He will be 40 in August. In the NBA 40 is a big number, whether it is points scored, minutes played, or how old you are. Derek Fisher will be 40 years old in two months. He knows what that means. He knows the days are shrinking; everything is small now. But first things first. Following the loss to the Spurs, following the rapid exit out of the playoffs-it was wrenching to lose at home in overtime- Derek Fisher spoke to the Oklahoma City media. The questions about his future were expected and he was purposefully vague. If nothing else Derek understands the politics of professional sports. He was reluctant to close one door before another door opened. So when he was asked about the possibility of coaching the Lakers it was a question he had been expecting. As always he was poised and gracious. The intriguing possibility of coaching his friend Kobe Bryant had occurred to Derek only in the abstract. Thoughtful and careful, Derek Fisher paused and said, “We’re brothers. We’ll work it out.”
Uh, not really. The Lakers, according to L.A. Times reporter Mike Bresnahan, have no interest in Derek Fisher as a head coach, nor are they willing to offer him a token interview. Derek is not a candidate. Derek is not a candidate but Mike Dunleavy is. Mike Dunleavy’s last job was coaching the Clippers four years ago. He averaged 30 wins a year. But the Lakers granted him an interview; after all he led the Lakers to the NBA Finals in 1991. Yet Derek Fisher, 5 time champion, leader extraordinaire, one of the reason the Lakers won championship #16 and beat the Celtics, was rejected before he could get to first base. Go figure.
It is humorous really, the Lakers reasoning. The “experience” qualification is at best buried between layers they can’t even sort through. Because you can be experienced and never make the playoffs. And you can be inexperienced and succeed. The Lakers just fired a coach who had 12 years of experience and he won 27 games and was widely considered a disaster, not just this year, but last year when he had Dwight Howard and a healthy Kobe Bryant. And before D’antoni, the Lakers hired a defensive coach who apprenticed under Greg Popovich and had 5 years experience. But Mike Brown was fired after 71 games. The experience card the Lakers are clinging to has not served them well. Rudy Tomjanovich had plenty of experience when he was the Lakers coach, 12 years of coaching in the NBA, two titles. He barely made it past the halfway mark before he quit.
The anti-Derek Fisher sentiment lacks originality. And boldness. The last two Laker hires were risks and they failed and the Lakers suffered because of it. But the Lakers, as an organization, have as their foundation, gambles. In 1981, Dr. Buss fired Paul Westhead 11 games in. Westhead wanted to slow the offense down and naturally this coincided with Magic Johnson who had no experience playing on a losing team. Dr. Buss named Jerry West and Pat Riley as “co-coaches”, one for offense and one for defense as if this was suddenly the NFL. Jerry West balked. He rejected the term “offensive captain” that Dr. Buss tried to give him and instead said, very plainly, that Pat Riley was the new coach. The only head coach. Pat Riley had zero coaching experience and he took it in stride. All he did in his first year was win 50 games and a NBA title. Of course his team was talent laden but it was the same team that Westhead didn’t understand how to coach. Intellect and a feel for your players are just as important as strategy. Riley had passion and intellect and he was a natural born leader.
Almost twenty years later another first time coach was hired. He would become one of the all time great leaders and coaching successes and moral compasses. When Doc Rivers took his first job, the Orlando Magic were coming off a season averaging 89 points. They were predicted to finish in last place. But at the end of his first year Doc won Coach of the Year. The Magic finished the season 41-41. They almost made the playoffs in 2000 with Darrell Armstrong and Ron Mercer as their best players. The next year the Magic did make the playoffs.
Mark Jackson followed the ‘no coaching experience’ footprints. Part preacher, part tactician, part father, part competitor he inspired as he demanded excellence. Mark had no experience when he took over the Golden State Warriors after venerated coach Don Nelson retired to Hawaii. Jackson struggled his first year but his second year the Warriors went to the playoffs and in his third year they won 50 games. It was a simple formula: create attachments with players, respect the bond. The Warriors played for Jackson like they were playing for their own fathers. They won for him. There was none of the usual gripping about minutes and playing time. They were all in. All of them. To the point that his departure still lingers. A month after Jackson was fired Steph Curry admitted it was still difficult for him to think about playing for another coach.
And so this is where the Lakers are, between a rock and a hard place. The Lakers want an experienced coach because…well…why exactly? They are in rebuilding mode so why? Short of something miraculous, the playoffs will be a long shot. If anything they will be playing for a lower seed. A month ago, Mitch Kupchak laid out his desire for the coaching candidate. He wanted the next coach to do what Mike D’antoni refused to do, communicate with Kobe Bryant and get the very best out of him these last two years. But no one knows Kobe better than Derek. Kobe respects no one as much as he does Derek. It would have been the last chapter for these two players drafted the same year, in the same round, finishing their career together. The fans would have given both of them some slack as they watched it all unfold.
It’s possible that the “experience” card is just an excuse to clear the path for Phil Jackson. He wanted Derek first and the Lakers and Phil may have entered into a professional courtesy. It also may be that the Lakers mind is already made up. Byron Scott has always been the front runner. He is a fan favorite in a way that Derek Fisher is not because Bryon reminds everyone of the Lakers glory years and Derek reminds everyone of Phil Jackson. Byron is the link to an era that is long gone; everyone has done other things. Mychal Thompson, a member of the 1987,1988 championship teams came back to Los Angeles after spending many years in Portland. He is the current Lakers radio analyst and host on ESPN710. He is openly rooting for Byron. If Byron gets the job Mychal is campaigning for Kurt Rambis and Michael Cooper as assistant coaches. Bring back Showtime one more time. Lakers fans are nostalgiac for the past even if the past is not good for them.
Which is what the Lakers think of Derek Fisher, great leader, never been a coach. At the end of the day he is not good for the Lakers. Or that is what they want us to believe. Just like they wanted us to believe Mike D’antoni was better than Phil Jackson. And Mike Brown was better than Brian Shaw.