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Artest-for-Howard Worth a Second Look

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Up until earlier this week, the Dallas Mavericks had been rumored as the latest possible suitor for Ron Artest, who continues to try to whine his way out of Sacramento. 

Of course, that was when the Mavs were trying to nab the former All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year on the cheap for Jerry Stackhouse and Brandon Bass.  As Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News reports, the Mavs bailed as soon as the Kings put All-Star forward Josh Howard's name on the table, and talks are considered unlikely to restart between the two teams.

It seems necessary to disclaim the following by reinforcing that the general belief here is that adding Ron Artest to your basketball team probably isn't a good idea.  The guy can behave for stretches at a time, but in the long-term, he seems to revert to his old volatile self and start causing distractions and creating more trouble than he is worth.  Those aren't great motifs for team-building.

But in today's sports world, for players who are talented enough, there is almost without fail always going to someone who believes he employs or is the next great psychotherapist, the guy who will take the risk and magically get Problem Player X back on the right track.  It's hard to imagine Ron Artest spending all too much more time (a season at the absolute most) in Sacramento, and it's harder to imagine a player with Ron Artest's skill set headed out of the league anytime soon.

So if he's going to land somewhere, it might as well be Dallas.

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The Mavs seem to be in their own sort of no man's land.  It's easy to forget that this team is just two years removed from a Finals appearance in June 2006 and a season off of posting the league's top regular season record with 67 wins.  The stunning upset loss to Golden State in the 2007 playoffs seems to have marked the beginning of the end of the current Mavs' run of Western dominance. 

Despite winning 51 games last season, they had trouble finding their stride, so much so that they took a shot on 34-year-old Jason Kidd that involved dealing, among other pieces, point guard-of-the-future Devin Harris, defensive presence DeSagana Diop (who returned this summer) and two first-round draft picks.  The Mavs clearly looked to be at best among the second tier in the West during the regular season, and the pasting they took at the hands of the Hornets in the first round of the playoffs only cemented that.  Since that point, the overly controlling coach with a great winning percentage (Avery Johnson) has been shown the door and been replaced by another capable coach (Rick Carlisle) who is rumored to enjoy his share of control as well.  The team has brought Diop back into the fold, but the roster remains largely unchanged aside from that, save for the block-buster Gerald Green signing.

All that said, there isn't much reason right now to expect that the Mavs will be able to jump a level back into the West's elite barring major injuries to those in front of them.  The Lakers, Hornets, Jazz and Spurs are all clearly on a higher level.  The Rockets could be as well if their youngsters continue to develop and they keep playing defense as efficiently as anyone in the West.  If the Suns can stay healthy and coax a bit of Shaq, they should be better, too.  What all this looks likely to add up to is another low seed and first-round exit for the Mavs.

In the meantime, budding star Josh Howard has seen his approval ratings take a dive in Big D, largely related to incidents in which he admitted marijuana use during a radio interview and then passed around birthday invitatons to teammates in the locker room after a playoff loss.  There have been questions about his overall attitude, and whispers have begun to swirl since the Mavs' playoff ouster about Howard's possible departure.

So the time seems as good as ever to really shake things up a bit.  While Howard is the better rebounder, Artest was just as good everywhere else last season.  Though Artest isn't known as an efficient scorer, his true shooting was actually one tenth of one percent better than Howard's last season (although Howard holds a 53.2 to 51.3 advantage for their careers), and he racked up an additional assist per game.  In the meantime, while Howard is a very good defender, Artest is a great one when he is in the mood, and his larger frame (he weighs 244 pounds to Howard's 210) allows him to play a more physical game and create match-up problems for scorers at the two through four.  He plays tough basketball and isn't backing down from anyone, and he would certainly help give this Mavs team a much-needed mean streak.

Sure, Artest is crazy, and he is probably a ticking time bomb.  But so is owner Mark Cuban.  If any owner in the league could figure out a way to effectively handle Artest - at least for short stretches - Cuban seems like the eccentric sort of guy who could.  Rick Carlisle coached Artest in Indiana, and while I don't know the state of their relationship, it's hard to imagine the Mavs would even be pursuing Artest at all if it was all that bad.

Finally, Artest's contract situation is what makes this the optimal time to acquire him, if ever there were one.  Artest is set to make $8.5 million this season, but his contract expires at year's end. If the Mavs brought him in and he turned into a complete disaster, all they would have to do is let him walk at the end of the season and enjoy having the cap space to use elsewhere.  If they liked having Artest, well, the smart thing to do would still probably be to let the guy walk rather than playing with house money after one year of good behavior, but at least the Mavs would have the option of re-signing him after a year in town if they wanted to continue the risk.  Meanwhile, Howard's contract that pays him a guaranteed $20.8 million over the next two years would come off the books.

This Mavs team doesn't look like it's in any real rush to make a big push in the West.  Acquiring Ron Artest wouldn't necessarily make them worse on the basketball court and could have the potential of giving this team the spark of a kick in the pants.  No matter what would happen on the court, for an owner who often seems to love nothing more than creating spectacles and keeping observers captivated, Artest would certainly hold his share of attention and keep people talking, no matter how bad his behavior might be.

A crazy move for a team whose owner doesn't much seem to mind a good dose of nuttiness.  It might just be worth a shot.