Derek Fisher is one of my favorite athletes ever. If you're a Lakers fan, I'm sure I don't have to explain this to you.
Fisher's attitude is always excellent, and his personal maturity and strength of character are rare among rich and famous athletes with bloated egos. His work ethic is never questioned, and he is always willing to do whatever the team needs from him. His 3-point shooting is (usually) a huge asset to the team, and of course, the hallmark of his career on the court, his willingness to sacrifice his body – whether it be in drawing charges or diving after loose balls – is simply unmatched. He is a true leader both on and off the court, and a player that Kobe Bryant trusts implicitly, at all times.
So it may surprise some people that I'm calling for Fisher to ride the pine for the remainder of this series (though if you're a regular here, you've heard me and others calling for this for several days now).
To clarify, I expect Fisher to play a significant role in these playoffs, and if the Lakers win a championship, he will be an important part of that. The issue here, in this specific series, is that Fisher does not match up well with Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks. While Fisher has been on the court, Brooks has killed the Lakers. Not so when he's facing Jordan Farmar and Shannon "UPS Air" Brown.
With Yao Ming out and Tracy McGrady never "in," the Rockets' list of players able to create shots for themselves and for teammates is remarkably short. Ron Artest is on that list, but if the Lakers' can stay in front of him and challenge his shot, his tendency will be to settle for far too many long, difficult, contested jumpshots – a Good Thing™ for the Lakers. Which brings us to Houston's other significant offensive threat: Aaron Brooks. And Derek Fisher just isn't quick enough to guard Brooks.
Brooks can pull the string on the three-point shot, but that isn't where he poses his biggest threat, nor is it where Fisher struggles to guard him. Brooks is at his most lethal when he uses his quickness to get into the paint, either scoring on easy layups while his defender tries to catch up, or drawing the help defense and enabling him to drive and dish to open teammates for open threes or free throw line jumpers.
And this is where Fisher being on the court is a problem. To say that Derek Fisher can't keep up with Aaron Brooks may just be the understatement of the year. As much as I love Fish, quickness was never his forte, even when he was younger. And he's not "younger" anymore. Brooks has torched Fisher, blowing by him time and again, setting up shop in the paint and generally throwing the Lakers' defense completely off balance when Fisher is in.
Conversely, when Fisher has been on the bench (or in his hotel room), Brooks has struggled – particularly, as one might expect, against the equally speedy Jordan Farmar. Both Farmar and Brown have been quite adept at staying in front of Brooks and keeping him out of the heart of the defense, which has largely prevented him from scoring on easy layups or creating easy shots for his teammates.
Prior to this series, of course, Jordan Farmar had not played well in quite a long time. But Aaron Brokoks seems to have become Farmar's catalyst, creating a real need for Farmar and giving him the opportunity to deliver. He has responded well to the challenge of neutralizing Brooks, and has indeed delivered very impressive performances in Games 3 and 5. In fact, many Lakers fans are excited about Farmar's recent performance, suggesting that the pre-injury Jordan Farmar who had been such an asset off the bench might be "back."
Shannon Brown, meanwhile, has simply continued to impress. His lateral quickness is usually enough to keep up with Brooks (though Jackson likes to play Brown more when Brooks is on the bench), and he can never be accused of playing without effort or heart. On more than one occasion, he has been the only Laker on the court playing with any kind of passion or intensity.
The question in my mind, and the minds of many Lakers fans, is why Phil Jackson continues to insist on starting Derek Fisher. The last few games have shown that if the Lakers can prevent Brooks' penetration, their chances of winning the game skyrocket. While Fisher was suspended in Game 3, Farmar played Brooks to a standstill. Meanwhile, Brooks continues to light Fisher up every time he is on the court. Here is what Phil Jackson had to say about starting Fisher over Farmar in Game 4 (via Fanhouse):
"If I see there is a need to, yes," Jackson said of the possibility for increased playing time for Farmar going forward in the playoffs. "Obviously Fisher will come back and claim his spot. That's the way it is.
"Jordan's game will certainly be noted. He played a good game today. But he can play better than that, even if it was a stellar performance."
The way it is? What kind of reasoning is that? If Farmar in the starting lineup gives the Lakers a better chance at winning the game, then "the way it is" needs to change. That said, Jackson did provide a bit of an explanation as to why that is "they way it is" (via the LA Times):
"Derek's been a knockdown shooter in the playoffs for the last 10 years," he said. "He has a way of, if guys are all feeding into Kobe [Bryant] all the time and giving the ball to them and he's demanding the ball and they're [not] being able to say no, [Fisher] will go away somewhere else and get the offense started away from [Bryant] and then come back to him later in the clock."
There are two parts to this explanation. First is the idea that Fisher is a playoff-tested, knockdown shooter (especially from three-point range). The problem is that Fisher's shot has been off lately. Over the first six months of the season, Fisher shot a stellar 42.1% from long distance. But in April, he hit only 12.5% of the same shots. Against Utah, he shot a moderate 31.3%, but against Houston, he's struggling again, hitting only 11.1% of his three-point attempts.
The other part to Jackson's explanation concerns Fisher's ability to get the rest of the team involved when Kobe is itching for the ball and his teammates are too willing to give it up and watch him play. It's true that Fisher is very valuable in that way, but in this series, I'm not convinced. The Lakers are at their best against Houston when they are running, pushing the pace, getting out on the break for easy baskets. That doesn't just benefit or involve Kobe – it gets the entire team going. This starts with good defense, and there is simply nothing good about the Lakers' defense when Aaron Brooks is blowing past Derek Fisher and into the paint whenever it pleases him. Farmar's ability to pressure Brooks, and the Lakers' ability to create turnovers when Farmar is on the court, creates opportunities for the Lakers to run, get easy buckets, and get the supporting cast energized and involved. When that is happening, there is no need for Fisher to get other teammates involved – this isn't 2005, and Kobe simply doesn't dominate the ball that way when things are going well.
Combine all of this with the fact that Farmar has been excellent in the role of high paced distributor, and I see little need for a Derek Fisher that can't even dream of keeping up with Aaron Brooks, and isn't even hitting his shots right now. It's time to do what's best for the team, and put the best lineup on the floor. In this case, that is the lineup that keeps Aaron Brooks from getting into the paint and wreaking havoc – the same lineup that is so good at creating turnovers and getting out on the break for easy baskets.
It's time to put Jordan Farmar in the starting lineup and give him a chance to play big minutes. When he takes the bench, his replacement should be Shannon Brown, getting most of the remaining minutes at the point. And unless the two younger players are both really struggling in Game 6, Fisher should play very limited minutes.
I want to end with this caveat: If Jackson insists on playing Fisher significant minutes, put him in the post against Brooks. Fisher is simply way too big, and way too strong, for Brooks to have any hope of defending him in the post. While Fisher is a pretty terrible finisher in the paint on drives, he's got a significant advantage in the post. With Yao Ming out and Brooks unable to handle Fisher's size and strength advantage, Scola or Hayes will be forced to help, leaving Bynum/Gasol or Gasol/Odom open – and as we saw when Fisher posted up in Game 5, Derek will find them for easy layups.
Posting Fisher against Brooks doesn't solve the defensive problems related to having Fish in the game, but at least it can create a similar offensive advantage – perhaps enough so to force the Rockets to make an adjustment to compensate for Fisher's advantage on the court. So while I would prefer to see Farmar starting and Brown replacing him, any time Fisher spends on the court with Aaron Brooks should be spent exploiting his size advantage in the post.