EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The NBA's most combustible player has made headlines for brawling, criticizing his coach, being taken to task by his teammates, and, most recently, for alleged mistreatment of his dogs.

Yet beyond all the controversy that seems to accompany Sacramento Kings forward Ron Artest, he is having an impressive season - even if his team has not done the same.

Artest will lead the Kings into tonight's game at the Wachovia Center against the 76ers.

Sacramento's record is 24-31 after a 110-93 victory in Indiana last night. Artest missed the game for personal reasons, a team official said. Darrin May, the Kings' director of media relations, said he was expected to play tonight.

While the Kings have sputtered this season, the 6-foot-7 Artest has been a dominating presence on both ends of the court. He is averaging 18.7 points and 6.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.3 steals. And Artest remains among the league's best defenders.

"He's been great," Kings coach Eric Musselman said after a 109-96 loss to the New Jersey Nets Friday at Continental Airlines Arena.

This is coming from a coach who Artest hasn't exactly seen eye-to-eye with. Earlier this season, Artest talked publicly about missing former coach Rick Adelman.

Even now, Artest gives Musselman grudging respect when talking about his performance.

"Coach is doing a lot better job of that as the season goes on," Artest said. "Early on, I was disappointed on how we were playing, but as the season goes on Musselman is getting more accustomed to how to deal with the players."

Now with his third NBA team after stints in Chicago and Indiana, Artest, 27, hasn't been the easiest player to deal with at times. But nobody plays harder.

"Most of my problems, besides the incident in Detroit, have come after a loss," he said. "I'm able to deal with it better now, but I definitely don't want to get used to losing."

Artest was referring to the brawl in Auburn Hills, Mich., when he was the central figure in the Indiana Pacers' fight with the Detroit Pistons and fans on Nov. 19, 2004.

He was suspended for the rest of the season after playing in only seven games. Artest, who was traded to the Kings in January 2006, says it took longer than he anticipated to shake off the rust from the long layoff.

"It's coming back now, but it really took a while," he said. "You take a year off from playing ball and it takes a year and a half to two years to get it back."

Even this year, Artest says he hasn't been playing at 100 percent. He says he has been hampered by injuries to his back, hip and knee.

His teammates have not noticed any drop-off in his play.

"He's been playing both ends of the court, always guards the best perimeter player, and we run our offense through him," said Kings guard John Salmons, the former Sixer who will play his first NBA game as an opponent at the Wachovia Center. "He's definitely been great all year."

Still, there have been criticisms, especially earlier in the year from some teammates who questioned Artest's shot selection.

"Even some of my teammates are saying, 'Artest is taking wild shots,' " Artest said. "Those are shots I take. I practice those shots. . . . When I get healthy, next year I'm going to have a hell of a season if I stay injury-free."

Staying controversy-free is another matter.

Earlier this month, Placer County, Calif., animal-services officers removed Artest's dog, Socks, claiming the Great Dane was not being taken care of properly. According to the Sacramento Bee, there have been several complaints against Artest for mistreatment of pets.

"Sometimes you make mistakes - and it was a mistake, a correctable mistake," said Artest, who added that he would be getting the dog back. "I had a fence and they kept escaping and that triggered everything. I was very hurt because I love my dogs and they wanted to take my dogs from me."

What can never be taken away is his belief that he's among the elite players in the NBA.

"I should be there [as an all-star] every year," Artest said. "There isn't a better defender in the league than me, and I can score also."

He can also make headlines with the best of them, on and off the court.

Contact staff writer Marc Narducci at 856-779-3225 or mnarducci@phillynews.com.