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Is Artest ruining Lakers' triangle?

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Randy Hill

Veteran columnist Randy Hill is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.
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At 28-7, the sky isn't exactly falling on the Los Angeles Lakers. But the shots aren't falling that often, either, and they did just lose to the down-the-hall Clippers for the first time since Kobe Bryant went on his trade-me radio tour.

What's this about shots not falling for the team with the NBA's best record? Well, while Kobe's volume shooting has experienced typical fits of seasonal accuracy, things have not exactly been lights out for his loyal supporting cast.

POLL

  • What is the Lakers' biggest problem?
    • Artest's role
    • Fisher's age
    • Gasol's injury
    • Odom's falloff
    • Weak bench
    • They're 28-7...what problem?

That's the supporting cast many of you expected to team up with the Kobester in making the defending-champion Lakers this stinking close to invincible.

A quick roll call is in order. OK, remarkably skilled 7-footer Pau Gasol demonstrated that he certainly is tough enough to do sufficient inside work to secure a championship. Young giant Andrew Bynum returned with a mended knee (again) and the promise of evolving into the best center in the Western Conference. They are joined in the big-man rotation by multi-skilled 6-10 forward Lamar Odom, who sacrificed minutes with minimal public opposition in order to lead the Lakers' Bench Mob and be rewarded with another handsome contract by owner Jerry Buss.

Veteran guard Derek Fisher and his timely shooting touch are still around (well, Fish is around) and Trevor Ariza's rise to free-agent glory was answered when the Lakers hired controversial defensive ace Ron Artest.

All the other bench players had to do was make a reasonable amount of shots and play defense with a little more gusto than before.

Things seemed to be going swimmingly until the then-23-4 Lakers were clouted at home on Christmas Day by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Artest celebrated that evening by experiencing some sort of domestic fall, enabling him to miss a couple of games while Bryant went Army of One in his absence.

And while the Lakers' mini slide (5-3) shouldn't be cause for panic, it has inspired those of us with nitpicking interests to take a closer look at things. Looking closer, we're noticing that some regulars in Kobe's supporting cast are missing their cues. Before looking at reasons why, let's take a look at some numbers.

Fisher, who shot 42 percent from the field last year, is up first. Through 35 games, the historically clutch lefty is making a nippy 37 percent of his field-goal tries; his three-point stroke is down three percent. Odom has gained a wife, but is down a staggering six percent from the field (49 percent to 43), while little-used big Josh Powell has dipped another six percent and even trusted, bouncy guard Shannon Brown has cooled.

It should be noted that while their consistency may a bit off, Gasol and Bynum (especially Andrew) are posting numbers the look pretty familiar to what they gave the Lakers last season.

So they're almost the same, but what gives with the other guys? Gee, could we have a little post-title satisfaction at work? Sure, Kobe's going to celebrate his fourth title for 15 minutes, then hit the gym and squeeze off about 500 jumpers. He has a legacy to think of and no Olympic commitment to interfere with his preparation for Ring 5. But what about his ring-bearing cronies?

Did they spend as much time in off-season preparation, and was that preparation propelled by repeat-caliber hunger? It should be noted that this hunger does not include Odom's quest for Skittles to put on his Kardashian wedding cake.

Anyway, that's a theory I lobbed in the direction of assistant coach A, who is employed by another franchise in the Western Conference.

"I've seen it happen," Coach A said. "Some complacency could set in. Not with Kobe, no way. But some of the role players may have felt a bit cozy.

"And even though getting a championship may really increase your desire for the next one, staying at the top is more difficult. Some younger guys may not understand that. You have to work even harder than before to stay there."

Or they could be missing shots more frequently for another reason. I'm looking at offensive rhythm. Hello, Ron Artest.

Before having a go at Ron's influence, please note that the Lakers are more efficient defensively this season, coughing up about four fewer points per 100 possessions. It also should be pointed out that they began the season on what almost looked like a two-month homestand with few play dates filled by elite teams.

But, all in all, Artest gives the Lakers a defensive edge, Kobe still locks down when it's really needed, Brown defends with much energy and the shot-blockers are a fine deterrent.

The offense, unfortunately for Lakers fans, has fallen off about four efficiency points from last season. The pace is the same, defensive rebounding and turnovers by the opposition are similar to last season, giving the Lakers a similar number of transition buckets. However, in half-court situations, the supporting cast is chipping paint off the rims. What we're still wondering is why. Well, I've seen several Lakers games this season and Artest (how do I write this nicely?) often kills the offensive flow.

He's only taking 10 shots a game (making a weak 42 percent), but that's about three more than the scraps-grabbing Ariza unloaded and Trevor almost always fired off of a drive-and-dish from Kobe, a basket cut or on the end of a steal and dunk. Artest, who thinks of himself as far more advanced offensively than he really is, likes to hold the ball while looking for a play to make. And although he does look to create shots for others, the Lakers have Kobe to do that while the shot clock bleeds.

Can I get an amen from assistant coach A? Nope, he wasn't sure, so I'm going with assistant coach B. Coach B works for an Eastern Conference team, but -- for reasons we won't disclose -- has been obliged to watch the Lakers quite a bit lately.

"I'm not saying the ball movement was much better when Artest was out, because Kobe looked like he had stopped trusting the others," Coach B said. "But before and after Artest's injury thing, Artest burns too much of the shot clock holding the ball, looking for an opportunity to create a shot for himself or someone else. Kobe is better at kicking it out in time for a teammate to step into a shot in rhythm. At least, he's much better at it now."

So, part of the Lakers' supporting-cast problem -- at least offensively -- can be traced to the new third-best supporting actor?

"Yeah and Odom doesn't seem that comfortable playing with Artest," Coach B said. "A lot of people figured it would work since they were teammates in club ball or something. But Artest is built like a tank and loves to take guys who can't handle him into the post. That's a problem because Gasol or Bynum are already there and that's also where Odom loves to work."

With Artest busy inside, Lamar spends even more time than usual on the perimeter, where he's good at taking slower bigs off the dribble. But having Ron-Ron taking his man to the block clogs the triangle offense's usually pristine driving lanes. L.O. has responded by taking nearly three times as many triples as last season.

He's slightly under 30 percent from out there this year. At least we can't blame Khloe ... or Kobe.

Will we be blaming Artest for a premature Lakers playoff exit?

"Let's not get crazy," Coach B said. "I trust that Phil and Kobe will do what's necessary to get the rhythm back on offense. And even if they don't, it's nice to have Artest on D when playoff games are grinded out."

And the cast has almost 50 more rehearsals to get some flow in the show.

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