- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Meet the team that no Western contender wants to face in the first round: the once flyweight, suddenly heavyweight Kings, who at week's end were 17-11 since acquiring swingman Ron Artest from the Pacers on Jan. 25. Never mind the roster overhaul, the lame-duck coaching staff or the mediocre 35-35 record through Sunday. Sacramento has a quartet of former All-Stars, a rock-solid eight-man rotation and a formidable home-court advantage. "[The Kings] can be very dangerous," says Warriors assistant Mario Elie, whose team tried to acquire Artest. "I was looking at their lineup the other day. You've got athleticism, toughness, shooting, unselfishness."
Sacramento was adrift when it traded three-time All-Star forward Peja Stojakovic for the incendiary Artest, who was out of shape after playing only 23 games (largely because of suspensions) over the previous 14 months. Almost instantly, however, Artest provided the perimeter defense and edge that the Kings had been lacking since trading Doug Christie midway through last season. The numbers since Artest's arrival are telling: A D that had allowed 93.7 points per game through Sunday (down from 100.2), an 11-1 record at home and a 4-1 road trip to kick off March, with playoff-caliber wins at Cleveland, New Jersey and Milwaukee. "His aggressiveness rubs off," says center Brad Miller, who also played with Artest in Chicago and Indiana. "You got one guy out there doing that, and it gets annoying when other guys aren't trying to match his effort."
Still, the Kings remain almost as mercurial as their new small forward. Last week Artest and point guard Mike Bibby teamed for 34 and 30 points, respectively, in a 105-96 win over the visiting Sonics. One night later, however, Artest had seven turnovers in an 87-80 loss at Los Angeles that gave the Lakers a one-game lead over Sacramento for the No. 7 seed. Bibby and Miller, the only players who were with Sacramento two seasons ago, still occasionally struggle to mesh with Artest and fellow newcomers Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Bonzi Wells. "We don't have enough patience," says coach Rick Adelman, who's in the last season of his contract. "If [the opponent] takes Mike [ Bibby] away, then something else has to be open, and we've got to take it that extra step. Right now we're not doing it."
The Kings still haven't decided whether they're better as a passing team that maximizes the pick-and-roll skills of Bibby and Miller; a fast-paced, finesse team that showcases young swingmen Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia; or a post-up team built around Artest, Wells and Abdur-Rahim. While Artest is their best post-up scorer, a Western Conference scout says, "When the ball hits his hands, it just stops because he's either posting up or isolating."
Nonetheless, Artest has been filling up the stat sheet, having averaged 17.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.1 steals as a King. His ability to bring the ball upcourt has also relieved the pressure on Bibby, who is averaging a team-high 21.2 points on 44.3% shooting since the trade--as opposed to 20.4 points on 40.4% shooting before it. "I'm not happy with the way we're playing offensively," says Adelman, "but I don't know what we can do about it because since Ron's been here we've had [the equivalent of] three full practices."
Having generated so much controversy over the last two seasons, Artest won't dwell on the shortcomings of his new team. When asked, for example, about the reports that he initially tried to veto the trade, he says, "That wasn't me, that was my representative [agent Mark Stevens] who didn't want me to come here. This feels like home now."
Publicly, the Suns, Mavericks or Spurs won't say that they'd prefer to meet the Lakers or Hornets in the opening round, but it's not hard to believe that, say, Manu Ginobili would rather avoid a physical first-round matchup with the 6'7", 255-pound Artest. And if Ginobili doesn't, he should, says Artest, who guarantees that the Kings will advance past the first round. "It doesn't matter who we play," he says. "There isn't anybody we can't beat."
> Power rankings every Friday at SI.com/nba.