Derek Fisher's speech: The latest example of how his leadership helps the Lakers
With the regular season finally over, the Lakers took the day off from a full practice Thursday, but that didn't mean the team wasn't already gearing up for the postseason.
The Lakers gathered together Thursday night for a video session as preparation for the team's first-round matchup beginning Sunday against Oklahoma City. But what transpired from that session also involved a speech from Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who implored his teammates to turn around a sluggish 17-day period that included losses to New Orleans, Atlanta, San Antonio, Denver, Portland and the Clippers to close out the regular season.
"Just put all your personal stuff down," Lakers center Andrew Bynum recalled Fisher saying. "If you go out here and play basketball next to the guy alongside you, we won't make as many mistakes. We'll be able to rotate better on defense and the big thing is having each other's backs. Personal stuff, just pick that up during the summer time."
When relayed about his speech, Fisher initially expressed mild frustration that the anecdote didn't remain behind closed doors. And he didn't say much about the content of his speech other than, "I just wanted to share some things that I felt were important as we prepare ourselves for this weekend." But there's no denying the fact the Lakers saw Fisher's speech as the latest example of how his leadership presence helps the team. Regarding Fisher, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said: "It's tough to call him a glue guy because he's much more than that." Lakers forward Lamar Odom simply said, "The team meeting was cool." And Bynum went so far as saying the team's strong practice on Friday partly had to do with Fisher's speech. Said Bynum: "It got everybody's minds headed in the right direction."
Surely, Fisher enters the postseason facing many challenges. He must defend speedy Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who burned the Lakers' backcourt with an average of 22 points and 10 assists in their past two meetings against the Thunder, although he has shot below 50% in nine of the last 11 games of the season. Fisher also will play in a depleted backcourt, which will be without Sasha Vujacic indefinitely because of a severely sprained left ankle and could be limited with Jordan Farmar, who suffered a strained left hamstring during the Lakers' 106-100 victory Tuesday over the Sacramento Kings. And lastly, Fisher, 35, has just finished his 14th regular season with his lowest points-per-game average (7.5) and shooting percentage (38%) since his 2003-04 season with the Lakers, although he improved his numbers in April, averaging 8.3 points per game on 41.7% shooting.
Yet it's something like the speech he gave on Thursday that shows why Fisher, who will become a free agent this off-season, remains valuable to the Lakers. His leadership isn't always tangible as the speech. His locker-room presence isn't as scrutinized as perhaps his shooting numbers or shoddy defense. And his character isn't as quantified as the stats that are readily available after every game. Despite Fisher's struggling season, however, his presence will be an integral part during the Lakers' postseason.
Of course, the latest anecdote involving Fisher's speech is nothing new. And neither are his numbers. He became a lightning rod for criticism in the 2009 playoffs, shooting only 27.1% from three-point range heading into Game 4 of last season's NBA Finals. But teammates recognized Fisher's leadership, such as his "This is your moment" speech in Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference Finals. He also demonstrated why his on-court presence is valuable even after missing his first five shots in Game 4 against the Magic. His three-pointer with 4.6 seconds remaining in regulation instantly became one of the greatest shots in Lakers history. Fisher's second three-pointer with 31.3 seconds left clinched the Lakers victory. It also rekindled memories of his game-winning shot with 0.4 of a second left in the 2004 conference semifinals in San Antonio.
Those who criticize Fisher's on-court performance roll their eyes when supporters regurgitate the above paragraph. In one respect, I don't blame them. Having the ability to make clutch shots and accept the positive and negative consequences of taking those shots doesn't suddenly erase any of the missed shots Fisher has taken in non-clutch situations. Nor do they excuse his season-long struggle in defending young and quick point guards, as well as defending the pick-and-roll. And remember, Fisher did miss potential game-winners in an 87-86 loss Feb. 18 to Boston and in a 96-94 loss April 8 to the Denver Nuggets. Fisher also took responsibility for the Lakers' 91-88 last Sunday to Portland. But on the other respect, dismissing Fisher's clutch shots and his speeches misses the whole point.
My main argument doesn't entail Fisher's late-game shots or that he is more reliable and more experienced than the inconsistent Shannon Brown and Farmar provide off the bench. My main argument doesn't point to the fact Brown and Farmar also take ill-advised shots and struggle defending from the perimeter. And my main argument doesn't fall into the discussion that Fisher is more valuable because he fits the lesser of two evils.
Those are all legitimate points I agree with, but framing Fisher's value to the Lakers in that respect actually downgrades his importance. Fisher isn't just the better alternative that least hurts the team among the Lakers' point guards. He actually helps the team in many ways.
I understand when fans sneer at the whole leadership argument, saying it's something that sounds cliched and undefinable. But as his most recent speech demonstrated, it is definable. Bynum credited that as a significant factor into why the Lakers played so soundly in Friday's practice. That argument may lead to responses, such as, "If Fisher's so great at making speeches and inspiring the team to play hard, why haven't the Lakers played better?" Well, to nitpick, the Lakers have. Fisher was involved in an air-it-out meeting during the team's winless three-game trip in early March. Although the execution was far from perfect, the Lakers responded with a better effort in a loss against Orlando. He gave a half-time speech two days later when the team played uninspired basketball against Toronto. Though the game was essentially decided by Bryant's game-winner, the team credited Fisher's discussion as laying the foundation for a better second half.
I do understand the argument, however, that speeches don't suddenly lead to consistent success. And as a society we've become so numb to sports cliches and rousing speeches that they often seem nothing more than empty words fit for a sports movie. But the issue isn't that Fisher speaks eloquently. It's more that these speeches represent a larger picture in how effective he is at relaying the coaching staff's message and taking a measured approach in ensuring that mindset stays in the locker room.
"I've learned a lot from Phil over the years in terms of trying to give guys space to be who they are and recognizing things on their own," Fisher said when asked to outline how he approaches his leadership role when the postseason begins. "But at the same time, say things that need to be said at the time they need to be said. Guys, their ears go up and their eyes lock in and they hear it better when it's something that they don't hear all the time. This year, in particular, I've tried to be respectful of the fact that the season is long and you can't harp on guys to be perfect 100-plus games out of the year and think we're going to play this great basketball all the time."
Again, there may be some who reads these examples and conclude that this doesn't demonstrate how Fisher serves value to the team, but rather demonstrates why Fisher would be a good coach someday. Fisher certainly would be a good candidate whenever he finishes his basketball career, a sentiment he acknowledged recently to ESPN Los Angeles' Andy and Brian Kamenetszky. But this argument has many flaws.It doesn't equate the dynamic on how a team operates. The head coach and the assistant coaching staff generally set the tone and lay out the message they want conveyed to their players. But for that message to fully translate to the team, that message requires certain players to reiterate it for the rest of their teammates. This is often necessary just because of human nature. Athletes in all sports after a while tend to tune out a coach. This isn't necessarily because the player is showing disrespect toward the coach, although that can become a factor, but because the same voice and repetitive message can often become numbing. Players often view teammates in a different light than a coaching staff because they know they're mostly experiencing the same frustrations and grind through a demanding schedule. And they also know that any sentiments shared in the locker room won't be scrutinized as heavily as perhaps a coach would perceive it.
In the Lakers' case, Bryant reiterates Jackson's message by giving a full effort every night, displaying his amazing skill set and chewing out teammates if necessary. Odom demonstrates it with his down-to-earth demeanor and willingness to embrace a jack-of-all-trades role. And Fisher showcases it with his championship experience, his enthusiasm in fulfilling a team exercise such as sporting a playoff beard and being available most times to the media. This isn't about Fisher being media friendly or well-spoken to reporters, either. The importance of that task entails the fact that it relieves possible scrutiny from other players, while also leaving himself vulnerable to endless questions about his own performance as well as the team itself.
Then there's a whole other issue, one that's even more defined because many, including myself, aren't fully aware of what goes on behind closed doors. An anonymous NBA player in a recent issue of ESPN The Magazine brought up another point about Fisher's value to the team. In the article, the player mentions Fisher's name in passing as a guy who helps steer players away from trouble. Surely, there are times he has helped prevent potential problems, and I'm talking about ones that could threaten the locker room. For all the struggles the Lakers have experienced this season, there hasn't really been much drama. You can surely bet part of that has to do with Fisher's leadership.
Of course, the value Fisher brings in this respect may be offset with Oklahoma City overwhelming the Lakers' backcourt, or Fisher shooting poorly from the field. But there's no denying he'll still be helpful to the team along the way. And fortunately, for Fisher's sake, the Lakers fully understand and embrace the way his leadership leaves an imprint on the team.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers guard Derek Fisher has his knees wrapped in ice during the fourth quarter of Tuesday's game. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.