Monday, January 15, 2007

Artest, Kings on shaky ground

Here is the state of the world according to Ron Artest, so take it with a grain of salt:

Nothing is wrong with the Sacramento Kings, and nothing bad is going to happen Friday night at The Palace in Auburn Hills when Artest makes his long-awaited return to suburban Detroit for the first time since the infamous brawl.

And not only that, the Kings -- losers of six straight -- are really going to turn this thing around.
"When the end of the season comes, we'll surprise a lot of people with our playoff position and how we're looking," Artest said just a few feet away from my disbelieving ears Monday afternoon after the Kings stumbled down the stretch once again and lost to New York 102-97, perpetuating an extended slippage that's looking more and more like a freefall.

Blame for the final minute breakdown ultimately falls to Sacramento coach Eric Musselman, but Monday's loss looked all too similar to the Kings' recent close losses in this streak -- three of them in overtime -- by virtue of the way the wrong player tried to be the star at the end.
In this loss, the Kings were ahead 95-92 with just over a minute left when Jamal Crawford hit a difficult runner for the Knicks, making it a one-point game. Artest missed a contested 8-footer with 51 seconds left, and the Knicks went ahead for good on another drive by Crawford with 18.3 seconds left. An illegal screen by Corliss Williamson, who set his feet out of bounds, gave the ball back to New York and led to a pair of free throws by Crawford with 13.8 seconds left to make it a three-point game, and the Kings -- out of timeouts -- settled for a 3-point attempt by Artest, a 28-point shooter from behind the arc, that missed to end their final chance.

"I'm sure next time in that situation it'll go down," said Artest, whose coach didn't seem all that enamored of his team's final-second execution.

On the court with Artest on that final play were Mike Bibby, who used to make a career out of knocking down clutch shots, and Kevin Martin, who reached 30 points for the eighth time this season and who has been making 42 percent of his 3s.
Artest never gave either of them so much as a glance.

Sacramento Bee beat writer Sam Amick mentioned to me after the game how he had noticed Ronnie Price of the Kings looking down at his teammates and having to implore them to stand and show some support in the final minute, yet another indication that the chemistry and cohesiveness of the Kings is far from satisfactory.

There have already been a couple of locker room blowups involving Artest, whose name continues to be bandied about in trade talk among league executives. It appeared the Kings were ready to move him before ownership apparently stepped in and made it known that they were prepared to give it a little more time ... perhaps even to gauge the trade value of Bibby, who must decide at the end of the season whether he will opt out of the final two years of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. But Bibby is having such an off year, his averages dropping to 18.0 points and 6.8 assists, that he'd have to be nuts to forego the $28 million he still is owed for next season and the year after.

Then there's Martin, who even Charles Barkley could see during TNT's telecast the other night is the best thing the Kings have going for them. Martin has a team-high average of 21.0 points, has led Sacramento in scoring 16 times and is pulling off a field-goal percentage rarity: making more than 50 percent of his shots, highly uncommon for a guard. But he, too, has had to defer to Artest and others at the end of games when by all rights he should be the No. 1 or No. 2 option.
Nobody in the Sacramento locker room was kind enough to openly acknowledge how shaky things have become, but I expect to see a few statements along those lines as the Kings' four-game Eastern trip continues through Toronto, Boston and then Detroit.

Assuming they haven't traded him by the time they play Chris Webber and the Pistons on Saturday, it'll be Artest's first trip back to The Palace since the infamous brawl in November, 2004. It will not, however, be Artest's first trip back to Michigan or his first interaction with Detroit fans. Last summer, when he was performing community service in Michigan, Artest attended a Tigers baseball game and was treated warmly by fans, a few of whom actually asked if they could buy him a beer.

It was a tossed beer, lest we forget, that triggered Artest's charge into the stands during the Palace brawl, and although I'm sure security will be extra tight for Artest's return Saturday night, I'm not so certain there isn't some knucklehead out there right now wondering what Artest would do if he was hit by another beer.

So I asked Artest that very question: "What if someone tosses a beer at you again?"

"I can't see that happening again. I just think that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said.
OK, Ron, but if the people in Detroit know that's what you're thinking, it just might encourage someone to make it a twice-in-a-lifetime thing just to see what happens, no?

"I just don't see that happening again," Artest replied.

So we'll have to just wait and see if Artest behaves himself or goes after someone else at The Palace. But with the way things are going for Sacramento, don't discount the possibility of Artest somehow confronting a teammate, or maybe even his coach. Because I don't see the Kings' situation getting any better, and I don't think there are truly any once-in-a-lifetime events -- be they trades, brawls, tirades, meltdowns or unsuccessful rap projects -- when it comes to Artest.

No comments: