By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, January 26, 2006
No way would I have Ron Artest on my team. I wouldn't want him at practice, wouldn't want him in the dressing room, wouldn't want him in town. The Sacramento Kings are crazy for taking him in. Artest is poison, probably worse than T.O., and that's saying something.
Right now, Artest will say all the right things. He'll go to Sacramento, bare his soul to the local media, pledge to the owners and coaches that he'll play as hard as humanly possible, tell everybody how much he's learned from all the drama he's brought on himself the last three or four years and how it'll be different from now on. For several weeks he'll practice like nobody's ever practiced. He'll probably record a couple of triple-doubles. He might lift the entire team for several weeks, make you think he is worthy of being a first-team all-star, a player the powers-that-be can build around since he's only 26 years old. He'll seduce the good folks of Sacramento, make them think he's just what they need, then . . .
Boom! Ron Artest will do a 180. He'll flip, he'll flop, he'll disrupt the whole program. He'll go to his coach, Rick Adelman -- talk about a mismatch -- and ask for time off to promote his newest girl group. Or he'll go to Circuit City and apply for a part-time job so that he can get the discount on the newest electronic products. He'll change his mind on wanting to practice hard. He won't run the play called in the huddle because he'll just forget the play or failed to listen to the coach during the timeout.
We pretty much know that Artest is going to wear out his welcome, and probably quickly, because we've seen it already . . . in his 2 1/2 seasons with the Bulls and his 4 1/2 seasons with the Indiana Pacers. We've even seen new evidence of Artest's lunacy within the last week or so. He and his agent actually told the Kings that Artest would be happy to come to Sacramento. So why, after the trade was consummated on Tuesday, did Artest then say he would be unhappy in Sacramento?
Because that's what Artest does. Every day. A day or so after demanding the Pacers trade him, Artest took it back, said he wanted to stay in Indianapolis. One day it's, "Yeah baby, let's do Sacramento." And the next it's, "Sacramento? Why would I want to go there?"
He misses games and alienates teammates. Jermaine O'Neal, the Pacers' best player, has hated being Artest's teammate for most of the last two seasons. Artest broke Michael Jordan's ribs during a pickup games a few years ago. Depending on his mood, Artest is somewhere between a nuisance and completely disruptive. And nobody ever wins with a player of consequence who is so disruptive.
Artest isn't just a clown, like Dennis Rodman was a clown. Artest is trouble and he's troubled. And if your basketball team comes to depend on him, it's in trouble, too.
Just look at the Pacers. Thought to be a contender when the season began, the Pacers are 21-20, having lost six of their last eight games. They've lost three straight games by 10 points or more, and lost by 30 to the Cavaliers on Tuesday. Pacers bosses Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird say the Artest trade saga is no excuse for Indiana's recent slide.
Okay, it's not an excuse, it's a fact. Artest sabotaged the team. He has missed 100 of the last 123 regular season Pacers games. So, yes, if you're the Pacers you had to get rid of Artest. But it shouldn't have taken this long, not 40 days. The Pacers could have had Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic 10 days into this mini-drama.
And on the other side of this issue, why are the Kings doing this?
Because they're desperate. They're taking on Artest because the Kings are the only show in Sacramento, and the show has fallen on hard times. The freewheeling Kings who passed so beautifully and scored 100-plus every night and captivated traditional NBA fans because they played such wonderfully choreographed team basketball . . . that team died when the Kings traded Chris Webber last year. Webber, Vlade Divac, Bobby Jackson, Hedo Turkoglu, Doug Christie, Peja . . . they're all gone now, except Mike Bibby. They were cheated out of a championship in 2002, when the refs gave a playoff game to the Lakers, and it's never been the same.
Peja turned into a sulk, and with a year left on his contract the Kings wanted something for their former all-star, somebody who might be able to fill the seats while the team sits in last place in the Pacific Division. And because Artest has greatness in him some nights, and always is an attraction, the Maloof brothers, who own the team, are betting Artest can be their man. Look, the Maloofs are Vegas guys, so they're largely unafraid of a dice roll. The Maloofs also had better be ready to keep a good therapist on retainer.
From here, I can't see the upside for Sacramento. The Pacers, however, ought to get some immediate bounce out of this. Stojakovic had grown stale in Sacramento and turned into a one-dimensional, jump-shooting whiner who proved he needs to be the third- or fourth-most important guy on a team to be productive in any meaningful way. He has none of Artest's toughness or defensive prowess or all-court savvy. But at least he'd rather be in uniform than producing music or selling flat-screens to get the discount.
The most relieved person in all of this might be NBA Commissioner David Stern, who must be tired of guys telling the league where they are, and are not, willing to play. Last year it was Jimmy Jackson and Alonzo Mourning who were willing to sit, without pay, until they could join a team to their liking. Artest was able to get away with that for one day, Tuesday, when it appeared the deal was going to fall apart. But when Walsh told Artest the Pacers would simply let him sit without pay for the rest of this season, Artest changed his tune.
Artest has already missed one season of salary. He's not Mourning, who had $100 million banked when he decided to sit last season until an acceptable suitor (Miami) came calling. Artest can't afford to miss a year's salary for a second straight season. What, he was going to wait until the Spurs or Pistons came calling?
And as skewed as Artest's thinking often is, he thought this one through pretty well and boarded a plane to join his new teammates, the ones who have no idea that sooner or later their world is going to be turned upside down.