Kobe Bryant(notes) always admired that Ron Artest(notes) never acted like he wanted an autograph when duty demanded that he defend him. He loved that Artest was combustible and crazy and always left people wondering: Is this the moment when Ron-Ron loses his mind again, when all hell breaks loose?
Deep down, Bryant wanted Artest on his side. Artest gives a thirtysomething Kobe what Dennis Rodman gave a thirtysomething Michael Jordan: A belligerent, tough guy bearing the burden of protecting the superstar's back.
And as far back as the Western Conference playoffs, the Lakers believed Artest wanted to trade Houston for Hollywood, that the Rockets' decaying cornerstone of Yao Ming(notes) and Tracy McGrady(notes) turned that team into a temporary rehab assignment.
"If they couldn't get Trevor [Ariza] cheap," said a source with knowledge of the Lakers' free-agent plans, "they had Ron in their back pocket."
Change is good for a defending champion. When the rest of the NBA's elite – Cleveland, Orlando and Boston are getting better – the champion can't just stand pat. As an executive and a player chasing repeat titles, Detroit's Joe Dumars says, "I like to make one significant change in that second year."
This gives the Lakers something to incorporate, to work through, across a long training camp and regular season. This way, they aren't tempted to just coast until the playoffs. This changes the dynamic for everyone, and give Artest this: Around him, there's never complacency.
Bryant never campaigned for Artest over Ariza, his loyalty with the hot-shooting kid who helped him win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal(notes). In the long run, the Lakers were wiser to keep the young Ariza to transition into a post-Kobe stardom. Yet, general manager Mitch Kupchak barely blinked when Ariza's agent, David Lee, started talking like a tough guy, parading his client on what one rival GM called "a leverage tour."
The Lakers don't believe he'll leave, Lee kept barking. Surprise, surprise: Lee didn't think the Lakers would tell him to get lost, sign Artest and leave Ariza to take the five-year, $33 million deal in Houston he could've had in L.A.
"I told Mitch that it was never about the money; it was about respect," Lee told NBA.com.
Well, take your respect and pack your client's bags for post-Yao lottery land in Houston. Respect? Yes, there are American soldiers and missionaries in faraway lands cheering for David Lee and this noble stand for the neglected and disenfranchised everywhere. It is about respect, and God knows a $33 million offer for Ariza's eight points and four rebounds a game rates a disgraceful act.
No, this wasn't about the money, nor his client's needs. This was a failed power play, an embarrassment of the highest order. Looking back, Ariza will rue the day. He's a good player, but he'll never be a star elsewhere. He'll just be another player on another team.
"He was way too emotional about this," said a league executive who had talked to Lee in recent days.
Yet, you can be a star without being a star with the Lakers. When L.A. is winning championships, the role players become commodities. They get endorsements. They get television careers. Ask Rick Fox. Or Derek Fisher(notes). Ariza was an L.A. kid living a dream, 24 years old, a gifted, young talent on the defending champion, and his agent's bluff backfired.
Now, Artest trades places with Ariza, and the Lakers get a dimension they haven't had in a long, long time. Perhaps three or four years ago, Artest couldn't have handled living and playing in L.A. He gives the Lakers sheer nastiness, and as an executive with one of his past teams said Thursday night, "Ronnie will show everyone that he can win. I think he's matured, and overall, he'll be on his best behavior. Phil [Jackson] has been through this before with Rodman. He'll handle this."
Ultimately, it wasn't Jackson who made it work for two titles with Rodman in Chicago, but Jordan. The locker room is policed by the superstar, never the coach. Artest is the right player, right time for Bryant. As Kobe hits his 30s, he can't be chasing the best player on defense every night. Now, Artest gets the job. What's more, Kobe gets a maniac who will want to please him, get his approval. Anything is possible with Ron-Ron running roughshod in Los Angeles.
"I hope it's chaos," a Western Conference GM texted Thursday night.
And maybe, in some ways, that won't be the worst thing in the world for the Lakers. Chaos? That's letting your agent's agenda and big mouth get your butt shipped from the Los Angeles Lakers for lottery land in Houston. Kobe Bryant had been willing to take back his whole team, but Ariza made the mistake of giving the Lakers what they always wanted, what they always believed was available to them: the combustible and crazy Ron Artest.
Kobe Bryant gets his Rodman now, and yes, this is how all hell breaks loose in Hollywood.
- Kobe Bryant