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Los Angeles Lakers: New Piece of the Puzzle Just Doesn't Fit

Eric Ball@@BigLeagueEballFeatured ColumnistMarch 25, 2010

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 19:  Ron Artest #37 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots over Al Jefferson #25 of the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 19, 2010 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Last year's magical run left Laker fans spoiled. No major riffs between players, no lapse in effort, and every player knew their role and embraced it.

This year's squad just isn't the same.

Kobe Bryant is the same dude. He can put up 25 in his sleep. He knows exactly what it takes to win and has the determination and drive to do it. I loved hearing that he worked on his post moves all summer with Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon.

He knows he doesn't have the lift he used to when he was posterizing players left and right. Bryant's game is still just as effective with mid-range jumpers, fade-aways, and up-and-unders. He epitomizes the way an aging super-star should play.

He isn't the problem. Neither is Lamar Odom. His rebounding off the bench kills opposing second teams. He is averaging just under 10 boards in addition to his 10 points a game on 46 percent shooting. While Mr. Kardashian may have grabbed a few headlines in the offseason, he has been all business this season.

How about Pau Gasol? His numbers don't lie...17 points and 11 rebounds a game is nothing to sneeze at. His impressive 53 percent shooting shows that his shot selection has been superb. No problems with Mr. Gasol.

The emergence of Andrew Bynum has been fun to watch. He went from an 18-year-old softy to a legit third-banana on a Championship-caliber team. Problem is, he still can't shake the injury bug that has plagued him his entire career. A healthy Bynum is a necessity for the 2010 Lakers run.

Will he be healthy? That's the $100,000 question.

And the million dollar question? The one and only Ron Artest.

The man can play, that's obvious. He used to be the best defender in the entire NBA. Today he is still in the Top 10.

Problem is, Artest can't seem to find his comfort level in Phil Jackson's triangle offense. Watching him out there makes me think he doesn't understand the basic ball-moving concepts of the offense, thus disrupting the flow.

He makes bad decisions on the fast break and makes a few plays a game that leave you scratching your head. You get the sense that he is desperately trying to fit in, but it's almost April and he has yet to do so.

"With Ron, there's a little synapse there, a little delayed reaction," Coach Jackson said. "That's just Ron, regardless. All the guys have had to get used to it."

Trevor Ariza was the perfect fit due to his on-the-ball quickness and good decision making. Artest hasn't shown those two qualities.

Ariza was fit nicely into the puzzle, while Artest is trying to cram into a space that just doesn't connect to the other pieces of the puzzle.

Artest even admits as much.

"He probably is," Artest said. "He's a role player, a great role player. I haven't been a role player. Many times I've had to carry the load, this is a different look for me."

And it's frustrating to watch. He is trying to shed the crazed image he created and groomed over the years. He has been a model citizen amidst the madness that is L.A. But for whatever reason, he just doesn't fit this Lakers team.

All is not lost. I think Artest still has the opportunity to figure it all out. But the window is closing as the playoffs are fast approaching.

Bynum needs to get healthy fast. Artest needs to figure things out. If both occur, we have defending World Champs on our hands.

If not, the parade will be in Denver or Cleveland this year.

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