Forgotten Piece Of Lakers' Puzzle
On the day the Los Angeles Lakers completed a trade for Pau Gasol, Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams expressed his disappointment in the Memphis Grizzlies.
"Why did they do that to us?" Williams said, laughing. "Trade him to the East."
Gasol finally makes his much-anticipated debut for the Lakers tonight in New Jersey. While Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan thought the Gasol trade was significant in shaking up the Western Conference, he added that the Lakers made a more critical move over the summer - when they signed Derek Fisher.
"When you look at the whole thing, we lost a very good player from our team who went to the Lakers," Sloan said of Fisher, who helped him get to the conference finals last season for the first time since he had John Stockton and Karl Malone. "He gave us 10, 11 years [of experience]. You can't replace that sometimes."
No, Fisher is not and has never been an all-star caliber player. He didn't lift the Lakers back into the rock star status the team had when Shaquille O'Neal was in Los Angeles. He's averaging 12.3 points and 3 assists - stats that won't blow away anyone - but his impact on the Lakers cannot be ignored. "It's really helped us become a strong ball club," Kobe Bryant said.
For one, Fisher, the president of the NBA Players' Association, has brought an attitude of professionalism to the team. Two, Fisher has brought the stability and steady hand to the point guard position that Smush Parker never could.
"His leadership is a prime factor for us," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "He knows all the little things that have to be done. He can see the shortcomings and he doesn't get frustrated about it. Therefore, the rest of the guys don't get anxious. That kind of an attitude works wonders for teams. He fits in extremely well."
More importantly, his friendship with Bryant - cultivated as they shared the first eight years of their careers together - cannot be diminished, especially after Bryant spent so much of the offseason and training camp obsessing for a trade. At the end of the day, Bryant doesn't care who is teammates are as long as he is winning, but Fisher has re-assumed his role as sounding board for Bryant, giving him a teammate he can trust; one with whom Bryant won three championships in the early part of this decade.
And finally, you can never overlook winning and experience. Bryant has lost in the first round to Phoenix the past two years. Fisher has never been on a team that failed to win a playoff round with the exception of two years in Golden State, when the Warriors didn't make the playoffs under Coach Mike Montgomery (is that really Fisher's fault?). Fisher has been the conference finals five times and the NBA Finals four times.
When Fisher rejoined the Lakers after a three-year break this summer, he knew that he'd have to help relieve Bryant from some of the leadership responsibilities that overburdened him after the championship Lakers were broken up.
He sat down with Bryant for lunches to get a feel for the makeup and personalities of the team. Fisher said he and Kobe never discussed his trade demand or the need for Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak to get Jason Kidd, Jermaine O'Neal, or even Gasol to become a legitimate contender.
"There wasn't much talk about, 'We should do this.' Or, 'Go tell Mitch this is what we should do,' " Fisher said. "We weren't sitting back waiting on something to happen to become one the best teams in the league. We set out at the start of the season to become that."
The Jazz agreed to release Fisher from the final three years and $21 million of the contract he originally signed with the Golden State Warriors so that he could concentrate on treating his infant daughter, Tatum, who has rare condition called retinoblastoma, a form of cancer, in her left eye.
Fisher's memorable heroics during Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals became a national story, as he returned from his daughter's surgery in New York to help the Jazz defeat the Warriors. He said doctors recommended six or seven cities for her care, and Salt Lake City was not one of them.
"D-Fish meant a lot to this team, mentally, emotionally, and he was a great player. For us to lose somebody like that has been really tough," said Williams, whose Jazz team struggled before this latest run of nine wins in a row put them back atop the Northwest Division.
Fisher said his return to Los Angeles - he signed a three-year, $14 million deal last July - was the result of "unfortunate circumstances." But it is still the source of controversy in Salt Lake City, where some Jazz fans believe Fisher used his daughter's illness to weasel out of a place he didn't want to be. Fisher was stunned to receive boos when he returned for his first game back there last December.
"I enjoyed the one year in Utah, playing with those guys," Fisher said. "It felt great to experience it because of how great the team is. We all enjoyed the ride together because we respected one another. We all appreciated each others strengths and weaknesses. And we really went out there every night, not without any plans on how we were going to win the game. The goal was just to win the game."
Fisher didn't know what to expect when he signed with the Lakers, but he had a hunch. "I felt like we had a chance to be pretty good, even with the personnel we had at the beginning of the season," Fisher said. "But there were so many unknowns. Nobody knows at the time Andrew Bynum is going to be playing at almost an all-star level. Nobody knows Jordan Farmar would emerge as one of the best role playing guards in the league. The development of those two guys, along with everything else we were able to build around here, it's really changed the perception of our team."
And now, with Gasol? "It makes things, obviously, for us, feel great," Fisher said.
It's a little ironic that Gasol makes his debut in New Jersey, where all-star point guard Jason Kidd serves as a reminder of how the Lakers' situation has come full circle. They came close to acquiring Kidd at the trade deadline last season, and Kupchak's refusal to include Bynum in the deal sent Bryant over the edge.
Bryant had that angry rant to trade Bynum (good thing Mitch didn't move him) and later demanded a trade (good thing Mitch didn't move him) because he didn't believe the franchise was trying to win championships anymore.
Bryant's desire to have Kidd was understandable since the Lakers sorely needed a point guard and Kidd is one the best to ever play the position. When asked if the Lakers needed to make another deal (perhaps for Kidd?) before the deadline, Bryant joked, "I let Mitch handle that stuff. I stopped playing GM in the summer."
Fisher is no Kidd, but he has been exactly what the Lakers needed.
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