What would have happened if Derek Fisher left the Lakers last season for the Miami Heat?
Awaiting Derek Fisher at a Miami airport stood LeBron James, who had just days earlier announced in a one-hour "Decision" that he'd be taking his talents to South Beach.
Now the Heat wondered if Fisher, a five-time NBA champion with the Lakers, would be willing to do the same. Fisher was only three weeks removed from helping the Lakers secure their second consecutive NBA championship with his bread-and-butter qualities, including team leadership and clutch shots, and he hoped that would give him enough capital to secure a multi-year deal with the Lakers.
Instead, he had been left wondering his literal value as a free agent to the Lakers. Multiple reports, including those from The Times' Broderick Turner, indicated the Lakers didn't want to pay Fisher any more than $2.5 million for one season, a decline from the $5.048 million he had been making in the Lakers' 2009-2010 championship season. So there Fisher sat in a swank South Beach hotel hearing Heat owner Micky Arison and Team President Pat Riley make their case on why Fisher should join the newly assembled "Super Team."
Nothing ever came of that meeting. Fisher flew back to Los Angeles less than 24 hours after landing in Miami and eventually signed a three-year, $10.5-million deal with the Lakers. Many in the organization thought privately that there would be no way Fisher would leave the Lakers, considering they drafted him in 1996, that Fisher has strong ties to Kobe Bryant, has a legacy mostly cemented in L.A. and has a long attachment to the city. Fisher, who insisted he wanted to keep "all options open" during the free-agency process, conceded at least that perception remained.
"I think there was an assumption that I was just going to re-sign with the Lakers before the process even started," Fisher acknowledged shortly after re-signing with the Lakers. "I wanted to make sure that all the teams I spoke with understood I consider myself a full free agent and I'm not handicapping myself to one place."
But suppose Fisher decided otherwise? His "decision" would've affected many moving parts within the Lakers and Heat that would have changed the landscape of the NBA season.
1. Laker fans would remain divided in blaming the Lakers' organization and Fisher.
Laker fans are already divided about Fisher's worth to the team. Some, including myself, have believed any of Fisher's declining abilities (athleticism, defense, shooting) are overblown and offset by some of his positive traits (locker room presence, clutch shot-making, team spokesman, challenger to Bryant). Some believe all those qualities are simply exaggerated. If there's this much division over Fisher's worth to the team, just imagine what would have happened had he left.
Some would fault Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak for letting a five-time NBA champion, Kobe Bryant's confidant and a veteran presence get away. Some would blame Fisher for overly inflating his market value and worth to the team. Some would praise Kupchak for understanding the need to let go of an aging player, no matter how valuable he once was. And some would praise Fisher for standing up for himself even if it came at the expense of leaving the Lakers for the second time in his career.
2. Bryant would have entered 2010 training camp pretty angry.
During each day of the free-agency process, Fisher kept Bryant in the loop surrounding each development. Their relationship stems to when the Lakers drafted them in 1996, where the two often practiced against each other, came to blows with one another and equally admired each other's work ethic and determination even if Bryant has proven to be the most talented.
Both accounts from Bryant and Fisher say that Bryant never put any overt pressure on Fisher to stay with the Lakers. Instead, they say, Bryant acted more as a sounding board for the day-to-day concerns and frustrations Fisher went through during the free-agency process. But it's clear Bryant played a role in Fisher coming back. Bryant, in his interview with reporters in early July, said six different times that the Lakers need to make any necessary concessions to keep Fisher. In his statement, Fisher said: "At the end of the day, there's one person I could not turn away from. Kobe Bryant asked me to stay but supported whatever decision I made."
Had Fisher decided otherwise, Bryant would've entered training camp in a pretty sour mood. Because of how close Bryant and Fisher are, I doubt Fisher's desire to go to Miami would've severely soured his relationship with Bryant. He likely would have directed more of his anger toward Kupchak, who had already received unfavorable reviews during Bryant's infamous trade demands in 2007.
It's hard to argue the Lakers would have missed Fisher's playoff presence because that was mostly absent this season, in addition to his usual struggles. Fisher's teammates may respect him for his continued efforts to provide a locker-room presence, aiding Bryant's leadership role and delivering Jackson's team message, but their unwillingness to follow the lead of Jackson, Bryant and Fisher show that his job proved more difficult for him this season than in years past. But had Fisher been gone from the Lakers, Bryant and Jackson would've had an even more difficult time trying to get everyone else to keep the proper focus and mindset in getting a three-peat. The problems that led to the Lakers getting swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals would've been exposed even earlier.
The Lakers have long maintained their need to improve their backcourt, but it never came at the expense of trading Fisher. In addition to the qualities I described above, one of Fisher's skills involved running the triangle properly. Since Jackson had already decided he'd stay for another season before Fisher reached an agreement with the Lakers, his arrival with Miami wouldn't have changed the Lakers' offensive system. But it would have prompted them to fill their backcourt at a much quicker rate.
Keep in mind that Lakers guard Jordan Farmar had already decided to sign a four-year, $12-million deal with the New Jersey Nets before Fisher would have resigned with the Lakers. So that would have moved up Steve Blake to assume the starting role, a dicey move considering how uncomfortable Blake felt playing with both the starters and reserve unit as Fisher's backup. But it may have pushed Kupchak to put more emphasis in securing Raja Bell, who ultimately chose the Utah Jazz. It may have prevented Kupchak from trading Sasha Vujacic to the New Jersey Nets for Joe Smith, a move that mainly addressed the team finances. The trade, in which the Nets also sent Terrence Williams to Houston, allowed the Lakers to take Vujacic's $5.5 million off the books and absorb Smith's $1.4-million salary. And Fisher's departure would've given Kupchak more reason to make a trade before the Feb. 24 deadline.
I usually would have remarked that Fisher's playoff experience would have come in handy. He would have commanded immediate respect within the Heat's locker room because of his five championship rings. With that, there would have been a lot of episodes that Miami could have easily avoided. Fisher would have explained to James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that it would be a bad idea to have a WWE-type player introduction in which they would talk about "winning multiple championships." He would remind everyone that going through a title run is supposed to be difficult and that they shouldn't shy away from all the scrutiny and pressure. And as president of the National Basketball Players Assn, Fisher certainly would've educated his teammates enough about the impending lockout that James wouldn't suggest that it'd be good if the league contracted teams.
Whether that would have resulted in an NBA championship is too hard to say simply because Dallas proved to be a formidable opponent. But Miami's chemistry would have forged a lot quicker at the beginning of the season and the Heat wouldn't have been as consumed with the sideshows, such as their public perception, the outcry over the revelation that some cried after a regular season game and the distasteful video showing James and Wade mocking Dirk Nowitzki being sick during the Finals.
5. The makeup of Miami's backcourt would've been different.
As The Times' Mike Bresnahan and Turner reported at the time, the Heat hoped Fisher would be their starting point guard. But it would have been hard to determine how much Miami would have offered him and what Fisher would have accepted considering they added plenty of players to their roster. Consider the terms the Heat reached in acquiring James, Chris Bosh (both of whom signed matching six-year, $110.1-million contracts), Mike Miller (five years for $25 million) and Udonis Haslem (four years for about $20 million) and in retaining Wade (six years for $107.5 million).
Had Fisher been the Heat's starting point guard, neither Mike Bibby nor Mario Chalmers would have had the same role. It's conceivable Bibby, who began the postseason as the starting point guard, wouldn't have even been in Miami since he was picked up in early March after Washington cut him. The Heat would have preferred that scenario considering Bibby's playoff run proved pretty disappointing (28.1% shooting and 17 turnovers).
Chalmers, meanwhile, started 26 games and proved unafraid of the playoff pressure. As John Krolik pointed out recently in ESPN.com's Heat Index, his play came with both extremes. The good: Chalmers made timely three-pointers and jumpers, played pesky defense and thrived on making the big play. The bad: Chalmers made plenty of mistakes with head-scratching fouls, questionable passes and occasionally ill-advised turnovers. Had Fisher played with the Heat, he would've provided a much better alternative to Bibby and Fisher's stabilizing presence would've provided the perfect counter to Chalmers' energy.
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Photo: Lakers guard Derek Fisher reflects on the season as he answers reporters' questions about the Lakers season ending and his future with the team at the Laker's practice facility in El Segundo on Tuesday. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Kobe Bryant prepares to give Fisher a hug after Fisher introduced the Lakers' All-Star guard during the 2010 ring ceremony at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Fisher and his wife, Candace, celebrate on the court of Staples Center after the Lakers' Game 7 victory over Boston in the 2010 NBA Finals. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Had Fisher gone to Miami, it's likely General Manager Mitch Kupchak would have made moves to bolster the Lakers' backcourt. Credit: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Had Fisher joined the Miami Heat, he surely would have advised James not to declare the Heat would win "multiple championships." Credit: Hans Dery / Reuters
Photo: Heat reserve guard Mario Chalmers gets a high-five from forward LeBron James after hitting a shot in the second half of Game 3 in Dallas. Credit: LM Otero / Associated Press