EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- If you ask the Los Angeles Lakers' Ron Artest, the biggest NBA signing of the summer wasn't LeBron James leaving Cleveland to go to Miami as a free agent; it was Kevin Durant extending his contract with the Thunder to stay in Oklahoma City.
"He's the second best player in the NBA," Artest said of Durant, ranking the youngest scoring champion in league history behind only teammate Kobe Bryant.
"Kobe's got five rings, six game winners [last season], 23-straight points in [Game 5 of the Finals] off mostly jump shots," Artest elaborated. "[He's] the biggest shot maker, big shot maker. So, that said, Durant's the second best player in the NBA."
When asked where James ranks on his list, Artest excluded the back-to-back MVP from consideration.
"I only count to two," Artest said. "I've been out of school for 10 years, so I only count to two."
The 15-year guard said his first reaction to the South Beach signings was, "Wow. How did Pat Riley pull that [expletive] off?"
Bryant acknowledged the Heat's potential to be "great" but added that when the Big Three materialized in Miami in the middle of the summer, his thoughts remained with himself and his team.
"I said I've got to get my knee healthy, that's what I said," Bryant added.
Artest's praise of Durant echoes a recent statement made by the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard. During a radio interview with Sports Illustrated's Dan Patrick, Howard was asked who is better, Durant or James? "I'm gonna go with Kevin," replied Howard.
Artest's respect for Durant's abilities on the offensive end has influenced the former Defensive Player of the Year's diet. The Lakers starting small forward has vowed to abstain from alcohol during the season and is putting in extra work to try to get his weight down to 245 pounds by the time Los Angeles could face the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Durant in the playoffs.
"He was a hard cover for me last year," Artest said. "I had to spend a lot of extra energy carrying extra pounds, so this should at least give me more of a chance to run around [guarding him]."
Artest weighs less than 260 pounds now after coming into training camp at 268 a year ago.
"I was a little bit afraid [Durant] would average 40 on me if I came in 270 [again]," Artest said.
When informed by a member of the media that Durant actually shot well below his normal percentage in the first round of the playoffs with Artest marking him primarily (35 percent in the postseason vs. 47.6 percent during the regular season), Artest acted surprised.
"Wow ... good job, Ron," he said.
After admitting last weekend that, "when we get to the championship I'll worry about the big weight guy later, LeBron," like Bryant, Artest was not ready to coronate the Heat on Thursday.
"You never know," Artest said. "Boston got [Shaquille] O'Neal and [Jermaine] O'Neal ... Dallas, they're looking good. And Kevin Durant, don't forget about Kevin Durant."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten.