The point guard affectionately known as D-Fish isn’t quite done with playing yet. His present employers—the Oklahoma City Thunder—are currently in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Derek Fisher has now appeared in more playoff games than any player in NBA history, 245. He checked in and promptly scored.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 30, 2014
Fisher is expected to retire from playing at the end of this, his 18th season in the NBA. For now, his focus is on trying to nab another ring as a player, but what happens after he hangs up his uniform for good?
Adrian Wojnarowski for Yahoo! Sports recently wrote that the Lakers’ former point guard could regenerate the team's culture, as well as hold insight into getting the most out of Kobe Bryant's final two seasons:
"Once the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season ends, Fisher will have a willingness to listen to coaching, front office and broadcasting possibilities. As for the Lakers' coaching job, it holds tremendous appeal to him, sources with knowledge of his thinking told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night."
And, in an article about the necessary leadership qualities for the next Lakers head coach, Kevin Ding for Bleacher Report offered this observation: “Derek Fisher is retiring as a player at season’s end and is a gifted leader who makes sense in a multitude of ways despite not having closed his Lakers playing career on the best of terms with management.”
The management reference goes back to a trade in March 2012 that saw Los Angeles swapping Fisher for Jordan Hill of the Houston Rockets. Dealing away Fisher was due in part to the acquisition of point guard Ramon Sessions from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a separate trade.
At the time, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak addressed concerns about the loss of the team's co-captain, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles:
I'm concerned, yes. I'm not sure that it will translate into a team that performs any less ... but, you can't underestimate Derek's contribution from a chemistry point of view and on the court that he's given to this organization. It can't be underestimated, and you can't say that this team is going to wake up tomorrow and play as if he was never here.
Fisher subsequently bought out his contract from Houston and signed with OKC for the remainder of the season, including its 2012 Finals appearance. He played briefly with the Dallas Mavericks the following season before returning to the Thunder.
As for his relationship with the Lakers, the wounds didn’t seem to last—he has been spotted at the team’s El Segundo training facilities during offseasons, spending time with friends and working out with players.
There are pros and cons to be considered with any coaching candidate, of course, much less a rookie. For all his years in the league, Fisher would be new to a sidelines role.
One of the words you’ll most commonly hear attributed to Fisher is “leadership.” Whether directing a team with the ball in his hands, giving advice during practices or being the voice of reason in the locker room, the veteran guard makes his presence felt.
According to USA Today's Sam Amick, Fisher’s former coach and new president of the New York Knicks, Phil Jackson, recently praised Fisher as a “natural leader with exceptionally emotional intelligence and finely tuned management skills.”
Shouldn’t the Lakers think about nabbing Fish before P-Jax does?
Being a leader requires communication skills and the ability to take tough stances. Fisher exhibited those effectively as president of the National Basketball Players Association from 2006-13, including the infamous summer lockout of 2011. After months of negotiations, the president and his fellow players put the league’s feet to the fire by disbanding the union and heading to court.
Per Howard Beck for The New York Times, Fisher spoke to the media with other players packed tightly behind him: “We’ve come to the conclusion today that that process has not worked for us. It has not put us in a position to get and to negotiate the fair deal that we’ve been working to try and complete.”
The owners subsequently came back to the table and a new collective bargaining agreement was reached.
There’s also the matter of team relationships. Fisher and Bryant came into the league together as rookies in 1996 and have been close ever since. The Mamba has made no secret of his lack of enthusiasm for recent coaches Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni. Reuniting with Fisher would be a return to trust and stability.
There are potential future relationships to consider as well. Kevin Durant will be a free agent in 2016 and what better way for the Purple and Gold to make a run at the superstar than with a former favorite teammate who would then have a couple years of coaching under his belt?
Kevin Durant on Derek Fisher: "Fish always wants to learn. Even though he's done … so much in this league." This MVP speech is incredible.— Tas Melas (@TasMelas) May 7, 2014
The most obvious knock against Fisher as a coach is he simply hasn’t done it before, not even as an assistant. This is a tough league—it chews up coaches and spits them out and longevity is becoming increasingly rare. Wouldn’t the lack of practical experience make it even harder to succeed?
Fish may have survived the fire of being a player in championship games time and again, but he’s never had to command a huddle. He’s never drawn up plays during crucial timeouts with all the chips on the table.
Or, is that really true? How many times have we seen him in big-game moments, pulling teammates into an impromptu huddle, making sure everyone’s on the same page?
Despite Fisher’s on-court leadership, being a head coach is a unique job and the Lakers need somebody with the stature and coaching resume to lead their storied franchise into battle, right?
Except that good resumes don’t always complete the puzzle. Brown and D’Antoni entered the fray in Los Angeles, each having been a Coach of the Year and each having managed true superstars. And they both bottomed out.
So does experience count for nothing, then?
No—that’s too simple a statement. But you also have to look around and judge who’s available, where their experiences have led them and balance that against other factors—such as a particular candidate’s unique qualities.
The Association’s landscape is shifting. Time doesn’t stand still, and the head coaching ranks continue to welcome fresh blood and new ideas.
Mark Jackson may now be out of a job, per the Associated Press (via NBA.com), but it can’t be ignored that he came to the Golden State Warriors with no coaching experience and took them to the playoffs twice in three years.
And, Jason Kidd, in his rookie year as a coach with the Brooklyn Nets, has now advanced to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Of course, he has the misfortune of facing the Miami Heat, but that’s beside the point.
Fisher was never the most talented point guard in the league, but he made the most of limited athleticism by smart, and often gutsy, choices. He was willing to stand and take charges, and he had the confidence to take and make game-winning shots. And, he could also broker marriages between a demanding superstar like Bryant and lesser role players who otherwise may have wilted under the pressure.
After their most recent coaching disasters, the Lakers find themselves at a defining crossroads with an uncertain future, including an almost complete rebuild—something that is rarely welcomed by coaches at the top of their game.
Management could try to entice a candidate who’s currently under contract with another team. Or they could bring in one of the many unemployed aging warriors from coaching wars of the past.
Or, liven things up with someone new who just happens to be intrinsically tied to past glories.
Wouldn’t that be the best of both worlds? Fisher would bring the gravitas and leadership of a veteran player who won five rings with Bryant, while also kicking off the excitement and challenge of a brand-new journey.
As for the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day grind, isn’t this where experienced assistant coaches lend a hand?
The Lakers should embrace the opportunity ahead of them and use a little bit of forward thinking to create some new memories with a friend from the past.