Something strange happened during Metta World Peace’s four years with the Lakers. As he regressed as a basketball player but progressed as a person, becoming one of the likable guys in the league with his goofy personality and willingness to speak out on issues like mental health, I liked him more and more as a complete player, even as every one of his individual skills got worse and worse.
It’s difficult to explain. World Peace was nothing like the Ron Artest who was once the best defender in the league and capable of being a team’s best offensive player. He no longer possessed any vertical, meaning the rim blocked him on layups, if not a 7-footer. When he started dribbling every fan expected something terrible to happen, something truly awful, which, once you’d seen it, meant the game could never be the same. I was pleasantly surprised if he’d make both free throws. Small forwards could blow past him more than you’d think. His post moves consisted of bullying his way into the lane, like a 50-year-old playing against his 8-year-old son, except with less success around the basket. The jumper was iffy — there one game, gone the next six. Yet I enjoyed the Metta World Peace Era.
A great sense of timing makes up for a lot.
When Metta replaced Trevor Ariza on the 2010 Lakers, they lost speed and athleticism but gained someone who could hold off Paul Pierce and his large rump, something LA didn’t have in the 2008 Finals. Those 2008 Finals ended in a strange way, with Boston routing the Lakers in Game 6 and World Peace visiting Kobe Bryant in the showers to say that one day he’d like to help him win a title. He spent the next year in Houston — and went after Kobe after Bryant elbowed him in the throat under the basket — but eventually found his way West. Metta didn’t have that many memorable moments his final three years with the Lakers; the play most people will remember was another ugly incident, when he elbowed James Harden in the head and got suspended for the start of the 2012 playoffs.
But two plays in 2010 made him a part of Lakers lore — the strangest part, no doubt. In Game 5 of the WCF, in a 2-2 series, he rebounded a Bryant miss and hit a short shot at the buzzer to give the Lakers the win over the Suns in a series they finished off in six. Then, in Game 7 of the Finals, he capped a 20-point, five-rebound, five-steal game with a 3-pointer to put the Lakers up six late against the Celtics. When players like Michael Jordan and LeBron James eventually won titles — Shaq too, after some early failures in his career — they treat it more like a relief than anything else. There probably has never been a more joyful champion than Metta.
That was it for titles, for the Lakers and Metta. A few months after the Mavericks humiliated the Lakers in a sweep in 2011, I saw World Peace play in the Dyckman league, during the summer of the NBA’s lockout. Metta didn’t look like the one NBA player on the court, not with his awkward jumper, occasionally slow feet and the time, yes, he got blocked by the rim on a breakaway layup. But every few minutes he’d become interested and then you saw the NBA player, as he bullied his defender and the man he guarded, guiding them with his one hand while effortlessly moving his feet. It was fun watching him up close in that environment, a few feet away during a New York summer evening, even if he looked nothing like someone who could help a team contend for an NBA title.
Last year, as the Lakers floundered, World Peace at least seemed to care, something that couldn’t always be said for some of his teammates. Or maybe it just looked like he was trying harder because he can no longer make the game look effortless in the way the greats always do.
Still, it was time for him to leave LA and return East, back to his New York home. Can he help the Knicks beat the Heat, or even the Nets? It seems unlikely. I can already picture LeBron beating him on the baseline for a powerful dunk while Metta looks at J.R. Smith, bewildered. But everything about Metta is unlikely at this point, because he’s unlike any other player in the league.