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Scott Howard-Cooper

A close friendship with Kobe kept Derek Fisher in L.A. and helped strengthen the Lakers spot in the West.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images

Lakers still riding high after free agency summer

Posted Jul 13 2010 9:10PM

As if they didn't infuriate you enough before.

As if you didn't burn at their Pau-Gasol-on-a-silver-platter good fortune, their Phil-Jackson-is-so-smug superiority complex, their Jack Nicholson, their Laker Girls, their damn Hollywood, and their Kobe Bryant. Of course their Kobe Bryant.

Now comes the longest victory parade in NBA memory. From the best team of 2009-10 right into the second-best team of summer'10, because the Heat are undisputed champions of July. L.A. isn't even having to take all its gains this time, as in the season. These are often just handed over.

To be a Laker the last four weeks, every day is 80 degrees with a light breeze, clear aqua skies, and nothing but open freeway ahead. They were a loss away from a ruined season, until stomping Boston in Game 6 and needing only 83 points to win the title in Game 7, the Celtics doing everything possible two times in a row to not win. All L.A. had to do that last night was walk through a door being held open. Then Phil Jackson, after saying he was leaning toward retirement, announced he was returning as coach for the attempted threepeat. Then Steve Blake signed a free-agent deal in a quick strike by general manager Mitch Kupchak. Then Derek Fisher said he would swallow hard and accept a contract at less than he thought he deserved.

As if that's not enough -- and it is -- a lot of outsiders got on board with the plan.

The Suns, a credible opponent in the Western Conference final, lost star power forward Amar'e Stoudemire, while general manager Steve Kerr and Kerr's top assistant resigned. Stoudemire went East as a free agent, to the Knicks. Phoenix counterpunched by trading for Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress in separate deals that should be finalized any day and signing free agent Hakim Warrick. But Warrick is essentially a career backup, Childress was in Europe last season and Turkoglu might as well have been, the way he wandered around as a Raptor. Anyone think the Lakers are complaining about Stoudemire out and Turkoglu/Childress/Warrick in?

The Jazz, another challenger in the West, lost star power forward Carlos Boozer. He went East as a free agent, to the Bulls. The response was very good, the swap that will deliver Al Jefferson from Minnesota for draft picks and a trade exception once it becomes official. Utah retains its front-court depth, now with Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur and Jefferson as bigs and Andrei Kirilenko and another newcomer, lottery pick Gordon Hayward, at small forward. But, bottom line, the Jazz would have preferred to re-sign Boozer rather than trade for Jefferson.

Of the top seven free agents -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Stoudemire, Boozer, and Joe Johnson -- all except Nowitzki either went East or stayed East. Kevin Durant stayed West, which is obviously a problem for the rest of the world, as the Lakers know better than anyone from the first round of the playoffs. Rudy Gay stayed West, but with the Grizzlies, a team that still can't talk about the postseason in certain terms. The biggest jump into the Lakers' neighborhood has been David Lee, and that's to the non-threatening Warriors.

"With everybody going East," Kerr said on NBA TV last week, "I'm thinking of coming back to Phoenix now."

He was kidding. Probably. But you get the idea. The East has gotten a lot more competitive -- the Heat, Bulls and Knicks should be better, the Celtics are still the defending conference champions, the Hawks are still a player, only the Cavaliers are headed for a big drop -- and the West has gotten a lot more Laker friendly.

Even the Fisher decision didn't have time to build into truly intriguing. He was coming back to the Lakers all along -- he wanted to, they wanted him to, and, most importantly, Bryant wanted him to. It felt exactly like negotiations to re-sign Lamar Odom last summer, when the talks dragged on, management sent a strong message by publicly pulling an offer off the table, and a key part of a championship-level roster returned to the fold.

This time, signing Blake, another point guard, was a fastball under Fisher's chin, but Lakers probably would have done the same thing even without their starter a free agent. Teams don't spend $16 million over four seasons, Blake's reported deal, for a purpose pitch to Derek Fisher, just as no other playoff team would spend $8 million the next two seasons to lure Fisher if only to chip away at the champions.

In the end, Fisher admitted he returned for less money than he wanted, without making the Lakers sweat very far into free agency, but return he did.

"At the end of the day, there's one person I could not turn away from," Fisher said in a statement on his web site. "Kobe Bryant asked me to stay but supported whatever decision I made. He and I have played together for 11 seasons, came into the league together as kids, and has been loyal to me even when others had doubts. We have won five championships together."

Fisher added: "I am confident I will continue to lead this team on and off the court. Let the hunt for six begin..."

It already has.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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