I’m a diehard Boston fan. I celebrate their past legends – Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson – with much joy. I follow the fluctuating fortunes of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo today much as a stockbroker would monitor his portfolio in the 24/7 era. I always think of the now demolished Boston Garden as a place of pilgrimage while Red Auerbach enjoys an uncontested, reverential place in my mind. In the last five years, my house has automatically reverberated with the cries of ‘Beat LA, Beat LA’ on the two occasions that the Celtics clashed with their traditional rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, in the NBA finals.
But I love Derek Fisher as well.
How is that possible you might ask if I pride myself on being 100 percent Celtic green? Isn’t such emotion a sign of betrayal to the fellowship of the Celtic fandom? Perhaps it is. Perhaps, I am the sporting equivalent of Julius Rosenberg.
But this is Fisher we’re talking about. The 38-year-old veteran who was traded by the Lakers franchise on deadline day in exchange for Jordan Hill, and in the aftermath of LA’s acquisition of Cleveland’s young point-guard, Ramon Sessions, has caused as much buzz as Dwight Howard’s decision to stay put in Orlando. The man’s 13 seasons with the Lakers resulted in an as many as five rings for the NBA’s most glamorous franchise. Not that Fisher was the driving force behind those championships, three of which came with Shaquille O’Neal putting up MVP numbers in the 2000, 2001 and 2002 NBA Finals while Kobe Bryant emulated O’Neal’s effort in the Lakers’ 2009 and 2010 wins.
The question, instead, that begs asking is would the Lakers have managed those triumphs without Fisher?
The answer to that, I believe, is a resounding ‘NO’. It is a response that doesn’t stem merely from the fact that LA would have struggled to win Game 4 of the 2009 Finals and Game 3 of the 2010 Finals had it not been for Fisher’s clutch plays. Late-game heroics were always part of the Fisher package, but where would the Lakers be without this Arkansas native’s leadership?
NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper wrote in this regard, “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.”
Bill Plaschke, writing for the Los Angeles Times, stated in a similar tone, “More than anyone, even Bryant, in this current organization, Fisher was the calm connection between the uncertain Lakers present and the championship Lakers past. Fisher ran the locker room. Fisher ran the bench. Fisher called the team meetings. Fisher ended the team meetings. Even when his sprint had slowed to a jog, Fisher was the quiet caretaker of the Lakers culture.”
Yet, as Plaschke noted, at the start of his article, that despite his impact on the Lakers franchise, LA chose to, “trade their soul.”
Agreed, Fisher’s numbers this season were well below his best and that LA desperately needed a young point-guard to spark head coach Mike Brown’s offensive routines. But Fisher’s story was never about the numbers. He was, at best, a solid point guard who didn’t turn the ball over much and delivered consistently under Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. Forget comparisons with Tony Parker or Steve Nash, he wasn’t even the Lakers number one option for point-guard duties when the then 35-year-old Gary Payton joined LA for the 2003-04 season. And Fisher was just 29 then.
There was, therefore, the speculation that Fisher would have been unhappy with the reduced minutes he’d get behind Steve Blake and Sessions with three point guard options opening up for LA. Howard-Cooper wrote of the Lakers’ willingness to test this situation, “A few weeks ago they [the Lakers] 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 [Fisher] 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.”
Now, five days after LA traded him, and a day after the Rockets confirmed that they waived Fisher, it certainly appears that Fisher would have been happy with the lesser role, coming off the Lakers bench. As his representative, Jamie Wior, said in the email which confirmed the Rockets buyout of Fisher’s contract that, “[the] desire to win a sixth championship is what drives him [Fisher] and will continue to drive him as he moves forward.” Clearly then, with that message placed before us, it is fair to say that the Lakers blinked.
Surely, the Lakers should have expected better of Fisher. Instead of second-guessing his unhappiness over his limited role, they should have just looked at Fisher’s recent history, where as the President of the Players’ Union, he played a pivotal role in helping the league tide past its biggest crisis, the NBA lockout of 2011. Comparatively, understanding what was expected of him in the Blake, Sessions era in LA would have been like shooting free throws for this old-timer.
And so, in a season where there is no clear winner yet, the Lakers have left a lot on the table by walking away from Fisher. Never mind his aging legs, his pedigree is well established. As of 2011, Fisher had played in 209 career playoff games, the fourth highest total in NBA history. He ranks second all time in NBA Finals three-pointers made (43), behind former teammate Robert Horry. He has the highest three-point field goal percentage in NBA Finals history (42.6%). As Sekou Smith of Hang Time Blog points out, Fisher’s experience of 537 consecutive games, tops in the league, before the trade, could come in handy for many championship contending teams including the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder. In the same article, Smith quoted Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman who makes a passionate case for the Thunder to go after Fisher by writing, “For 15 seasons, Fisher has given his teams toughness, durability, clutch shooting, lockdown defense and first-rate leadership and professionalism. The Thunder could use every one of those traits now and when the playoffs start in the near future.”
In faraway England, nearly 8500 kilometres away from the glitz of Los Angeles, Manchester United persisted with footballer Paul Scholes notwithstanding his relative decline in the last couple of years. At no point did the club force Scholes to move on despite his aging years. In January 2012, Scholes repaid that faith by deciding to come out of retirement to help United tide past their injury woes. To add to the drama, Scholes’ return has played an important part in helping United reclaim the top spot in the English Premier League standings as United vie for a record 20th title.
Sadly, the Lakers and Fisher will know of no such fairytale ending.
All stats are after games played on March 20, 2012 (IST)