The title of this post is a reference to a famous Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi. It’s a song that has been redone, reworked, and used multiple times in pop culture. But, this isn’t a music history blog and I’m not the guy to talk to about songs released in 1970. So, I’m not going to break down the melody or try to discern some hidden meaning from this classic hit. However, these lyrics have been darting through my head recently when thinking about our team. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…
Just the other day, Kurt ran a post and linked to an update on Jordan Farmar and his ahead of schedule recovery from a knee injury that he suffered last month against the Heat. And against the Spurs yesterday, Farmar did indeed return way ahead of schedule, performing quite nicely in his first game action in a month. He was his usual agressive self, taking the ball to the basket, shooting when open, and pushing the ball at every opportunity. He again showed his chemistry with Ariza and brought that extra dimension to our team that no other player really brings. It was definitely nice to have him back in the mix and adding additional life to our second unit.
However, even when Farmar was out, our team kept on rolling. Sure, we were a different team: Our second unit (while still fantastic) lost one of it’s sparkplugs, we were running less, and our rotations and substition patterns were thrown off. Sasha saw more minutes at PG and he filled this role quite well. He pestered guys full court, knocked down jumpers, and he filled our need for an additional ball handler with our primary backup PG sidelined. However, this post is not about Sasha. Farmar’s absence also impacted Kobe. With Farmar out, we saw Kobe’s minutes go up and the coaches had him in lineups where he was the defacto PG. Lineups where he was paired with anyone and everyone and was mostly a distributor. Bynum even referred to #24 as Kobe Nash in the postgame interview following our win over the Clippers. However, this post is not about Kobe. And despite the title, and him being the guy that was actually out with an injury, this post is not about Jordan Farmar. This post is about another guy.
Let me take you on a trip down memory lane. Brace yourself, it’s not pretty. Chucky Atkins, Aaron McKie, Shammond Williams, Smush Parker, (rookie) Jordan Farmar. These are the guys that we called on to play PG for us while Derek Fisher was away. Away helping Utah make the playoffs. Away contributing to the turnaround in Golden State that saw them make the playoffs the season after he was traded to the Jazz. Remember those days? Yeah, I tried to purge them from my memory as well. I bring this up because recently the talk surrounding Fisher has been less about praise and more about picking him apart. In our first meeting with the Spurs, Fisher made the mistake of fouling Roger Mason Jr. on a made shot that turned out to be the game winning basket (after the subsequent made free throw). In several games since then, we’ve seen him foul players shooting three point shots, make the (seemingly) incorrect decision on the fast break, and not finish some shots in the lane that (we think) he should be making. Basically, we’ve seen him make mistakes and we’ve criticized him for it. Some of us have been calling for his minutes to be decreased. Some of us have suggested that he not close games out. ”Should Sasha be closing games instead? Should we move Ariza to SG and have Kobe, Odom, Gasol, and Bynum close games?” Us fans were asking these questions. Essentially, we’ve implied that he could be playing better; we’ve called him boneheaded and we’ve highlighted his mistakes while downplaying what he’s been doing well.
Really though, this isn’t a new thing. Over his two stints with the Lakers, Derek Fisher has been one of the more unheralded players on the team. Sure, he’s hit some big shots (most notably this one) and he’s contributed to many wins. We all recall his late season return from injury in 2001 as a major key to our post season romp that ended with a champiomship trophy and an amazing 15-1 record in the playoffs. But for the most part, Fisher has been just a role player. When our Threepeat run started in Phil’s first stint as coach of the team, Fisher was the player that went from starter to sub when Phil wanted Ron Harper to be the big guard he likes to run his Triangle Offense. When the Lakers tried to go from the Big 2 of Shaq/Kobe to the Big 4 that included Gary Payton and Karl Malone, it again was Fisher that went to the bench so that Gary Payton (who ignited our fast break, but was a poor fit for our halfcourt sets) could start for the team. Through all that, Fisher remained the consumate pro and has happily gone out and done his job. This has been Fishers m.o. his entire career: Do what’s asked of him, give maximum effort doing it, and be a leader at the same time.
And this continues now. On this current team, Fish is a guy that is doing exactly what we need of him. He is helping this team, despite some of his weaknesses. I know that Fisher has never had the strongest instincts when handling the ball on the fast break. I also know that Fisher is not the best finisher when he gets into the lane. It’s also clear that Fish has lost a step and is no longer the strongest on ball defender against quick PG’s. Kurt even coined an acronym that describes his penchant for shooting a pull up jumer in transition. However, all of these issues combined don’t come close to the negatives that his predacessors possesed. They also don’t diminish his value to this team. And if we’re talking about value, some things need to be mentioned. During the time that Farmar was out with his knee injury, Fisher saw his average minutes increase from 26.9 min/gm to 36.8 min/gm. This stretch included seven instances of playing over 40 minutes in a game. However with that increased workload, we actually saw a better player. With Farmar out, Fisher shot better from the floor, got more steals per game, and fouled at a slightly lesser rate (no small feat considering the minutes increase). He was also still money from the foul line, was still drawing charges, and was still making big time jumpshots when the team needed a bucket. Basically, he was playing the best he had all season. And all of it came from a 34 year old player that most of us thought would have ceded his starting position to someone else by now.
Last Thursday night against Washington, Fish made a beautiful drive to the basket, collapsed the defense, and dropped a tremendous bounce pass (through multiple defenders) to a slashing Bynum for a finish at the rim. In our game against Cleveland, when the Cavs were making their late game run it was Fisher that made a key jumper to stem the tide and push a seven point lead back to nine with two minutes left to play. He’s making plays like these every game. And what’s funny is, many times we’re taking it for granted. I remember when Fisher originally left the team to sign with the Warriors. While many of us were discouraged as another piece of our championship team left, no one really felt that bad. I mean, Phil was gone, Shaq was gone…Fisher’s leaving too? Okay, it’s just one more guy. The thought was, we can’t pay him that much money and he’s a player that’s declining anyway. But, now that he’s back (ironically, on the tail end of the contract that he signed when he left Thanks to Craig W. and Vincent for pointing out that Fisher signed a New Deal with the Lakers after his contract with the Jazz was mutually terminated) I wonder how we got by without him. Well, after re-reading that list of replacements up there, we didn’t get by, did we?
Nothing against Farmar. In his first game back he showed me a lot of good things and reinforced his work ethic with an early return to the lineup. And not only did he return early, he looked sharp. And that type of performance doesn’t happen if you’re approaching your rehab half heartedly. So I’m not knocking Jordan here. I’m only saying that we should also recognize what Fish has done in Farmar’s absence. Because just like the last time he wasn’t around, when Fisher’s no longer here, we’re all going to miss him. We’ll miss his steadiness, his savvy, and that strange release resulting in all those made jumpers. But he’s not gone yet. So today, as Joni Mitchell’s lyrics go through my head, I thought I’d just remind everyone to appreciate what we have while we’ve got it. We’ve seen what it’s like without him.