When Battier returns, the combination of the two at forward presents some interesting options. Already, Adelman has been reluctant to close games with starting power forward Luis Scola. Against the Blazers, Chuck Hayes played power forward down the stretch until he fouled out and was replaced by Carl Landry. Putting Artest at power forward creates a much more potent offensive unit without sacrificing much at the defensive end. With Artest at the four, the Rockets may be able to use more of Adelman's preferred high-post offense because of Artest's ballhandling ability, while his outside shooting becomes a strength instead of a liability.
Still, the fundamental conflict remains introducing a third high-usage player into the lineup alongside McGrady and Yao. Artest's ability to create will be very useful when and if one of Houston's two injury-plagued stars is sidelined, but for now someone is going to be squeezed--or everyone will be, as all three players have seen their usage rate drop thus far. It is Yao who has seen the largest fall, from 27.1 percent of the team's possessions last year to just 23.5 percent in 2008-09. That's troubling given Yao is the most efficient scorer of the three.
During the summer, when the Rockets initially acquired Artest, I figured one easy solution would be to bring Artest off the bench and have him as the go-to guy on the second unit. That still seems reasonable when Battier returns to the lineup. However, the need is no longer so great because the reserves have quickly developed an offensive leader in sophomore Aaron Brooks, a revelation in the season's first two weeks. Including Sunday's team-high 20 points against the Lakers, Brooks is averaging 10.7 points per game in fewer than 20 minutes a night, a rate of 22.3 points per 40 minutes.
I've never been the biggest fan of Artest the defender, believing that somewhere along the way his reputation outstripped his actual performance at that end of the floor. Still, even with Roy struggling early in the season, one couldn't help but be impressed with the way Artest defended the Blazers' All-Star, limiting him to 6-of-18 shooting with five turnovers, a performance capped by the strip at the end of regulation.
Roy's two crucial shots in the closing seconds shouldn't detract much, if at all, from Artest's work. On the first, it appeared Artest and McGrady got tangled up defending in transition and Artest slipped, leaving Roy an opening. On the game-winner, the Rockets outthought themselves, putting Artest on Outlaw in anticipation of a screen that would allow Artest to switch on to Roy. It never came, yet McGrady assumed the switch and left Roy free. Artest couldn't get out in time to prevent the good look from deep that went in.
What makes Artest so challenging for opposing players--who picked him as the league's second-best defender in a poll for ESPN the Magazine's NBA preview, with coaches putting him first--is that he has sacrificed little quickness while bulking up in recent seasons, allowing him to defend many power forwards as well as wings. Artest is also capable of delivering a physical pounding to smaller wings. Roy had little room to operate and seemed frustrated by the experience much of the night, an unusual reaction for him.
Rookie Rudy Fernandez was a slightly more difficult matchup for Artest because of his quickness. The Blazers would have had success running Fernandez through a maze of screens to free him had they not been whistled for a couple of illegal screens. Artest is also generally better on the ball than defending away from it.
So far, the Rockets have been somewhat disappointing at the defensive end of the floor, ranking eighth in the league in Defensive Rating. They will be much more potent defensively with Battier back in the mix, and I think he and Artest can complement each other. Battier, despite developing into a very good perimeter stopper, is still most valuable for his heady team defense. Artest is better one-on-one than in a team concept. Ideally, Houston will put Artest on the opposition's best scorer, leaving Battier some freedom to be active in giving his teammates help.
Even before the Rockets lost two out of three games on their West Coast swing last week, there was some quiet concern about how the team was playing on the offensive end. In the wake of a blowout loss to the Lakers, those whispers have become louder. Certainly, they have some legitimacy. While adding Artest looks great on paper, his talent creates some issues as well as some opportunities for Houston. The team also obviously misses Battier at both ends of the floor, something which would be exacerbated if not for Artest's presence.
When Battier returns, the biggest challenge for Adelman in the short term may be working through the myriad lineup options he will have at his disposal with a deep roster and several players capable of playing multiple positions. It could take time, but ultimately Artest figures to give the Rockets new and valuable dimensions and make Houston a stronger team going into the postseason.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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