In case you missed the opening post of this series, the FB&G panel recently sat down and voted on the best role players in Lakers history. The details can be found here on the collective thought process of the panel as well as the first player in our top 10 countdown.
Now we move on to our next man up.
When we recall meaningful role players, we usually have a multitude of memories of how they contributed to a successful team; they did the little things but also had times in which they came up big because their teammates needed it.
That’s usually how it goes, and yet our next player may very well challenge that notion.
The ninth best role player in Lakers’ history…
Fox started his NBA career as a member of the Boston Celtics and spent six seasons on the east coast playing for a decent team that eventually became a perennial loser. Eventually, he packed his bags and headed out west to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
In retrospect, it’s coincidental and yet both weird that the former Tar Heel played for only two teams in his career; and they happened to be the most storied franchises in the NBA.
Fox left Boston and joined Los Angeles hoping to be part of the solution that helped an immensely talented Lakers team turn things around and compete for a title. Instead, he joined a squad that was seemingly dysfunctional given the egos on the team.
The Lakers had Elden Campbell, Shaquille O’Neal, Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and a young Kobe Bryant but just could not avoid getting swept in the postseason. Even worse, a team that many thought should reach the title round every single season just could not figure out how to get there.
One thing was for sure at the time though, Fox might not have been a huge part of the team, but he was definitely part of the solution.
Players were moved, coaches were brought in and out and eventually Phil Jackson came to town to bring a stabilizing influence over the team starting in the 1999-00 season.
Rick Fox’s role under Jackson was to come off the bench, play solid defense, take open shots, feed the post, get out in transition and essentially play to his capabilities.
The North Carolina product took his role a step further, even at times playing the role of enforcer for a Los Angeles Lakers team that featured Shaquille O’Neal.
Indeed, the former Tar Heel played physical defense, hit players after the whistle, slapped the ball out of the hands of opponents even after calls were made by officials, trash talked and found ways to get inside the heads of opposing players. Fox was an instigator, but he was also a solid role player.
With Fox backing up Glen Rice during the 1999-00 season, the Lakers won 67 games, struggled a little during the postseason but managed to win the group’s first title.
Glen Rice was shipped out of town after the 2000 playoffs, which meant that Rick Fox had become the starter for the Lakers.
The 2000-01 season was one of turmoil for the Lakers as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal fought for control of the team but role players such as Fox still managed to play to their strengths throughout the Bryant-O’Neal rift. The Lakers’ starting small forward saw more minutes that season and thus increased his scoring and rebounding.
Also, with more playing time alongside the starters, Rick Fox had more opportunities to get repetition in the triangle offense and thus had a better understanding of where to get his shots from. Consequently, he improved his field goal percentage, going from a poor 41.4 percent to a 44.4 percent mark.
By the time the playoffs started, the 2001 Lakers morphed into the third best Los Angeles Lakers team of all time, going 15-1 in the playoffs and destroying all of their opponents on their way to the title.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal enjoyed arguably their best collective postseason together that year, but they were also aided by their role players that rose to the occasion whenever the situation called for it.
And that’s what’s particularly tricky about Rick Fox: he played up to par, played to his strengths and made several contributions but none of them truly stood out; unless we count the amount of times he agitated opponents.
Seriously, by the time the Lakers hit their stride in the playoffs, Rick Fox complemented the superstars with timely shooting, a couple of unimpeded drives to the basket as a result of double teams and some solid perimeter defense.
If the 2001 playoffs failed to properly hammer this point home, the 2002 postseason highlighted this perfectly.
After helping the Lakers win back-to-back titles, Rick Fox was not only a starter on a championship team, but an integral piece to the championship puzzle. He played well off of his superstar teammates and even asserted himself offensively at times to help take pressure off the more heralded players on the team.
The box score often failed to accurately capture Fox’s contributions because so many of them came in the form of deflections, charges taken, box outs and the pass that led to the pass that set up an assist. Hence, it’s somewhat difficult to find one game that encompasses the type of player that Rick Fox was for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Difficult, but not impossible.
With Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals scheduled to be played in Sacramento, many thought that the Kings would dethrone the defending champions.
The Kings were deeper, younger, more athletic and thus better, as the story went.
The Lakers on the other hand had arguably the two best players in the league as well as championship experience and that essentially sealed the fate of the Sacramento Kings.
The home team bricked free throws, struggled to execute and get good looks at the basket late in the game, while the Lakers looked like the fresher team, unbothered by the pressure and weight of the moment.
Rick Fox was at his best in a Lakers uniform that day, scoring 13 points, snatching 14 rebounds and dishing out seven assists in 48 minutes of playing time. The North Carolina product was all over the court, and yet never looked as though he was playing above his customary level of basketball talent.
And in addition, although Peja Stojakovic had been hampered by an ankle injury during the playoffs, he had still averaged 21.2 points per game on 48.4 percent field goal shooting during the regular season and was the Kings second option on offense. In the series against the Lakers mind you, Rick Fox played physical and smothering defense on him, holding him to a mere 6.7 points per game on 20.7 percent field goal shooting. His ankle might have been problematic, but so too was the Lakers forward.
That victory over the Kings propelled the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals where they swept the New Jersey Nets and completed the ever rare — this is the most recent occurrence of this in the NBA — three-peat.
Fox played the role of occasional scorer, shooter, defender and rebounder at times, but his best role by far with the team was that of winner.