Does a rolling Artest gather no Moss?

Published Jan. 6, 2011 12:00 a.m. EST

Randy Moss was an uncommon talent, a receiver with a package of size, speed and athletic ability that set him apart from anyone else in the NFL. But all that went with Moss — the play-when-I-want-to-play attitude, the antisocial behavior — made two teams decide he wasn’t worth the trouble.

So, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, with the credibility that comes with being the game’s best coach and a locker room policed by veterans with rings, snapped Moss up for a bargain.

And for three seasons, it worked magnificently, Moss transforming the Patriots offense into the NFL’s most prolific ever, and to some degree rehabilitating his reputation.

Then, after a few ineffective games and with Moss grumbling about a new contract, the Patriots stunningly shipped him to Minnesota for a draft pick earlier this season.


As the playoffs begin, the top-seeded Patriots don’t miss Moss at all.

A question now being raised about the Lakers is whether they should do the same with their own unpredictable force — Ron Artest.

There is no way the Lakers would be the reigning champions without Artest, who was one of the few players on the court — the only? — who did not seem overwhelmed by the magnitude of Game 7 last season.

But is Artest, whose contribution has declined and who confronted Phil Jackson recently about the way he delivers criticism, past his usefulness?

Virtually all of Artest’s numbers — minutes, field-goal percentage, rebounds, assists, scoring — have plummeted this season to career lows.

In many ways, Artest has been an uncomfortable fit with the Lakers — a round peg in a triangular hole. He has been slow to grasp the intricacies of the offense, sometimes appearing to just stand in the corner. And his unorthodox style of defense, where he often chases a dribbler from behind, does not always fit with the team concept.

He admitted Wednesday, after having a considerable hand in the Lakers’ 99-95 win over the Suns, that he thought this season would be smoother than last.

“Yeah, I wasn’t prepared for that,” Artest said.

Publicly, at least, Artest has the support of the two people who matter most — Jackson and general manager Mitch Kupchak.

Kupchak, before Tuesday’s win over Detroit, said the confrontation with Jackson and three players — including Pau Gasol — over being late for a New Year’s Day shootaround is an incident that is bound to happen over the course of the season.

Is he pleased with the team?

“The chemistry and make-up of the roster, yeah,” Kupchak said. “But not the losing part.”

Artest is not likely to be going anywhere for two reasons: He still has three years and $18 million left on his contract after this season. And at some critical juncture, the Lakers will need him.

In the playoffs last year, Artest had his ups and downs, but his contribution was crucial. In the tough first-round series with Oklahoma, when the Lakers were finding their bearings after a difficult end to the regular season, Artest locked down the league’s leading scorer, Kevin Durant, holding him to 35-percent shooting for the series.

Then there was the put-back at the buzzer that beat Phoenix in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. And, of course, his Game 7 performance against Boston, when Artest delivered 20 points — including a hugely clutch three-pointer — and held Paul Pierce to 5-of-15 shooting.

If the Lakers look ahead to the playoffs, they could expect to see Durant again, or perhaps Carmelo Anthony and Dirk Nowitzki in the West. If they reach the Finals, they might see Pierce again, or LeBron James.

Artest may not stop them, but who else do the Lakers have to throw their way? Matt Barnes is too slight and Kobe Bryant would get worn out.

“He’ll take the toughest perimeter guy and guard him and give Kobe an opportunity to not expend energy,” Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry said. “That’s a valuable thing — that Kobe doesn’t have to guard that guy. Kobe can do it, but when you have Artest you can put him on Dirk, you can put him on Paul Pierce and you’re not asking your best offensive player to expend energy guarding those guys. That’s the biggest value he has.”

Artest has shown signs of coming to life the last two nights. His three-pointer, block and steal in the opening moments of the second half Tuesday night against Detroit kick started the Lakers toward a rout. And several big plays down the stretch — including a patiently taken three and an offensive rebound that resulted in a Derek Fisher jumper —helped the Lakers hold off the Suns.

It was the rare contested fourth quarter that Artest was on the court to close out.

“This is the first time I’ve been in the fourth quarter in a long time,” Artest said.

But Artest would not say whether Tuesday’s revelation of his confrontation with Jackson had sparked the mini-resurgence. The day before he said it was hurtful that it became public, fearing that it would damage the reputation he has worked carefully to repair after the brawl at The Palace.

But he would not cop to any sense of vindication. When asked how it felt to deliver after the previous day’s news, Artest put a puzzled look on his face.

“I don’t remember what happened yesterday,” Artest said.

That’s also an Artest that the Lakers would like to forget. Confused, unengaged and lost in the triangle?

No mas, they hope.

And no Moss, too.