The NBA lockout-extended offseason has created plenty of spare time for basketball fans' imaginations to roam, and in the case of Los Angeles Lakers fans there is no shortage of questions to ponder before the games begin again.
The Lakers were already a team in flux with the impending retirement of head coach Phil Jackson after the 2010-11 season, but the promotion of Jim Buss and his subsequent decision to hire Mike Brown as the new coach created more questions than answers.
Couple those developments with the startling manner in which Los Angeles folded in the 2011 NBA Playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks and you have a team who is desperately searching for an identity as the 2011-12 season approaches.
Are the Lakers the same team who was swept out of the postseason by the Mavericks or are they the same team who managed to qualify for three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals?
There has been plenty of finger-pointing amongst fans regarding the Lakers unceremonious exit from the playoffs and much of the blame has fell on the shoulders of 36-year-old point guard Derek Fisher.
In the opinion of many Lakers fans, the point guard position has been a point of concern for the past few seasons, but Fisher's inability to guard Mavericks guards Jason Kidd and Jason Terry in the playoffs gave the theory concrete credibility.
Fisher was simply too slow to guard Terry on the wing and too weak to guard Kidd in the post.
As a team the Lakers looked ancient against the Mavericks and no player looked older than Fisher, whose past heroics were quickly forgotten in the midst of a four-game sweep.
Even though Pau Gasol and Ron Artest pulled disappearing acts of their own in the 2011 playoffs, there uninspired play could not diminish the chorus of boos sent in Fisher's direction.
Fisher's last second game-winning three pointer against San Antonio in the 2004 Western Conference Finals is a distant memory when it comes to the embarrassment the Lakers suffered in 2011.
So to is Fisher's 51 percent shooting percentage from the three-point line in the Lakers historic 15-1 march to the 2001 NBA championship.
Never mind the fact that Fisher's clutch shooting in Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals is the primary reason the Lakers were able to capture their 17th NBA title and prevent Dwight Howard from clinching his first.
Even Fisher's most recent sublime performance against the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of the 2010 NBA Finals cannot save him from the scrutiny of a basketball society that worships the instant gratification of the present and has no respect for the past.
Today's NBA fans would much rather their stars to be young, tall, athletic and prolific, and unfortunately Fisher fits none of that criteria.
Fifteen seasons of NBA warfare has robbed Fisher of his youth, and he has never been tall or athletic. And it's extremely difficult to craft a prolific debate considering Fisher carries career averages of 8.8 points, 3.1 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 40 percent shooting form the field.
However, what Fisher does bring to the table for the Lakers is just as tangible as any statistic although it is much harder to quantify.
In Fisher's case, how does one measure leadership and clutch performances in numbers?
Fisher's superstar teammates Kobe Bryant and Gasol have been much more productive on the court, but one could form a reasonable argument that Fisher has been just as important as either player.
But now the Lakers have reached a crossroads and someone must play the role of sacrificial lamb in the wake of last season's collapse, so is Fisher destined for that fate?
The younger Buss and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak used their first two picks of the 2011 NBA draft on point guards Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock, but will they serve as understudies to Fisher next season or will they learn from another lead guard?
I highly doubt that Fisher will be the Lakers' starting point guard in 2012 and the fact that neither Morris or Goudelock are ready to assume that role makes me feel like the franchise will attempt to address that concern once the league's labor impasse ends.
If history is any reminder the Lakers should proceed toward the future with caution because it's easy to cast stones in the heat of the moment.
Some observers may question Fisher's ability to lead the Lakers to another NBA title in the immediate future, but if the Lakers old, but still talented cast of performers do manage to reach the NBA Finals again, I would much rather have Fisher's proven resume on my team.
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