Archives For June 2011

The Delicate Dance

Darius Soriano —  June 15, 2011

You’ll find no bigger fan of Derek Fisher than me.

Over the years I’ve defended his play, preached about his value, and downplayed some of (most of?) his shortcomings. He’s a player that I have a huge amount of respect for; a player that I’ve seen as a vital ingredient to the recent run of success that the Lakers have experienced – not to mention the three championships in the Kobe/Shaq era.

However, today, the Lakers are in a conundrum when it comes to this player that I’ve so loved over the past decade and a half.

You see, Derek Fisher is a leader for this team. He’s also a clutch performer. The other day I was watching a video of the Lakers run to the 2009 title and right in the middle of that push was D-Fish, giving speeches in the locker room and the huddle then hitting key shots that won games. After I watched that video, I replayed clips from 2010 and watched how his game 3 heroics likely saved the series for the Lakers and ultimately helped propel them to the championship over their bitter rivals.

His tenure with the team is littered with the moments that will live well beyond any of us. Chapters on Laker championships will have his name etched in stone and he’ll stand side by side with true legends of the game and he’ll do so as a career role player. Normal competitors don’t reach these heights. Derek Fisher is no normal competitor.

But, he is a player in full decline.

While all the intangibles remain intact, the tangibles are eroding. His individual defense, while spirited, is below average. His shot making is as well. As much as he’ll still hit the big shot, it’s the ones that come in the non-pressure packed moments that don’t fall at a consistent enough rate.

And now, there’s a new coach coming on board. With Mike Brown’s arrival comes a new scheme on both sides of the ball that will ask more of the point guard position than Phil Jackson’s Triangle. We don’t yet know how different these schemes will be, but history tells us the lead guard will need to drive and kick more; will need to create off the bounce. These are not Derek’s strong suits.

Plus, Brown will also preach defense. And while defending most floor generals is a team effort, it does start with the man on the ball. Will Derek hold up on an island? Will he be able to stay with his man, chase off the ball, rotate and recover with a strong close out when needed? These are skills often best performed with younger legs than those occupied by the #2 uniform on the team we call ours.

The questioning of how Fisher will succeed is voiced with more frequency and vigor than ever before. And answering them with an understanding nod and the anecdote that he’ll “get it done when it matters” is harder now as the volume on the critiques drowns out those with who hand out the praise.

But, the man still commands respect. He’s the president of the player’s union and one of the most eloquent and level headed players in the game. His peers seek him out for guidance and listen when he speaks. After Mike Brown was hired, one of the first players he met with was Derek Fisher. They sat down at dinner and discussed what went wrong this past season and what could be done to fix it next year. His input was sought out; his stature demanded as much.

Plus, he’s Kobe’s right hand man. Kobe famously once said that Fisher is the only teammate he listens to. Fisher’s also the one player that doesn’t get the stink eye when he doesn’t rotate the ball to #24 when his arm is outstretched and calling for it. Their relationship goes back to full court one on one battles as rookies and thrives to this day because of the mutual hard work and dedication that both have put in to achieve so much. They’ve reached the highest heights together; have been through all the battles – won and lost – side by side.

But this game typically isn’t about sentimentality. It’s about production and results.

So the Lakers enter into a delicate dance with their long time, proud warrior of a point guard. They’ll need his leadership, his calm voice of reason, and his pleas for desperate play. But they’ll also need production and someone capable of executing what’s asked of his position on the floor. On twitter, Roland Lazenby said, “Fans fuss about (players) like Fisher. They do get exposed, but they bring so much in smarts and experience. Smart coaches wince and live with it.”

Next season, Mike Brown will have to find this balance. He’ll surely need the grizzled vet, as will his team. The question now, is can he afford to use him as much he may want considering the results he produces when in the game. Only time will tell. But for a coach that will have the egos of some of the league’s elite players to navigate, it’s a player in Fisher’s position that may present trickiest tango of all.

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: Kobe Bryant can still make it happen, but not nearly with the same frequency as he once did. According to Hoopdata.com, Bryant’s shot attempts at the rim dropped by nearly 1.5 a game this season, while his attempts from 3-9 feet jumped from 2.3 in 2009-10 to 3.1. By way of comparison, in 2007-08, those ratios were very different: 5.1 attempts per game at the rack, 1.5 from 3-9. Night to night, his free throw attempts have declined over the years, as well. All of this confirms what we basically already know: Bryant is much more a post up/jump shooter, not the unstoppable penetrating force off the wing he once was, certainly not over the course of a long regular season. He’ll fire up the WABAC Machine from time to time, but picks his spots far more judiciously than the Kobe of yor

From Dave McMenamin, ESPNLA: In the circus known as the NBA, Bill Russell has long been considered the ring master for the unprecedented 11 bands of championship jewelry he won in his 13-year playing career. But when you think about it, Phil Jackson should be known as the league’s true lord of the rings. The 13 rings Jackson earned — two from his 13-year career as a player with New York and New Jersey, and 11 from his 20-year run as head coach in Chicago and Los Angeles — outshine the rings of Russell, who is widely acknowledged as the greatest winner in team sports. (Russell also won two championships in his eight seasons as a head coach, but they came in his final two seasons with the Celtics when he was player-coach, hence his ring collection wound up at 11 rather than tied with Jackson at 13.)

From Daniel Buerge, Lakers Nation: The NBA season came to an end last night in Miami when the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Heat to win their first championship in team history. They beat one of the most publicized and scrutinized team in history, and did it emphatically. After winning Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in the series the Mavericks knew they had two chances to eliminate the Heat, but both games would be in Miami. That didn’t sway the confidence of the Mavs, as they rose to the occasion and beat Miami in Game 6 to win the crown.  ?As is the case with almost any NBA champion, the story for the Mavericks centered around their best player and Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki. After a solid series and an unbelievable playoffs, Dirk found himself struggling to find the range throughout the majority of Game 6. However, Dirk’s determination only grew stronger and he continued to fire up shots. At the end of the night he had a poor shooting percentage, but he also had an NBA championship.

From Elizabeth Benson, Lakers Nation: When the Los Angeles Lakers were swept out of the second round of this year’s playoffs, the major topic surrounded the possibility of acquiring Dwight Howard.  As some time has passed and the Laker community’s shock of an abrupt departure from the postseason has started to fade, the true needs and weaknesses are in full exposure, waiting to be addressed.  ?With the recent hiring of new head coach, Mike Brown, the first need can be checked off the list.  One of the Lakers’ needs is to become more youthful and athletic.  However, the issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible relates to the point guard position. Derek Fisher will without a doubt go down as one of the best point guards in the history of the Lakers.  Even though Fisher maintains the ability to make shots in the clutch, his level of performance for the entire 48 minutes of each game has been diminishing over the past two years.

From David Murphy, Searching for Slava: Our long national grind is over. It ended where in many ways, it began – Miami, FLA – home of the best that money could buy, the master-plan, the decision.  Superstars shelled into submission by a lanky bridesmaid who couldn’t spit in the ocean in the first half, supported by a gang of misfits who could.  It’s how it should be, the basketball gods must have been smiling. The knock on Nowitzki for years, has been that he’s soft, can’t or won’t play the interior, doesn’t come through when it really counts, in the playoffs, in the finals. This year was different – his Mavericks played like a recommitted team but the perception remained – they had failed too often and the public had turned away. Until they wound up in the finals, pitted against a team that had gone from media darling to pariah.  Suddenly, the game had new meaning.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: They don’t call him the “No Stats All-Star” for nothing. He consistently guards the opposing team’s best player and holds them under their season averages in points and shooting percentage. He provides a positive locker-room presence and thrives on mastering such intangibles as tipping loose balls to teammates, boxing out an opponent to free up a teammate to clean glass and showing remarkable efficiency in his shot selection. Battier has plenty of veteran experience and would earn immediate respect from many Lakers, including Kobe Bryant (who knows how suffocating Battier can be on defense), Ron Artest (who used to be his teammate at Houston) and Pau Gasol (who used to be his teammate in Memphis). There’s no need to wonder how Battier would fit in the pecking order because he’d be the guy making everyone else’s job easier. With Coach Mike Brown wanting to implement a defense-first mentality, Battier would be a perfect addition in fulfilling that philosophy.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: On paper, it appeared to Lakers forward Ron Artest that the team’s Western Conference semifinals matchup against the Dallas Mavericks would prove to be just another blip toward another championship run. It turns out he was wrong. “They blitzed us,” he said Sunday while appearing on ABC 7’s Sports Zone regarding the Mavericks’ four-game sweep against the Lakers. “We did not expect them to play like that honestly. I thought we were going to sweep them.” On paper, it appeared to Artest that the Miami Heat would win in the NBA Finals in either five or six games, believing the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the team’s lockdown defense would prove too difficult in stopping. Instead, James disappeared most of the fourth quarters, Dirk Nowitzki continued to make difficult shots and the Mavericks displayed the type of depth Artest argued is needed to win a championship.

With the NBA season ending last night, a few final thoughts on the Mavs and Heat (with some Lakers mixed in too…)

  • First off, congrats to the Mavericks for winning their first championship in franchise history. They played fantastic basketball, not only against the Heat but the entire playoffs. What I found most impressive about them as a team wasn’t the remarkable shooting expedition, the poise, or even the role players stepping up the way that they did. It’s how all those things combined to make every one of their post-season opponents look the same by the time the series ended: confused and defeated. No team could solve the riddle of how the Mavs pressured the paint through wonderful attacking schemes predicated off tremendous floor spacing. Kudos to them, they earned their place at the top of the mountain.
  • Obviously any congratulations of the Mavs must also include the singling out of Dirk for his fantastic playoffs and his well deserved Finals MVP. The once “soft” player that “couldn’t close” changed the perception of him (which really wasn’t fair anyway) with a fantastic playoff run that will now put him on the list of great players that actually broke through and won a title. No more Malone, Stockton, Miller, Ewing, Barkley comparisons for the big German and whether he realizes it or not right now, a burden has been lifted off his shoulders as that’s a tough stigma to carry. Special acknowledgement as well to the fact that Dirk won in a truly tough era where the league is as strong as it’s been in decades with many elite players and some fantastic teams.
  • Credit must also be given to Rick Carlisle. He pushed all the right buttons, made all the right substitutions and adjustments, called all the right timeouts. He got his team to defend on one end and play a steady, relentless style on the other that confounded the opposition. Just as some of his players, he’s elevated his status in this league and joined the ranks of Pop and Rivers as the active coaches that truly make a difference to their team in a way that led to the ultimate prize. He really was masterful.
  • However, we can’t reflect on these Finals without discussing the Heat and their failure to achieve what they set out to do. They fell short in many ways and proved that their elite talent base wasn’t enough this time. Be it coaching, the play of LeBron (no explanation needed) and Wade (he was simultaneously great and mistake prone), or the media missteps they made along the way, this team struggled to rise to the occasion while Dallas capitalized on every mistake.
  • That said, I don’t think anyone should be quick to dismiss the Heat as contenders for future championships. In several ways, they remind me of the 2008 Lakers. First off, there are the easy comparisons of Kobe/Wade (leader with experience that played excellent while still showing flaws), Pau/LeBron (the player with more talent than he showed), and Odom/Bosh (the front court player that had up and down performances but was outplayed by his direct counterpart). There’s also factors like the fact that they faced a team of hungry veterans that had fallen short so many times and looked at this series as (potentially) their last shot at a ring, the newness of their team and rapid ascension to elite status, and the need for some of the players who’d not yet seen this level of competition (Miller, Chalmers, Anthony) to get that needed seasoning. Obviously, this isn’t a perfectly parallel situation as I’m unsure who can be Miami’s Derek Fisher nor is it clear that there’s a player like Bynum or Ariza in the wings that can take a big step forward next year in helping this team win it all. Plus, and maybe most important, is that Coach Spoelstra is no Phil Jackson (who is?) and filling that void in coaching may be their biggest obstacle. Not to belittle what Spoelstra’s accomplished nor his coaching acumen, but it’s unclear if he’ll take that next step as a coach and this team needs a guy that certainly will. It’s interesting because Carlisle finally broke through as a head coach but that was after being fired in both Detroit and Indiana. Can Miami wait on Spoelstra?
  • Interesting enough, the Mavericks win only cements my thoughts further that the Lakers should not be discounted going into next season as one of the top 2 or 3 clear favorites for the title. The Lakers’ formula (at least what we know of it) of well put together top level talent is a combination of what the Mavs and the Heat brought to the table. With a renewed sense of hunger and purpose, some tweaks to the roster, and some slight improvement from some of their core players (none of which is a stretch) this team could certainly be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy next season. Obviously coaching will be key and how the players buy in will be an issue. But, the Lakers’ window is still very much open. (Now, if only the player’s union and team owners can hammer out a CBA, I think we’d all be a lot happier.)

The NBA championship could be decided tonight.

No, the Lakers aren’t involved. There are no crucial moments to fret over; no stomach churning lead up to this contest. Instead, it’s two teams – the Mavs and the Heat – that will take center stage while we all watch.

I know many have a desired outcome to this series. Many would prefer the Mavs walk away victorious and claim that elusive Larry O’Brien trophy. After all, this could be the last chance for long time greats like Dirk and Kidd (two of my favorite non Lakers) to reach the mountain top and denying them this triumph would be some sort of cruelty. Meanwhile a team of young, in their prime stars like those on the Heat will have plenty of other chances to win this thing.

The other angle, obviously, is the dislike that many have for the Heat. Folks didn’t like “the decision”, the celebration that came after, or the swagger that it spawned – including all the media missteps along the way.

Personally, those things never bothered me much as games are decided on the court and the team would have to prove that they were worthy when the ball was jumped at center court, regardless of what I (or anyone else) thought of them. Winning isn’t easy and they would learn that and either reach the pinnacle or fall short like many others do. So far they’ve done well for themselves in getting to this point, but they’ve again found what we’ve already known and said. Winning is, indeed, hard.

In any event, game 6 is here and I’ll be watching. For the great basketball, the extremely talented players, and the chance to see the joy of one team and the despair of the other. We’re at the point where a team can taste that championship and those moments are the ones that I enjoy the most, even if they don’t involve the team that I call my own.

I’ll also be watching because this could be the last basketball we see for some time. The league owners are set to lock out the players next month and we could be in for a long, bitter negotiation that puts some, most, or all of next season in jeopardy. All of this saddens and upsets me to no end, as I’m sure it does to many of you (especially if you’re checking in on a basketball blog on a late Sunday afternoon).

But tonight, I’ll be watching to see if one team can claim the trophy while the other fights for their basketball lives. This game means something to me, even without the Lakers participating. I hope it’s a good one. Though, from what we’ve seen so far these playoffs, my hopes probably aren’t needed.

The other day I found myself in a discussion about LeBron James. Game 4 had just ended and LeBron had just turned in a baffling performance. He’d scored only 8 points in an NBA Finals game and was routinely being skewered for his play in one of the most important games in his (relatively) young career. There was anger, mocking, but most of all there were questions. What the hell happened to LeBron, we thought.

When critiquing his game, I said that it wasn’t so much that LeBron played poorly; it was that he played passively. And as one of the truly great players, you don’t get a pass for playing that way. After I expressed my thoughts on twitter, an interesting comparison came up. First it was our friend Brian Kamenetzky from Land O’ Lakers and then it was another smart commentator on the Lakers, Gary Collard. But both said the same thing.

They said that this reminded them of Pau Gasol. And you know what, they were right. Instantly a multitude of thoughts ran through my mind as the comparison was too perfect.

Against this same Mavericks team, both Gasol and James had seemingly shrunk from the moment of the big game and not played nearly as well as expected. Gasol had been handled in both the post and the shallow wing and hadn’t impacted the game in any of the other ways that he normally would. Meanwhile, LeBron had become a spectator on the majority of the Heat’s 4th quarter possessions, standing idly in the corner as if he was James Jones, not LeBron James. Even when LeBron did touch the ball he was probing, not attacking.

But the question still looms. Why?

We may never know the real reasons, but my first guess is the cerebral nature of both players’ games. Both, throughout their careers, have been known as high IQ players that think the game. Gasol has thrived as an offensive initiator in the hub of the Triangle offense, making the right reads on whether he should pass or shoot. LeBron, on the other hand, has long been an offensive initiator and (rightfully) hailed as one of the best passing wings in the league. Both players are most effective when they’re able to survey the floor, pick out teammates, and make the right read on what to do with the ball.

However, it now seems that their best trait has become the root of their biggest critiques as both players have the dreaded passive label attached to their games. The fact that these performances have come in some of the biggest games only enhances the view that they’re failing their teams in trying to play a certain way.

Don’t get me wrong, when you’re one of the very best players in the world the expectation is that you’ll impact the game in some way that helps your team win. And the fact that neither Gasol or (to a lesser extent) LeBron (at least in these Finals) found a way to help their team win games that were there for the taking deserves critical discussion in the same way that their strong play would invite praise. But as the conversation shifts from criticism to damning, I wonder where we go from here.

The funny thing about being a fan is that we often use our judgment and our wants to critique a team, a coach, or a player. “Why didn’t we use a timeout?” we ask. “He should have passed! He had a teammate wide open!” we shout at our TV’s and type on twitter and in the comment sections of sites just like this one. It’s an every day occurrence and, in a lot of ways, it’s what makes being a fan an experience that we all enjoy. After all, watching the game also means that we are, some how, a part of the action. And with that inclusion comes a desire to see what we think is best; what we think will work.

We then take these critiques a step further and use comparisons to other great players (past or present) to hammer home our point. “LeBron needs to be more like Jordan (or Kobe) and attack!”. “Pau needs to demand the ball more, like Shaq would!”.  The problem with this approach is that we lose the nuance of what makes the players we critique unique and excellent in their current form.

It also handcuffs players into a vision and path of progression that we think is best for them rather than letting their games evolve (or, for some, stagnate) the way that they’re meant to. We limit players and confine them into the narrative that we create because as fans we want what we want.

There is no easy answer here. We want the players we root for to achieve at the highest levels but each step of the way we want them doing it in the manner that we choose. When they do succeed by doing it a different way, we applaud. But if they fail that next time, we’re right back letting them know that their approach is wrong. It’s why Gasol will forever be the “white swan” to some and why LeBron will probably always struggle to escape the perception that he’s not “the man”.

Meanwhile, both will continue to have a lot of success as cerebral players that think the game and making the plays that they feel will help their teams win. Sometimes it will work, other times they’ll fail. And through it all we’ll be there to point out what they should have done. For better or for worse.

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