Artest's Baggage Outweighs His Talent

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Washington Wizards need size and strength. Ron Artest has both in abundance. The Wizards need an enforcer. Ron Artest can be that. And most of all, the Wizards need a front-court defender, somebody who looks forward to locking down the best scorers in the league, and Ron Artest can do that better than anybody the Wizards have had in 20 years.

That's why the temptation is to suggest that the Wizards, as deficient as they are in these areas, take a serious look at making a deal for Artest. And since reports are that half the teams in the NBA have expressed an interest in making such a deal, the Wizards would have to act quickly before the Pacers ship him to Oakland or Sacramento or someplace where he couldn't come back to haunt Indiana in the playoffs.

After all, Artest just turned 26. He's one of the five best defensive players in the game, maybe one of the dozen best players overall. As Golden State's Jason Richardson said when asked yesterday about the possibility of acquiring Artest: "[Expletive] yeah. He's one of the top players in the league. . . . To get a guy like that. . . . "

Richardson, typical of young players, respects physical attributes almost to the exclusion of everything else. Since he didn't finish his sentence, let me. To get a guy like that -- is trouble -- more trouble than he's worth.

So if the Wizards are considering it -- and they haven't commented publicly on the possibility -- they shouldn't.

Oh, it would create a sizzle if the Wizards did get Artest, and perhaps an immediate bounce upward in the Eastern Conference standings.

If we're playing my favorite sports game -- Virtual GM -- I would only consider (for about 10 seconds) dealing for Artest if I could keep Antawn Jamison because it would take Jamison's cool professionalism and Gilbert Arenas's bottomless reserve of energy to help Eddie Jordan and Ernie Grunfeld and everybody else associated with the team to keep Artest in line -- for a month. Plus, acquiring Artest would probably mean trading Caron Butler, a likable, baggage-free player who could be on the verge of making an impact here.

But mostly, this doesn't have anything to do with who you'd have to give up; it has to do with what you're getting. In the final analysis, you don't want Artest. Artest is so volatile, so undisciplined and so entirely wrapped up in his own alien dramas, he makes Terrell Owens look like Marvin Harrison. Artest is a bigger headache than T.O., a bigger headache than Latrell Sprewell, a bigger headache than Dennis Rodman -- a lot worse than Rodman. There ain't enough overhead storage bin space in all the world's bankrupt airlines to store all that baggage. But none of the above carries as much as Artest.

He's not colorful or wacky, like Rodman. Rodman was a nuisance, who, when he crossed the line, was usually looking to sneak back across to the safe side before he totally offended everybody.

Artest is a troubled young man. He's dangerous to himself, and as we saw at the Palace of Auburn Hills last year, a danger to others. He has talked openly about needing and seeking professional help. His childhood included some pretty serious issues. So has his adulthood.

See, Jason Richardson thinks it would be a cool idea right now to play with Artest. So apparently does LeBron James. That's because they're young and think nothing matters more than what a player can do physically. They think they want him as a teammate because they haven't played with him yet.

They haven't been at the airport waiting when Artest doesn't show up for the team flight. They haven't been at practice when he shows up late or not at all. They haven't been on the practice floor with Artest when he gets a little too rough and breaks one of their ribs, like he did to Michael Jordan a few summers ago. They haven't been getting ready for a tough road trip to the other side of the country when Artest says he needs to take a month off to promote his girl group's next CD.

Golden State is one of those teams on the rise, and its top players -- Richardson and Baron Davis and Adonal Foyle -- probably think it would pretty cool to get a player who can average nearly 20 points per game, grab five or six rebounds, and say to Elton Brand in a critical game, "Let's go, big boy," and actually do something about it. It's probably the most consistent dilemma in team sports: What do we do with the guy with all the talent and all the trouble?

Seems to me, it would take an iconic coach to handle Artest. Larry Brown comes to mind, having done (along with GM Joe Dumars) such a fine job with Rasheed Wallace. Of course, Phil Jackson comes to mind, but what exactly do the Lakers have to offer in return? One would think the new super tandem of Pat Riley and Shaq might daydream about the on-court possibilities now and then.

But I wouldn't wish Artest on Eddie Jordan/Jamison/Arenas. Just because the Pacers players joined Artest in that brawl with Pistons fans last year doesn't mean they want him around, or even like him. Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson don't have the time of day for Artest, and don't even try to hide it anymore. They know all the stuff Artest has done behind closed doors. We're told, by Pacers insiders, there's something virtually every day with Artest. Why do you think CEO-President Donnie Walsh of the Pacers has been so quick to sit him down indefinitely and announce he hopes to complete a trade in 10 days? As much as Indiana President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird loves Artest's skills and fierceness, you think the Pacers haven't tried every angle to keep him?

Artest, sadly, doesn't get it. Oh, he looks you in the face and tells you what he thinks the appropriate answer is. He's contrite. Folks in authority talk to him and he promises he's going to do better, and he absolutely means it. Then he's intolerably late or disruptive in the locker room or he has no idea what the coach has just said during the timeout huddle. There's nothing to joke about here. It's sad, really, that whatever is troubling Artest is likely to keep him from functioning in a way that will allow him to maximize his contribution to a team of consequence -- no matter how everybody looking on wants to believe he can.


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