Thursday March 13th, 2008

Amid the sea changes that have taken place on the Lakers over the last decade -- Shaq is here, Shaq is gone; Phil is here, Phil is gone, Phil is back; Kobe is happy, Kobe is mad, Kobe is happy again -- here is a scene of comforting familiarity after a recent practice session at the team's facility in El Segundo:

Derek Fisher is moving around the perimeter firing up his distinctive left-handed jump shot. About seven of 10 are going in.

Fisher's shooting partner on this day is forward Vladimir Radmanovic. Go back 10 years and it could've been Eddie Jones, or go back five years and it could've been Rick Fox. Whatever else was going on around him, there was Fisher, working on his game, playing hard, staying positive, "at the still point of the turning world," to steal a line from T.S. Eliot.

"Fish is a block," coach Phil Jackson said, "a solid block. Every day, every play. A solid block."

And there you have the most underanalyzed reason that the Lakers, with a 45-19 record through Wednesday, are leading the Western Conference despite a preseason prognosis that looked grim: Derek Fisher is back in the Lakers' backcourt.

Fisher is so often mentioned as a man of character -- Bryant, only half-jokingly, refers to him as "Derek Obama" -- that his on-court contributions are often glossed over. He has never been an elite point guard, but, then, he's not really a point guard. In Jackson's triangle offense, the guards are practically interchangeable. Fisher and Bryant are a little like Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, that Lakers tandem of decades ago, in that there is not a clear point guard or off-guard -- and Fisher has never had the opportunity to be a classic distributor-type quarterback. Then again, lots of 6-foot-1 guards never get a chance to be a shooter, as Fisher is. He is a positional 'tweener, never sensational but consistently reliable.

The 33-year-old Fisher has lost absolutely nothing in his 12th season. He is averaging 12.2 points per game, a little more than he averaged in the Lakers' three-peat years at the beginning of the century when his backcourt mate was also Bryant. He is shooting a career-high 44.3 percent from the floor and 41.3 percent from three-point range. Jackson can give him the ball at crunch time -- even if he's going to eventually get it to Bryant -- because Fisher is stone-cold solid in the clutch and shoots 88.2 percent from the line. True, he averages only 2.9 assists, but that's because Bryant has the ball so much.

Fisher is rock-solid as a defender (block-solid to use Jackson's word). He's especially valuable as a "digger," a guy who has the knack of reaching in to bother post defenders and still being able to close out on perimeter shooters.

But none of that really begins to describe Fisher's importance. "As far as leadership and stability goes," forward Luke Walton said, "Derek brings so much to the table. A young team always has a lot of ups and downs, and Derek is always there. It's more lead-by-example, but when people need it he speaks up, too."

Part of the reason that Bryant's cutthroat style seems to be more effective this season than in the past is that he has two maturing disciples in backup guards Jordan Farmar, 21, and Sasha Vujacic, who turned 24 last week. They can't match Bryant in talent, of course, but they are Kobe clones in terms of fiery disposition. Walton agreed and added: "That's why you need somebody like Fish to level things out," the 27-year-old Walton said. "The young guys may get mad and upset and jump off the handle, but there is Derek, a model on how to be a professional."

One wonders if Bryant, noticeably more comfortable this year as a leader, picked up some tips on diplomacy when Fisher returned after three seasons away (two at Golden State and one at Utah). He doesn't exactly see it that way and considers Fisher another team role model.

"With Derek, you have another guy who competes just as hard as I do," Bryant said. "In the past, it's always been just me setting that tone."

Fisher and Bryant have never talked about leadership -- players don't usually have those kinds of conversations -- but Fisher, when asked, carefully considers the question of whether Bryant has picked up anything from him.

"I think he does," Fisher said, "because he's that smart. Every iota of something that will give Kobe an edge, to get him a step closer to winning a championship, he will do."

Bryant and Fisher represent two NBA archetypes: Kobe the chosen one, a star right out of high school, limitless talent; Fisher the four-year plugger (Arkansas-Little Rock), the gamer, the hard worker. But they've always had a special relationship. Remember that they arrived in L.A. at the same time (1996), two head-banging guards trying to make their mark. Hearing Fisher talk about Bryant is a fascinating history lesson.

"We went through a lot of battles, practices, matched up against each other, elbowing each other, both of us trying to make it in our own way," Fisher said. "For me, I had to learn to respect Kobe. I was judgmental of a high school kid coming in when, here I was, going to school for four years, scratching and clawing and barely making it anyway. And I think Kobe had to learn to respect that here is a guy who's nowhere near as talented as he is, but who, through perseverance and doing the right things, made it, too. There was a mutual respect that started because we both saw each others' maturation process."

Fisher said he felt for Bryant when he was criticized for being a less-than-sterling leader. "Kobe was a teenager," Fisher said. "He was a superstar, but that doesn't mean you automatically act old. You wouldn't expect Jordan Farmar or Sasha or Andrew [Bynum] to be the guy to put their arms around players. It's just that Kobe was always singled out because of his talent."

Whatever the leadership dynamic between Bryant and Fisher, it's working. And this season has been a dream for Fisher, who came to L.A. after being released from his contract by the Jazz. Fish wanted to come to a city where his daughter, Tatum, who last year was treated for retinoblastoma, a cancerous tumor in her left eye, could get top medical treatment. (Fisher said that while Tatum's vision will never be perfect in her treated eye, she is doing well.)

"When I think about what could've happened," Fisher said, "I can't believe how lucky I've been. Maybe I was going to have to step away from basketball. Or, maybe, even if I got myself to a team in a city where Tatum could be helped, I might not fit the team. So to come back to a place I know, and for that team to need exactly what it is I do, has been deeply gratifying and exciting."

The Lakers would say the same thing.

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