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Chemistry experiment

Lakers hoping Artest addition doesn’t blow up

Phil Jackson has emphasized defense during the preseason. Phil Jackson has emphasized defense during the preseason. (Nick Ut/Associated Press
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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / October 24, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - In any other NBA city, Ron Artest would have been ostracized and chided for his revelation. In Los Angeles, his admission warmed him to his new fan base. Those late-arriving, cellphone-carrying, narcissistic Laker supporters have spent the preseason bonding with the mercurial Artest, cheering vigorously each time he approached an open shot.

And he has become one of them, essentially. On Sunday, he told a group of reporters that he has been seeing a sports psychologist, seeking solace from years of personal issues and self-loathing because of failure.

In the land of the bizarre and extraordinary, Artest is not so unusual.

The Lakers are full of personalities. The swingman married a reality television star. The coach is in a longtime relationship with the owner’s daughter. The star guard resuscitated his career after an embarrassing sexual assault allegation five years ago.

It’s L.A., where success stories are only outnumbered by comebacks and revivals. Artest is the Lakers’ lone offseason acquisition and the defending world champions hope he is the final piece for a repeat.

“We have the talent to do it and I think we’re good enough,’’ All-Star guard Kobe Bryant said. “We’re still the chaser because we’re trying to chase another championship. We’re not worried about what the other teams were doing. We weren’t worried about them last year. We were chasing after the trophy. That doesn’t change. I want another one. This year has nothing to do with last year.’’

Artest fully realizes that he is in the best situation of his career. Everywhere else he has been the chaser, playing for underdog teams trying to compete with the big boys. Now he is a starting forward on Team Big Brother, a prohibitive favorite to win again.

And at 29, he said he is mentally geared to play a secondary role and has pushed aside the selfishness that has plagued his career.

“Playing for a team that has chances to win again is really encouraging,’’ he said. “The last couple of years I was a very bad teammate. It was all me. It had nothing to do with the teams I played on. I just had a big ego and had to control it and now I’m able to control it. I still have an ego, but now I kind of have fun with it. That’s the difference now.’’

The Lakers aren’t asking Artest to score in bunches or be an enforcer. They want him to defend the opposing team’s best scorer and take pressure off Bryant. For example, when the Lakers play the Celtics, Artest, still a premium defender but not as good as a few years ago, can check Paul Pierce, leaving Bryant to defend Ray Allen.

The emphasis in Los Angeles this preseason has been on tuning up the defense, making the Lakers an even more difficult team to play because they have a strong defender in Bryant, a dirty-work player in Artest, and a shot blocker and big body in Andrew Bynum.

While the Lakers lost the athleticism and length of Trevor Ariza, who signed with the Houston Rockets with little resistance from Los Angeles, Artest provides savvy and experience, along with a bruising body that will wear down most small forwards.

The Lakers were 13th last season in points allowed but second in point differential and sixth in opponents’ field goal percentage. With Artest, the Lakers hope the defense will only improve.

“We could be very good,’’ coach Phil Jackson said. “I think we need to work on some things but we have a chance to be pretty good. We need to get more emphasis on the halfcourt and have to be prepared. But we can be a good defensive team.’’

Most of the Lakers’ primary players are in or entering their prime. And offense has never been an issue in the Bryant era. So there aren’t many factors that could derail their quest to repeat or at least make the Finals - but one could be Artest’s propensity for strange behavior. He was at the center of the Brawl at the Palace in 2004 and then demanded a trade after the Indiana Pacers supported him through his seasonlong suspension for fighting with fans.

He embraced Sacramento for a short time before asking out of there. He played well and stayed quiet in Houston, but his shooting percentage dipped to 40.1 and he became enamored with the 3-point shot. The Lakers don’t need Artest to stretch the floor or be a dominant post player. They need him to play defense, keep his head in games, and not become a distraction - which could be difficult in Los Angeles.

“I was talking to my sports psychologist and I was trying to figure out a way to stay together, not put a lot of pressure on myself,’’ he said. “When I got here, I thought it was going to be on me. Before I met everybody, I felt I really had to do it. Now that I have been around the organization and team, I realize that we’re going to do this together. Always have fun but stay hungry. Find that balance.’’

With a mentally capable Artest on board, the Lakers should sweep through the Western Conference. That is the plan.

Repeating, however, as guard Derek Fisher insisted, is difficult to do. The Lakers have to stay healthy and foster chemistry while players such as Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom lighten the load for Bryant.

A championship team is built on a precise mixture of luck, execution, and cohesiveness, and the Lakers feel they possess those attributes.

“It’s remarkable on a big-market team that you can have the chemistry that exists on this team,’’ said Fisher, the Lakers’ senior statesman at 35. “We feel fortunate but we also want to make sure we maximize it.

“A lot of guys have come back in great physical condition and with the mind-set and the approach to what our goal is. We’re in a good spot, but as you know, you still have to put the work in.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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