Artest, Mavericks need each other
Ron Artest is doing his part. Josh Howard might already have done his part. Now the onus is on the Mavericks and Kings to do their parts.
The line apparently has been drawn separating an actual Artest-to-Dallas trade possibility from empty telephone conversations and Internet speculation. That line, at the moment, is said to be Howard's unavailability to Sacramento, a player nearly Artest's equal in ability and his better in stability, save for a dose of spring fever the Mavericks' swingman caught in late April.
But the offseason is young, teams' and players' initial negotiating positions rarely are etched in stone -- remember, at this time last year, Kobe Bryant wanted to be traded and Kevin Garnett didn't want to play for the Celtics -- and, as we noted, Artest is doing his best to drive down his market value and make feasible a deal that might not even include Howard.
By venting over his own mistake of not opting out of the final year of his contract ($7.4 million) and then announcing to the world that he wants to be traded, Artest has set in motion a process that, in pro sports, is as time-honored as swiping the spray deodorant out of the next man's locker. This generally is effective all by itself, a shot across management's bow that things could become counterproductive or even unseemly if the desired change doesn't occur. Then you factor in who's involved -- this isn't exactly Grant Hill, Tim Duncan or Steve Nash in terms of demeanor or reputed integrity -- and you know the Kings are no more in control of this situation than they are of Andy Dick's next bender.
Artest doesn't even have to mention his steamer trunk's worth of erratic behavior or how it is that he has played for three teams despite a two-way game as valued in NBA circles as highly as anyone's under 6-foot-10. At 28, he is at the point where even his smiles and his "no comments'' seem a little ominous, and stories written about him invariably include a mention of Dennis Rodman. You talk to Artest, then you walk away convinced that his gyroscope runs at double the torque, on triple the axes, loaded with a jack-in-the-box trigger from which you'd prefer to keep some distance.
It's the sort of personality that makes him a tremendous risk for any team that employs him, none more so than one that isn't a serious contender and thus has long stretches of its season crying out for Ron-Ron entertainment. But since Artest's game is the sort that offers tremendous reward to a good team with the proper support system -- at least, that's what the league's scouts and armchair psychologists believe, though he has made it out of the playoffs' first round only once in nine seasons -- he also offers a tremendous reward. The man defends, he brings toughness, he can score from both the low post and the three-point arc, he crashes the offensive boards and he is tireless (thanks, gyroscope!). On a club with established veterans and a strong coaching voice, Artest could be as helpful and manageable as -- here it comes again -- Rodman was to Chicago's second three-peat run from 1996-98.
Dallas could be that team. With Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry in place, the Mavericks have a veteran core and the semblance of grown-up standards. As long as Artest didn't overrun the Mavs' alleged softness of heart, he would bolster it. He plays bigger than his size as much as Nowitzki often plays smaller than his, and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle got good results (until the melee in Detroit) when he and Artest were in Indiana. Also, the Mavericks' narrowing window of championship opportunity conveniently coincides with the amount of time a team can have Artest around before the distractions take over.
All we need now are a few more weeks of Artest e-mails to various reporters and his showing up unexpectedly in offseason gyms as he did the other day at the Las Vegas summer league, happy to oblige the notebooks and recorders one way or another. Demanding, pouting, apologizing or professing love and loyalty, it doesn't really matter -- the more Artest talks, the more he looms as a liability for Sacramento. The threat of blackmail by disruption shouldn't be rewarded, but this is pro sports. Guys like Artest, Rasheed Wallace, Allen Iverson or, in the NFL, Terrell Owens and Jeremy Shockey can drive down their own trade value and still end up winning, if they land with clubs they prefer.
So maybe come August or September, a Dallas package of emerging forward Brandon Bass and high-mileage Jerry Stackhouse (a.k.a. expiring $7 million contract) might not seem too lopsided to the Kings to end an Artest circus. Or, just maybe, the Mavericks soften a little on swapping out Howard, whose touches and swingman contributions would drop, anyway, if Artest were around. Howard averaged 19.9 points and 7.0 rebounds last season, while Artest was at 20.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
Howard had a calliope of his own warming up a few months ago, coinciding awkwardly with Dallas' first-round elimination against New Orleans, when he talked on a radio show about his offseason use of marijuana. Then, after one loss in that series, he invited teammates to his birthday celebration at a local nightclub.
The mind reels at the prospect of Howard as Cheech and Sacramento center Brad Miller as Chong clouding up the windows of the team's new Volkswagen minibus. Better the munchies, though, than to suffer the sort of hangover an extended stay from an acting-out Artest might bring.
More important, though, Dallas needs another piece, perhaps precisely this piece, if the Kidd trade was intended for anything beyond a half season's gamble. The Mavericks ought to be willing to pay for it. Once Artest establishes the final markdown price.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005. His most recent book, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Minnesota Twins, can be ordered here.