by Matt Caputo

Ron Artest can have the best year of his career if he wants to. Sometimes people forget that he was well on his way in 2004 before the brawl ended his season. That move earned him an immediate slot on almost every NBA observers shit list and it’s taken a while to bounce back from. The 73 games (plus Playoffs) he missed as a result, came at a time when he was averaging the best numbers of his career. Now, after needing three years to bounce back, Artest has resurfaced as a Houston Rocket and might be at the most important juncture of his NBA career.

He didn’t lead his team in any categories last night in the Rockets victory over their in-state rival Dallas Mavericks, but Artest proved to be sharp on his feet and serious about winning. His new team needs a player who can put them over the edge in the Playoffs, and after a bit of a banishment to Sacramento, Artest may be in the best position he’s ever been in to make such an impact in the League.

If Artest’s performance last night is any indication of the long-term effects, Houston will be earning royalties long after they’ve played the initial 82. He’s a problem in the paint that few cats want to fool with, and he can step out and shoot the ball a little better these days, too. While Artest’s numbers aren’t always eye-popping, but he’s the intimidating force on the floor that Houston hasn’t had since Sir Charles and even he was well past his prime. As arguably the league’s best defender and steadily improving scorer, Artest can ignite the Rockets and launch them deep into the outer reaches of the playoffs for the first time since the 1996-97 season. Artest’s floor presence alone is strong enough to improve the Rockets, but there is still too much basketball to be played and the test of time is still to come.

Since his relocation to Texas became official, Artest has been noted for being more focused on the game. He spent the entire summer paving-out a second playing legacy on the NYC summer hoops circuit and was excited for the season to start as early as late-June. The key for Artest away from the court is to spend more time thinking about the game itself and avoid distractions. Artest’s rap album, Penthouse Magazine cover and random jersey numbers have all added to his colorful character, but have probably gotten in the way of his development since the suspension.

In Houston, Artest has a team that is confident in him. After last night’s minor scuffle with the Mavericks, one in which Artest earned a technical, his teammates weren’t caught off guard. They realize that they’ve filled a void in their line-up and Artest does too.

”Ron’s a very good teammate,” Yao told the Associated Press after last night’s 112-102 win in Dallas. ”That happened (shoving match) once in the preseason and he did the same thing. He’s trying to help a teammate, sacrificing himself.”

If there were ever a time for Ron Artest to be serious about his game it’s now and he knows it. This Houston team is the most talented club he’s ever been on and on paper it’s hard to point-out many weaknesses. Along with being the Rocket’s best addition, he also becomes their biggest liability. Saying that, it’s Artest who has the power to keep himself healthy both mentally and physically. While coming to the Rockets has been empowering, it’s up to Artest to maximize the potential in the opportunity. The choice is his.