Indisputably, incontrovertibly and unmistakably, Derek Fisher can no longer play at a high level. He exists solely now as a mistake-free three-point specialist who even then hits only two threes a week, to the point that rookie Andrew Goudelock became the Lakers’ go-to three-point option instead of him. The defense has gone, the shot is going, and the point guard play was never really there. With all due respect, Fisher is a shell of his former self.
Of course, although he couldn’t play, he did play. A lot. Alongside the similarly struggling Steve Blake (24.7mpg, 5.7ppg, 3.5 apg), Fisher was half of the worst positional rotation in basketball. It was no secret that this week, somehow, the Lakers were getting a point guard. The only thing unclear was who.
The Lakers got that point guard yesterday, trading Luke Walton along with a first round pick and Jason Kapono as salary filler, to Cleveland in exchange for Ramon Sessions and Christian Eyenga.
Sessions had long been considered the target, so this was no surprise. The only surprise was the inclusion of Walton’s redundant, dead-weight, not-expiring, still-amazed-they-didn’t-amnesty-it contract (and its 7.5 percent trade kicker). Walton will now earn over $6 million next season to do nothing at all for Cleveland, and all they get to offset that cost (which is roughly equal to what Eyenga and Sessions would earn combined if Sessions opted in) is a protected low first-round pick. The Cavaliers, willing and able to pay bad salaries if they get future assets in the process, have done a much lesser version of what they did at the last deadline, taking on Baron Davis to get Kyrie Irving. But taking on Luke Walton to get Festus Ezeli isn’t quite the same. Sessions should have had more value than this, and only the threat of his possible opt-out this summer can really explain the cheap dump and hefty Walton penalty.
Eyenga and Kapono can be disregarded as salary filler. Eyenga lost any role he may have had with his underwhelming play, lack of development, and the emergence of Alonzo Gee as the far superior contributor. Like Fisher, Kapono is a three-point specialist who never actually shot them, mainly because he barely played. Their roles in the deal were merely financial. Even the pick and Walton were, and will be, largely meaningless. This was about Sessions.
Sessions gives the Lakers what Fisher and Blake never did: a pick-and-roll option. Criticisms of Kobe Bryant’s ball dominance and shot selection maybe be valid — very, very valid — yet they must be tempered with the realization that no one else could really do anything. It was tough enough for Fisher to get the ball up court sometimes, and the small forward trio of Devin Ebanks, Matt Barnes and Ronny Peace weren’t helping. Sessions gives the Lakers this ball-handling option, the man who gets the ball over halfcourt every time, can find Pau Gasol in pick-and-pop situations, will get Andrew Bynum the ball in the middle, finds the rolling man, hits cutters, and can drive-and-kick to the Lakers’ mediocre outside shooters. He expands a playbook that, whoever’s fault it is, wasn’t very expansive.
It must be noted, however, that Sessions is ball dominant. Whenever he has thrived as a player — most notably, the crazy Larry Krystkowiak era — Sessions did what he did because he had free reign to do what he wanted. No one else could handle the ball, so Sessions did, solely and exclusively. Off the ball, his usefulness is extremely limited. Moreover, since his explosion into the league as an assist machine, Sessions has bizarrely tried harder and harder to be a scoring talent. And he just isn’t one. His jumper is poor, his efficiency worse, and his finishing around the basket isn’t great, yet too often, Sessions looks for his rather than others. Considering how good he can be at looking for others, it is frustrating.
If a comparison exists, we’re probably looking at something between a Lakers-era Gary Payton and a Lakers-era Ron Harper. Sessions can help any team and racks up the statistics, but he does in a certain way — his way. In order to do what he does, Sessions must dominate the ball. Defensively, too, Sessions isn’t nearly as effective as a man of his size and speed should be. Changing from Fisher to Sessions is not as simple as just changing Fisher for Sessions; the Lakera, already struggling with getting their pieces to click, now have a lot more adjusting to do.
Nevertheless, however flawed he may be, Sessions is a significant upgrade. Even defensively, Sessions’s mediocre defense is better than Fisher’s open door impression. The Lakers finally have a point guard who can create for himself and for others, who can push the ball (although it’s tough to imagine the rest of the team running with him much), and take some of the playmaking and ball handing responsibilites off of Kobe. If Kobe allows that.
Dealing for Sessions, or someone like him, was expected. What was NOT expected was Fisher being dealt. And yet he was, traded unexpectedly to the Houston Rockets along with Dallas’s 2012 first round pick in exchange for Jordan Hill and a disparaging tweet from Dwyane Wade.
The acquisition of Jordan Hill must not be completely overlooked just because of who it cost to get him. Hill hasn’t lived up to his draft slot, and has the rather unflattering distinction of having been traded twice already, but he is a solid contributor as a backup big man and not just an expiring contract. (Although, admittedly, he is that too.) Hill’s per 36 minute rebounding numbers are on a par with anyone else in this league, and while he has somewhat questionable defense and nothing in his offensive arsenal that could be considered a go-to move, he is a capable finisher, both around the basket and from mid-range. Inconsistency and lack of improvement notwithstanding, Hill will improve the Lakers’ on-court product, not just its salary picture.
That said, Hill isn’t the news. Hill is the byline. Trading Fisher is the news.
Of all the people who should know that the NBA is a business, Derek Fisher should know first. It may feel disingenuous, deceitful, dishonest, for the Lakers to trade a man not only revered as a player for his role playing contributions over the years, but also the leader of the Player’s Association, who fought so hard for there to even be a season, who gave up millions of dollars to return to the Lakers and help them win yet more titles. If it hurts, it’s understandable, especially given how shockingly unexpected it all was, especially knowing that the Rockets wanted the first rounder more than he. For someone who gave so much, being mere salary filler in a trade for a backup is a painful way to go.
However, Derek Fisher must remember one thing — he left the Lakers once, too. In 2004, Fish left the Lakers to sign with the Warriors, because they paid him more. Now, the Lakers are ridding themselves of Fisher, because he’s paid too much. The money talked for them just as it once did for him. Cash rules everything around us, for which no one is any more to blame than any other.
For both player and team alike, needs must come first. You do what you’ve got to do. And the Lakers had to do it.