|Kobe and the Lakers are trying to find their rhythm in time for a late-season push. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- After the Lakers' shootaround in Boston on Thursday, one man wanted to stay behind and be by himself. Just run up and down the floor in an empty arena, put up some shots and be alone with his thoughts.
"Who's staying with Metta?" Lakers coach Mike Brown said as he rounded up the team and headed for the bus back to the hotel.
"I'll catch a cab, coach," Metta World Peace said. "I'm gonna stay."
And so Metta stayed. He was alone on the TD Garden floor for about an hour, and when I left the building and headed for my hotel, I could still hear the ball bouncing in there. Still hear the sneakers squeaking on the famous parquet.
For a player who has been perhaps the most polarizing and redeemed in NBA history, a man who gave up the most important part of himself -- his name, which had linked him to the fabric of who he was, and with his roots in the projects of Queensbridge, N.Y. -– maybe this was an extra therapy session. Maybe this was the former Ron Artest, struggling to find his niche on the Lakers and find parts of his game that have gone missing, communing with the basketball gods and other higher (or lower) authorities to find his equilibrium again.
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But just because Ron Artest has changed his name does not mean he has lost his knack for surprising us. No, this wasn't any kind of spiritual moment, not a salve for what ails his game. It was much simpler, and potentially more important than that.
"I only played 20 minutes the other night, so when I play a little bit of minutes I always try to get extra work," World Peace said before the Lakers played the Knicks on Friday night. "If I play my regular minutes, I don't need to do extra work. I didn't know how many minutes I was going to play that night, so I had to get extra work done."
Has he spoken with Brown about the inconsistency in his playing time?
"No, I let him coach and I play," World Peace said. "I just want to be ready and I figured I probably won't play as much because some games I play and some games I don't. So I just want to keep myself in shape."
In the grand scheme of problems that are mounting for the Lakers -– no penetrating point guard, not enough consistent jump shooters, adjusting on the fly to a new coach, new systems on both ends of the floor and a vastly different philosophy than Phil Jackson's -– World Peace's issues with playing time rank pretty far down the list. During this East Coast trip -- which ends Sunday in Toronto after victories at Denver and Boston and losses in Utah, Philadelphia and New York -– Kobe Bryant described the Lakers' offense as "under construction." After a 92-85 loss to the Knicks, who were led by new point guard sensation Jeremy Lin, Bryant lamented that the Lakers were now "stuck in the mud."
I'm no mechanic, nor am I Mona Lisa Vito from My Cousin Vinny, but "stuck in the mud" sounds worse than "under construction" to me.
The player formerly known as Artest believes that Brown's coaching is too dictated by stats, and that his 16.4 percent (9-of-55!) shooting from beyond the 3-point line and 51.4 percent from the free-throw line shouldn't keep him off the floor in the fourth quarter, when, he said, "I'm gonna make a big stop and I may make a big shot."
You don't have to be a stat-head to recognize how damning those numbers are. World Peace suggests that when he was on the floor at the end of the Boston game, the Lakers won. When he was on the bench in Philly and Utah at the end of the fourth, they lost.
"I'm trying to win," World Peace said. "And right now, coach is a stats guy. His background is video coordinator or whatever. So he's all stats. But Ron Artest is all feel. He doesn't understand that. Having me in the game at the end, he was worried about me shooting bad from the free throw line. And I was like, 'I could care less because I'm gonna get a stop at the end of the game.' He didn't understand the rhythm that we had -- me, Fish [Derek Fisher], Kobe [Bryant], Pau [Gasol] and Drew [Andrew Bynum]. I've been through games where I would have two points, go 1 for 9 and we'd win. That's what matters. Stats are for people who need stats."
World Peace cites the Celtics going away from Paul Pierce at the end of regulation Thursday night -- when Pierce had to give up the ball to Mickael Pietrus for a desperate 3-point heave that missed at the buzzer.
"If I could count how many times another team went away from the best player when I was on him, I've got to be like No. 1 in the league," World Peace said. "That's not a stat, and coach doesn't ... you would have to play basketball to feel that. When Phil Jackson was here, that's why I was in the game, because he understands that. Philly and Utah, I was on the bench because of stats.
"Every game on the road is gonna be close," he said. "But I think they panic a little bit when the games get close. But me, Kobe, Pau, Fish, we expect the games to be close. We expect to pull them out, and we don't panic. And coach, he panicked a little bit: 'I need to make a change.' So I just sit on the bench and wait and see what happens."
Brown, an admitted adherent to metrics, must realize by now that this Lakers monster has characteristics that can't be quantified. (Seriously, if only Lamar Odom were still wearing purple and gold.) I'd like to imagine what plays Brown and offensive assistant John Kuester had dialed up Friday night against the Knicks in the fourth quarter, when the cosmos simply gave way to Kobe doing what he does at Madison Square Garden. There are no plays to be called for that, no metrics to be measured. Just a man and his moment.
Is World Peace overstating his defensive impact, his intangible value? Well, he's been solid but unspectacular defensively in the small sample size of 26 games. According to Synergy Sports Technology, he's allowing a very average .833 points per possession, good for 192nd in the NBA. For comparison's sake, the Hornets' Marco Belinelli -– not regarded as a good defender -– is right behind him at .834, spanning five fewer possessions and five fewer field-goal attempts.
World Peace is holding opponents to a respectable .367 field goal percentage and is ranked between good and excellent by Synergy in all man-to-man defensive situations except when he defends the pick-and-roll ball handler (poor) and surprisingly, when he defends in isolation (below average). In the latter situations, opponents are shooting .421 (8 of 19).
These numbers, along with World Peace's jaw-dropping shooting percentages, is what Brown is looking at on his computer screen every night. World Peace, 32, said the numbers don't take into account his "cold-blooded" nature and the fact that opposing shooters lose their legs trying to box out his 260-pound body at the other end of the floor.
"I think he just has to get a better feel of the players," World Peace said of Brown. "Kobe, he's got ice-cold blood in his veins. Fish is the same way. And you've just got to get used to your players when you've got two players with five rings. ... We're cold-blooded, and coach, he's got to understand that about us. We could care less what happens the whole game. I could care less what happens throughout the whole season. What matters is that next possession and getting that win. So he doesn't play me for the two games and in the fourth quarter they pull away."
You have your opinions of World Peace and I have mine, just as Jackson had his opinions of the same guy by a different name. And in case you're wondering, it's taken World Peace some time to get used to that new name. The "dust has settled now," he said, and it's "normal." But the first time he got up of the bench and peeled his warm-up shirt off, he said, "It was very uncomfortable. I was like, 'Ron, what are you doing?' That's exactly what was going through my mind."
Sounds like the same thing that is going through Brown's mind every time World Peace launches a three.
At this point for the Lakers, World Peace is neither the problem nor the solution. (Words I never thought I'd type.) But what W.P. has brought to the forefront here -– a possible disconnect between Brown's meticulous, metric-driven coaching style and the amorphous reality of the Lakers -- is significant.
Even though Jackson used to publicly lament Artest's ineffectual 3-point launching –- "And that bothered me," World Peace said -- there's a certain way of handling things with this group of Lakers that, yes, Brown will have to learn. While Bryant has embraced his coach and his new style, there will always be an unharnessed element to his game and his psyche than can't be drawn up on a whiteboard. Bynum is becoming tougher, but perhaps not polished enough. Gasol is emotionally fragile. Fisher is proud and tough and championship tested, but his expiration date is being pushed to the limit.
Artest? World Peace? He's never going to change, never going to conform his game or his feel to some obtuse measurement of what happens on the floor.
"The real stat is the wins," World Peace said. "That's the only stat that should count. If you win, that's all that matters. If I'm 1 for 10 from the free-throw line, 3 for 15 from the 3-point line, 29 percent from field goal, no rebounds, no assists and we won, bam. It doesn't matter because at the end of the game, I'm gonna get a big stop, I might hit a big shot.
"And then the player's gonna take a stupid shot because I'm on him because he has no other choice but to take a dumb shot," W.P. said. "And we win the game and go home, have some oatmeal the next morning. It's real simple, man. The coach, he's got to get used to that."
And dare I say, to some degree, the players have to get used to the coach. Otherwise, World Peace and the Lakers will never be able to coexist.