EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — It had become obvious to general manager Mitch Kupchak that if the Lakers were to contend for a championship, they had to become a more athletic team. Head coach Mike Brown — who preaches defense above all else — wasn’t getting enough of it from the point guard position, and was going to soon be faced with the unthinkable.
Benching beloved Lakers’ icon Derek Fisher.
Fisher has been a major part of five NBA Championship teams in Los Angeles, and is a legendary fan favorite. But he’s no longer the D Fish of even a couple of seasons ago, when his basketball IQ and experience allowed him to make up for diminishing skills. He was constantly being beaten by opponents, and his shooting percentage, a sub-par career .401, had dropped to .383.
What Kupchak knew and what Brown surely realized was that Fisher either had to become a resident of the bench — or of another city.
It was off to Houston.
Los Angeles, you might have a problem.
The Lakers made two deals Thursday prior to the trading deadline, one sending Fisher to the Rockets for forward/center Jordan Hill; the other acquiring point guard Ramon Sessions and forward Christian Eyenga from Cleveland for Luke Walton, Jason Kapono and a 2012 protected first round draft pick acquired from Dallas in the Lamar Odom deal.
These trades had to be made for the team to become a legitimate title contender, Sessions and Hill giving the Lakers a dimension they haven’t had enough of since winning their last title in 2010 — speed, strength and youth.
The 25-year-old Sessions should be able to team with Steve Blake and give the Lakers a formidable point guard tandem, with Kupchak envisioning them playing together in the backcourt at times. Sessions is averaging 10.5 points and 5.2 assists per game this season, and with his quickness and offensive potential — he’s averaged nearly 18 points as a starter in his career — will likely make fans forget about Fisher’s on-court performance of the last two seasons.
The 6-foot-10, 24-year-old Hill has career averages of 5.4 ppg and 4.2 rpg with the New York Knicks and Houston. He will give the Lakers youth and toughness up front.
Eyenga, only 22, has played in just six games and will start his Laker career in the D League with the D-Fenders. The deals make the Lakers younger and more talented, and they even will save some money for the Buss family as the new CBA begins to have its ramifications. The huge question looming, however, is how the trade of Fisher will be received in the locker room.
The 24th pick in the 1996 draft out of Arkansas-Little Rock, Fisher was as popular among teammates as he was with the fans.
His abrupt removal could massacre a team chemistry that has been unstable since the aborted Chris Paul deal left Odom in Texas with the defending World Champion Mavericks and Pau Gasol constantly worried about being traded again. Fisher — along with Kobe Bryant — has been the stabilizing presence, often consoling or cajoling players into forgetting about themselves and their agendas, while focusing on the goals of the team.
Fisher is also known to be Bryant’s closest friend on the team and the one person who can prevent a Kobe meltdown — or at least keep it to a minimum.
Bryant has said often that he regards Derek almost as a brother, and that when Fisher speaks, the usually strong-willed Bryant is more apt to listen and take Fish’s advice to heart. Kobe was also outspoken about Fisher’s abilities to still be able to hit the big shot when it’s needed.
“Why would anybody be surprised,” Bryant told the media after Fisher beat the Mavericks with a last-second 3-pointer at STAPLES Center in January. “That’s what Fish does.”
But he won’t be doing it for the Lakers anymore, and he won’t be around to help mitigate Bryant’s moodiness. Kupchak acknowledged that those missing attributes might be a detriment to his team’s championship dreams.
“You can’t underestimate Derek’s contribution from a chemistry point of view and on the court that he’s given to (our team),” said Kupchak, who has been in the front office during all 13½ years Fisher was with the Lakers. (Fisher also played for Golden State and Utah.) “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.”
“It’s never easy to see someone like Derek leave. He had a lot of great moments for us and was a definite presence in the locker room. It’s always a bit of a gamble to trade someone with so much presence, and we’ll definitely miss him, but we felt it was a move that will make us better in the short term and the long term.”
The Lakers host Minnesota Friday night, and Kupchak said there’s a slight possibility Sessions and Hill would be available, though most likely they will make their debuts on Sunday versus Utah. The quicker they put on their new uniforms, the better, as the Lakers try to continue the momentum from a four-game winning streak — including their last three games on the road.
And Brown — who loves to coach and teach during practice and shootarounds, will be adding one more course to his teaching curriculum — chemistry.