Mar 14, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers point guard Derek Fisher (2) dribbles upcourt against the New Orleans Hornets in the second half of their game at the New Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-US PRESSWIRE
The art of evolution is a cold and painful process. Every organism moves ceaselessly down a one way path from conception to death fulfilling the same purpose: to propagate and grow the species, to leave it stronger than it was before. They live to create the next generation of life, and die to make way. To do so, to fulfill the life cycle, is to survive, not as an individual entity, but as a collective. The participants in this process are blissfully unaware of the universe's ulterior motive. They all think, insomuch as a bacteria or plant or bird or pig can think, that their contribution to the survival of the species matters. They are almost all wrong. As a species carries on, the world around it changes. And for every hundred, thousand, million members of the species that follow the path, the only ones that truly matter are the ones that emerge just a little bit different, just a little bit better prepared to deal with that ever-changing world. Think about the ruthless nature of that process. A million "lives" lived in the same manner, towards the same purpose, but only a handful actually make a difference.
People call evolution a science, but it's not. Understanding evolution is a science. Piecing together through observation and research and theory how evolution has manifested itself throughout the world's history is a science. But the actual event, those millions of life cycles that, in reality, mean nothing, so that a stark few can succeed, is more representative of a painting, with each stroke of the brush meaning nothing until the final stroke creates a masterpiece. That's evolution, each stage of it another masterpiece built upon the "meaningless" efforts of the brushstrokes that came before.
But humanity has changed the game. First, through general self-awareness, then through awareness of the game itself, humans now understand that evolution exists, and can interpret the lessons taught by it. We know that evolution is necessary to survival, and so the time frame of that evolution has changed. We're no longer all just peas in a pod trying to survive the species, not knowing that one amongst us all carries the genetic code that will allow our progeny to thrive. Instead, we all fight a personal battle to continue evolving so that we can thrive as individuals. The battle of evolution no longer takes place over eons. Now it happens over a single lifetime. In that context, the context of modern human society, evolution is a science, but it doesn't make it any less cold or painful. Just ask Derek Fisher.
Derek Fisher is no longer a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, and the reason is simple. The Lakers, as they have done constantly over their 60-plus years of existence, are evolving. The Lakers franchise is the most consistently successful team in the league's history, and their willingness to evolve from one phase to the next is the main reason why. In the 70s, that meant trading for the biggest names in the league, utilizing their location and ability to pay big bucks as primary selling points. In the 80s, it was making shrewd trades to acquire great draft picks (along with a healthy dose of luck). In the mid-90s, they did both at the same time. Then, midway through the last decade, the Lakers pulled the plug on the Shaq-Kobe union early, despite the team having gone to four NBA finals in five years. They traded Shaq for young assets and draft picks, and started rebuilding on the fly. They were one of the first teams to take advantage of the concept of expiring contracts in trading Kwame Brown, who had no value as a player, for Pau Gasol. Have the Lakers been extremely lucky over the years? Yes. Have they had intrinsic advantages in location and team budget that allowed them to game the system? Sure. But they've also been smarter than any other team, and a big part of that smarts is evolving as the world around them changes.
On November 26th, 2011, the world around the Lakers changed. When the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed by both players and owners, with a significantly stronger luxury tax that is especially punitive to teams that stay over the tax threshold year after year, executing a long term plan for the Lakers to come under that luxury tax became a significant priority, perhaps even of greater importance than allowing the current version of the Lakers to compete for those all-important rings we root for each year. But the Lakers don't exist in a world where it's OK to ignore team success. The team they started the season with was not good enough to win a championship, so they needed to improve. But the second master, that imposing luxury tax penalty, prevented them from going about business in the same way they had in previous years. Now, the Lakers needed to get better AND get cheaper, and that's a pretty tough bit of business to achieve.
They nearly hit a home run right off the bat by trading for Chris Paul. Hell, they did hit a home run, only for it to be ruled a foul ball by a crooked umpire. The fallout forced the Lakers' hand in moving Lamar Odom, and given the choice between getting a like player and saving money (while creating flexibility), the Lakers chose money. Now, they've made two trades at the trade deadline, and both cases involve the Lakers improving the quality of their team AND saving money while doing so. The cost is future draft picks, but the Lakers are very much in a position, with three big stars and three big salaries, where they need to win now, so draft picks don't help much. The other cost, the real cost, is leadership, and moxie, and veteran experience, and locker room presence. The real cost is Derek Fisher.
As a basketball player, Derek Fisher is terrible. Only three other players who consistently start for their teams provide as little, statistically, as Derek provided to the Lakers, and, with the possible exception of Raja Bell, all the others partially justify their performance with strong defense. Derek Fisher has no such justification. He's a sieve on defense and one of the most ineffective starters in the league on offense. And he's the only player in the league who could be a positive influence on his team even in those circumstances.
I love Derek Fisher. It's nearly impossible not to. The clutch shots are amazing, the big moments are fantastic, the memories of championships won are sublime, but I love Fish because he is the definition of doing it right. He, not Kobe Bryant, is the Anti-LeBron, the guy who made an entire career out of little more than hard work, perseverance, and belief in self. It is nearly impossible to find a 15-year veteran who is smaller, less athletic and less talented than Derek Fisher, and if you find that insulting, you don't know Fish. It is also impossible to find a 15-year veteran who is less pretentious or less selfish, and you can bet those last two qualities are related to the first three. Derek Fisher is one of the worst basketball players in this league, and yet there isn't a player in the league who doesn't respect him. Derek Fisher's stats barely register in the annals of history, but there is no way he will ever be forgotten.
Which brings us back to the cold reality of the situation. We wouldn't have to worry about forgetting Fish if he weren't gone, and he is gone because none of his best qualities can be displayed on the basketball court. Everything that he brought to the table, the leadership, the moxie, the confidence, it's all a luxury the Lakers can no longer afford. That's why, given the opportunity to pick up a player like Ramon Sessions, the Lakers had to pull the trigger. That's why, with an uneven distribution of talent on the roster (i.e. no effective bigs to spell Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol), the Lakers had to take an opportunity to turn one of their three point guards into a backup big man. That's why, with Fisher the odd man out in terms of point guard playing time, the Lakers had to send him packing. The Lakers are doing what they need to do, evolving with the NBA landscape to give themselves the best opportunity for present success and future survival.
Derek Fisher is just an innocent victim. As cold and unfeeling as it is, may it be just one more brushstroke in the creation of another masterpiece.