This is the next in our series of Player Report Cards, in which we evaluate and assign a grade to the performance of each member of the 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers. Up today is His Intangibleness, Derek Fisher.
At some point in the middle of this past NBA season, a great man wrote, "If Derek Fisher is re-signed by the Lakers, I will burn this city to the ground." That great man was me. Here we are in late July, and not only have the Lakers re-signed Derek Fisher, but they've committed to pay him for three more years. Unless the Lakers trade him before then, which they won't, or he fails to exercise his third-year player option, which he won't, Fish will be on the Laker payroll when he's 38 years old. And yet, the city of Los Angeles still stands, unincinerated and not even a little crispy around the edges. What happened?
For one thing, I probably never intended to carry out my threat of mass devastation. I've only committed arson three or four times in my life, and it's always a pain to get the materials together. Also, I live in Los Angeles and couldn't figure out how to burn everything down while leaving my own
refrigerator box opulent home intact. The plan was flawed from the beginning.
More to the point, Game Three of the NBA Finals happened. That was the night Fish saved the Lakers' season and forced even the most committed of his detractors to revisit their criticisms of the man. Just when we were ready to give Fish his long-awaited Viking funeral and move on to the next era of Laker point guards, he pulled out another crazy act of clutchness. As a reward, he'll be hanging around until 2013 at the earliest, so in the meantime, we might as well sort out what we think of him.
Fish played in and started every game this year, whether in the regular or postseason. His minutes were down about three per game in the regular season but popped right back up in the playoffs. He played in and started every game in 2008-09 as well, and he would've done it in 2009-10 except that the league suspended him a game in the second round of the playoffs for clobbering Luis Scola. Whatever else his skill set might lack, no one can argue that Fish doesn't show up for work. The guy's indestructible.
I'll get around to lavishing praise on Fish for his Game Three manliness, but let's not forget what he was in the regular season. For over six months, his performance on the court was stupendously awful. On offense, he was asked to do little more than wait beyond the arc for Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol to find him for an open look, but when those looks came his way, he was terrible at knocking them down. His three-point accuracy, 41% two seasons ago and 40% last year, took a steep dive down to 35%. That's bad enough, but things got even uglier when he took two-point shots. According to HoopData, Fish made converted less than 60% of his attempts within 15 feet of the basket. He couldn't even get to a 40% success rate when he was literally shooting at the rim.
Far too often, Fish couldn't wait another damn second to jack up a missed shot. For a player who's spent most of his career running the Triangle offense and whose value is presumed to reside in (all together now) "intangibles," he takes a maddening number of ill-considered shots early in offensive sets. According to 82games.com, over a third of his attempts this past year came in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. Since the Lakers aren't a fast-breaky team, and the Triangle is supposed to begin with a pass into the post and only later (if at all) a pass back out to the arc, that stat is a problem. It bespeaks an alarming tendency on the part of a veteran leader to break off plays and deny touches to the likes of Pau and Andrew Bynum. When Pau and others complain that the offense needs to flow through the post more often, it's not just Kobe they're talking about.
And then there's Fisher's defense. He's never been an elite lockdown guy, to put it gently, and age is steadily sapping him of any remaining lateral mobility. When guarded by Fish, opposing point guards rang up a PER of 18.7. According to Basketball Prospectus, players to whom Fish was assigned produced offense 18% better than their usual rates. Pretty much any objective measure you want to use confirms that Fish is a serious defensive liability, which we know in any case just by watching him.
You can see, can you not, how a man might be driven by all this to threats of pyromania?
Judged as a whole, Fish's playoff performance was a mixed bag. As expected, he had big probs trying to contain Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams. On the other hand, he was decent enough guarding Steve Nash in the Western Conference Finals, and his D against the Celtics' shooting guards in the NBA Finals didn't kill the Lakers. Fish shot well against OKC in the first round, only to see his outside touch slowly desert him again. He didn't make a single three against the Celtics... until Game Seven, when he drilled both of his attempts from distance. It was an uneven postseason for Fish. More good than bad, I suppose, even if he wasn't a world-beater.
Except for that time when he was.
Hell yeah. That was the joint. In Fisher's storied history of stirring playoff moments, this was the stirringest. When everything else the Lakers were trying to do had been put on lock by the Celtics' D, Fish went balls out. He destroyed the Boston crowd and snatched back the home-court advantage that the Lakers had lost in Game Two. Honestly, I didn't think Fish had it in him. It was truly an epic "fuck you" delivered straight to the grill of people like me who'd been riding him all year.
And that, in a nutshell, is the Derek Fisher Paradox. He's not what anyone could reasonably describe as a good player. He sucks life out of the Laker offense for long stretches and can't guard anyone younger than he is, which is basically everybody. But all those maddeningly nonspecific accolades thrown his way - about his leadership and fearlessness and unique capacity to connect with Kobe as a peer - I mean... damn if he doesn't live up to all of it, often just at the moment when you're ready to dismiss him for good.
For years now, these two competing interpretations of Derek Fisher have divided Laker fans. I've come to accept that neither is completely correct. Fish isn't some mystical Gandalf figure who can make up for his physical limitations with his command of intangibles. At the same time, he's not a total sinkhole, as I've sometimes argued on this site. He's a flawed player who's nonetheless made himself a necessary component of the Lakers in their current incarnation.
Next season, one imagines, Phil Jackson will continue to scale back Fisher's minutes. He'll remain a starter, but Steve Blake will command more than the 18 minutes per game given to Jordan Farmar the last two seasons. A 25-20 split is about what we should expect. Come playoff time, though, there's no doubt Fish will be back to playing 30 a game and will be on the floor for all crunch-time possessions. Until he proves that he can no longer rise to that role, I'm willing to concede that he's deserving of it.
Player Grade: C+.
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