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Scott Howard-Cooper

Derek Fisher's leadership will be harder for the Lakers to replace than his on-court production.
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Impact of Fisher trade will be felt more off court than on

Posted Mar 16 2012 1:10AM

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- General manager Mitch Kupchak used words like "emotional toll" and "somber" and said he was concerned the Lakers may have just invited chemistry issues. It was that kind of day.

Derek Fisher had just been traded to the Rockets, and there was a lot to consider. The shock value, of course. No one saw this coming. After all Fisher was Kobe Bryant's most-trusted teammate ever and a calming presence amid the traveling circus that is the Lakers. Then there's the history. A prominent role on five championships isn't simply brushed aside no matter how many fans have spent years screaming for a replacement point guard.

It's how Kupchak could have such a successful trade-deadline, addressing the pressing roster weakness while shedding bad money at the cost of just one rotation player, and still leave everyone wondering if this really just happened.

It speaks to Fisher's presence as one of the unique Lakers of all-time. They needed a change at point guard, most everyone outside the Fisher house knew it, the Ramon Sessions candidacy as successor had been out there for weeks, and yet it still seemed strange.

Fisher was sent to Houston (along with the first-round pick L.A. acquired from Dallas in the Lamar Odom trade) for reserve power forward Jordan Hill, but, really, Fish was a goner no matter what. As soon as they finalized Sessions and Christian Eyenga from the Cavaliers for Luke Walton, Jason Kapono and a first-rounder, the Lakers knew the incumbent would be traded. A deal that would have sent Fisher to the Timberwolves along with Jamal Crawford in a three-team swap with the Trail Blazers, with Michael Beasley landing in Los Angeles and the Mavericks No. 1 in Portland, was very close to happening before Minnesota management waved it off at the last moment. So it was off to Houston instead.

The Lakers saved money, but also knew they had no need for three point guards (with Steve Blake) and that Fisher wouldn't be happy in a reserve role. A few weeks ago they might have seen how the situation played out, but this was the final minutes before the deadline. There was no chance to step back and gauge if he would accept backup duty in exchange for being able to stay in town, and they didn't want to put him -- or themselves -- through months of finding out instead.

"It crossed our minds, but I know he would have been professional," Kupchak said of Fisher possibly struggling in the new role. "Personally, I think it would have been a tough position to put a player like that in."

A player like that. There has been no one like him in franchise history, the way Fisher went from unknown out of Arkansas Little Rock in the 1996 draft with Bryant to become a valuable leader and clutch contributor to title runs, the way he forged a historic place in the franchise without any statistical greatness.

At the Thursday press conference at the practice facility to discuss his busy day, Kupchak was asked whether jersey No. 2 should be retired in tribute. Kupchak gave the appropriately diplomatic answer, that he hadn't thought about it before but that Fisher deserved consideration. In truth, it's the longest of long shots. The wall inside Staples Center is reserved for Hall of Famers or automatic inductees merely passing time before the required five-year waiting period passes. If Fisher goes up, then Michael Cooper should be in play, and Byron Scott, and maybe Kurt Rambis.

That Fisher is talked about among the truly important players in franchise history is amazing. His emotional role was that big, especially as Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were setting fire to the locker room. Bryant relied on him, and Kobe doesn't rely on anybody. Phil Jackson trusted him and stayed with Fisher in the starting lineup no matter how bad the shooting percentage got, usually getting paid back by Fisher heroics in the playoffs.

There is none of that anymore, even with the Lakers in win-now mode. Another popular teammate, Odom, was dealt in December, and now the roster has been rocked again, a fact that no one will try to hide once they gather again today following the off day. Bryant's comments will be analyzed, but he already set the tone by canceling a previously scheduled radio interview on a Los Angeles station minutes after the Rockets trade had become public.

"I'm concerned, yeah," Kupchak said of the uncertain chemistry ahead. "I'm not sure that it will translate into a team that performs any less. And I would expect that most circumstances like this, as time goes on ... it'll get easier and easier. But you can't (overestimate) Derek's contribution from a chemistry point of view and on the court that he's given to this organization. It can't be (overestimated) and you can't say this team is going to wake up tomorrow and play as if he was never here. That's the tough part about a general manager job, making that decision along with ownership's decision and support in making a move like that.

"When you lose someone like him, there's going to be a void or a vacuum that exists for X amount of days. Hopefully as each day passes it gets less and less. I would hope somebody steps up. Certainly a lot will fall to Kobe, and what doesn't fall to Kobe will fall to our coach. At the end of the day, the coach is the leader in the locker room."

At the end of this one, Fisher wasn't anymore. And one of the most unique careers in a Lakers uniform appeared to be over.

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

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