LOS ANGELES – Ron Artest(notes) had a mask over his face, a bat in his hands and who-knows-what on his mind. Some 20 feet to the left, Lamar Odom(notes) spoke with an “Entertainment Tonight” reporter, presumably not about the intricacies of pick-and-roll defense. Kobe Bryant(notes) had come and gone, as had Phil Jackson, both sharing the marquee’s bottom rung, neither invited to stay for an encore.
Just hours away from the opening of training camp, the Los Angeles Lakers’ season had taken its first detour toward the bizarre. Or, as they like to call it in these parts, Welcome to Lakerland!
The NBA’s reigning champions gathered en masse for the first time since their parade down Figueroa Street, and not much had changed in the three months in between. Except for Ron-Ron’s arrival … and Odom’s whirlwind marriage to Khloe Kardashian … and, oh, so a few things have changed. While everyone frets whether LeBron James(notes) and Shaquille O’Neal(notes) can share the same stage in Cleveland, the Lakers long ago discovered a solution for such problems:
Build a bigger stage.
No team does drama better than the Lakers, and that’s why the rest of the NBA once again needs to fear them. Cirque du L.A.? It’s just back for another run with a couple new cast members.
“Everything,” Kobe said, “will be smooth.”
If the Lakers don’t defend their title, they won’t be able to blame Artest’s Twitter account or Khloe’s TV show. They’ll fail because Pau Gasol(notes) lost his legs in March or Andrew Bynum(notes) didn’t tap into enough of his potential or Kobe finally began to wear down or Artest simply wasn’t a good fit.
Distractions? Two years ago, Kobe demanded to be traded, leaving the Lakers to wonder whether he would even show up for camp. Court TV once tracked them for six months, and now they’re supposed to be worried because TMZ turned on its camera?
Crazy is as the Lakers do. The Lakers wanted this circus, or at least a dancing bear. They could have stayed with the safe and secure. They could have re-signed Trevor Ariza(notes) for the same money they gave Artest. Ariza fit well. He hustled. He defended. He didn’t need a lot of shots. He was young and likely to only get better.
He also wasn’t Artest. Artest was the more dynamic player. Bigger. Tougher. More than anything, he carries an edge to him that the Lakers could use. For too long in last season’s playoffs, the Lakers coasted, drifting on talent alone. Artest’s Houston Rockets came within a game of beating them in the second round and the Denver Nuggets also pushed them.
The Nuggets will be back this season. The San Antonio Spurs have improved. The Portland Trail Blazers are a growing concern. Status quo was too dangerous for these Lakers. So they invited their goofy uncle to Christmas dinner to stir things up.
“Maybe sometimes after guys have won, it becomes more difficult to push yourself beyond your comfort zone,” Lakers guard Derek Fisher(notes) said. “I think that’s where Ron will be the biggest asset for us. I don’t think there will be a day this season where he allows other people to take a day off.”
Say this much for Artest: He’ll keep things interesting. He’s already taken to L.A.’s celebrity scene while also endearing himself to Lakers fans with his man-of-the-people approach. Want to go bowling with Ron-Ron? Just tweet him and ask.
“You have to welcome the distractions,” Artest said.
Said Jackson: “We’ll have to keep his activity level monitored.”
Those who played with Artest in Houston and Sacramento say he created far more chaos on the court than off, and this is where the Lakers hope Artest stays true to his word. If he respects Kobe as much as he claims, he’ll show it when he plays. The Lakers can live with the occasional bad shot and technical foul. They can’t have him dribbling their offense into the ground.
Jackson naturally sees plenty of upside in Artest, and that includes his eccentricities. From Dennis Rodman to Bison Dele to Isaiah Rider, Jackson has never shied away from bringing on an unconventional soul. Creative tension works for him. After a season in which Jackson went light on these young Lakers, maybe Artest will help sharpen everyone’s focus. Even if Artest knows the Lakers are gambling on him.
“There’s a risk making a commitment to anybody,” Artest said. “You can ask anybody that got married.”
Like, say, his good friend, Lamar. If there are any worries about the recent adventures of the Lakers, they’re likely directed at Odom, who spent the eve of training camp honeymooning with one of the Kardashian daughters. His now-we’re-dating-now-we’re-married relationship promises to land him a starring role on Khloe’s TV show – which could make some of his teammates guest stars.
“This thing with Lamar is a new thing that I don’t think any of us have dealt with or fully understand,” Fisher said. “So it will be interesting. I think the key part for us is to make this a sanctuary for Lamar when he’s with us. … And allow him those several hours out of the day to just be Lamar and not have to be the guy … with a camera in his face.”
The Lakers are also wise enough to know this is Hollywood. If it wasn’t Lamar and Khloe now, then maybe Sasha and Britney later. Odom wishes only that the public understands he’s in a genuine, loving marriage.
“If I were a garbage man and she worked at Burger King … ” Odom said. “But that’s not the case.”
He’s an NBA champion. She’s a reality TV star. In Lakerland, it all blurs together.