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The NBA's foremost miscreant is likely entering the most important season of his career.
Perhaps more than anyone else in Houston this year (and this includes Tracy McGrady), Ron Artest may have everything riding on the year to come. On how he performs on the court. On how he behaves off it. And on just how much better he makes a basketball team when he is truly interested.
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Artest heads into the 2008-09 campaign less than a month shy of his 29th birthday with a legacy very much up in the air. That he is one of the most versatile players in the league has long been overshadowed by a well-earned stigma for poor behavior. He was a hothead in his days at St. John's, though he may have been overshadwoed by the mercurial Erick Barkley in that department. He wasn't necessarily an angel in Chicago either, but the wheels didn't fall off until his time in Indiana. The flagrant fouls, the technicals and the suspensions came with stunning regularity, and of course it all came to a head when Artest played a prominent role in one of the worst brawls in American sports history on November 19, 2004, in Detroit, just two weeks after making the ridiculous claim that he needed some time off to promote a rap CD. His season-long suspension certainly freed up the time.
A season later, Artest was finally shipped to Sacramento, where he led the Kings to a 26-14 finish and a playoff spot, and he would have been an MVP candidate if not for the fact that he spent the half-season that he wasn't in Sacramento short-circuiting operations in Indiana. But it didn't take too long for the situation to go south out west. Injuries, trouble with the law, public contract extension and trade demands and general selfishness on the court soured his relationship with the organization and dropped him out of the good graces of the Kings' fan base.
And so the former All-Star finds himself entering the upcoming season with his fourth team since 2002. He is a former Defensive Player of the Year winner, a 20-point-per-game scorer and a rugged athlete who has the speed and strength to play both forward positions effectively. Yet here in the prime of his career, he goes into the final season of a contract with $8.45 million remaining on it with no idea what the future will hold.
Out in Golden State, a former running mate of Artest's has reinvented himself. Since being traded to the Warriors in January of 2007, Stephen Jackson has become the heart and soul of his new team. Despite some early bumps in the road with regard to his conduct, Jax played a key role in helping the Warriors to their first postseason berth in more than a decade in 2007. He was named a captain the following offseason, and after serving a seven-game suspension for past transgressions to start 2007-08, he was on his best behavior and had his best season as a Warrior. The man with a similar history of law-breaking, brawling and general hotheadedness has become a leader in both the locker room and the community. These days, he is saying, "Everybody makes mistakes. I'm a living testament to that. What matters is not the mistake, but what you do after that" to Henry Abbott. Now, the buzz in Golden State is about locking Jack up long term. That's locked up with regard to a contract (and not a penitentiary) for any of the witty folks in the crowd.
The ball is in Artest's court to give himself the same sort of image makeover that Jacks works toward every day. He will be playing on what will likely be the best team of his career this season, alongside two All-Stars in Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady and under coach Rick Adelman. He joins the second-rated defense in basketball from a season ago and is expected to add both a new offensive dimension to this team with his scoring and an even more potent perimeter defensive presence to be used in tandem with stopper Shane Battier.
With free agency looming, this is possibly Ron-Ron's best (and perhaps last) shot to truly begin to change mainstream perceptions about himself. This is his chance to show that he can harness his energy into becoming an on-court force while avoiding serving as an off-court hindrance for a contending team. This is his chance to show that he can be the difference-maker on a championship team or a team that comes quite close to the promised land.
If Artest can do all those things and the Rockets can have health and sanity hold up enough to help them deep into the playoffs, the forward will probably be looking at a lucrative long-term deal come next summer. Maybe once his money is guaranteed, he'll revert back to acting as he pleases no matter how it affects those around him. Or perhaps he'll finally begin to turn the corner as his former teammate seems to have done. Or maybe he'll never bother with that year of good behavior in the first place.
And that's the thing about Ron Artest: One just never knows what's coming next. It's going to be quite a year in Houston.