Left out of the boomtime summer for older players in free agency has been the over-35 crowd’s most accomplished player. Even for a guy who, at 38, has declined physically faster than his peers it’s still more than a little odd to write that in late September Derek Fisher is still shopping for a team. The trade that sent him from Los Angeles to Houston last March, a move that eventually landed him in Oklahoma City for a chance to win a sixth NBA title, was a shock, to be sure. That he’s facing the possibility of not going to his first training camp since 1996 is even more of a jolt.
By multiple reports, Fisher’s offseason has been far from his agent casting a line with zero bites. Chicago reportedly wanted to sign him to the veteran’s minimum to play behind Kirk Hinrich, but he balked at that (Nate Robinson took that offer). He’s worked out at the Lakers’ El Segundo facility in the past week, and a training camp spot would seem to have opened with the news Steve Blake somehow punctured his foot on a parking lot spike strip. Chris Duhon‘s role in the Dwight Howard-Andrew Bynum trade had seemed for the whole summer like an “act now and we’ll throw in this!” component in a bad late-night infomercial. Now with Blake out possibly a month, that role just became much more important behind Steve Nash, another 38-year-old. A return to Oklahoma City was termed as “remote” by Sam Amick of Sports Illustrated, even if coach Scott Brooks said “everything is still fluid” on a possible return.
[Related: Derek Fisher’s Top 5 Moments As A Laker]
And what about the Celtics, the team that started the rush on over 35 players when Kevin Garnett decided to return? After Keyon Dooling was waived, there is a spot open — one that won’t be filled by a veteran guard, GM Danny Ainge said this week, saying he’s pleased with the team’s younger guards. Even if the Celtics were an option, their roster seems to be such an insular group bound by loyalty (just look at how Ray Allen‘s departure went over with Rajon Rondo and Doc Rivers) that new addition Jason Terry has picked up the attitude of being a true Bahstun Winna without missing a beat in just two months. Nonetheless, I would be surprised if the career Laker didn’t sniff out the possibilities given his agent, Rob Pelinka, is Dooling’s, too.
There is a reason Fisher wasn’t signed quickly in July, of course, with his physical tools far behind that of peers Nash, Garnett, Allen and Grant Hill. They’ve still got game left; Fisher’s biggest asset is his championship experience and how he communicates that to younger players. His points per game (4.9) and assists per game (1.4) in his 20 games with Oklahoma City last season were his lowest since 1997 and his shooting percentage of 34 percent from the field was his lowest, period.
And it was a bad omen for Fisher’s free agency when the Clippers brought back Chauncey Billups, who in many respects is Fisher’s easiest “elder winner” analogue. However, unlike Fisher, Billups is still rehabbing from a major Achilles tendon injury (Fisher is not only healthy, he’d worked out at the Clippers’ facility this summer as well).
Only a week ago, Brooks talked about why Fisher still matters, a reason that seems superfluous in October but will likely make him employable again next spring when he can pinch hit as a backcourt sage much as he did with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City.
“Derek Fisher, just being around him, I can tell why he’s loved by so many people and why the Lakers won so many championships,” Brooks said. “He puts everything he has into every possession, every practice and every game. In our practices, he is 37 and he did everything we asked, every drill and every possession. He practices every day. It was great. I don’t think we could’ve gone as far as we did without him. I thought he was terrific and I love him. I really have a lot of respect for him.”
It puts Fisher in a hard spot, though. Serious contenders for NBA titles have mostly everything covered and wouldn’t need a veteran voice as much as, say, a mid-level squad looking for the bump his maturity could provide. I don’t see Fisher as gravitating toward those teams, though, gauging by his reaction to being traded to Houston last season as it rode the 8-seed bubble the last two months. That was a team he could have genuinely made better but he chose to ride the team to the Finals whose use for him was minimal, at best. As Brooks said, it wasn’t that he was any less effective a leader, it’s just that his voice wasn’t necessary to the Thunder’s chances — and his play even less so. Fisher could absolutely still find a home in the NBA yet, but it will likely be under not ideal circumstances — a veteran’s minimum salary for one. And maybe most importantly, for the chance to help a mid-level team prepare for runs in future seasons, instead of being on a team looking to bring home an NBA title — his sixth — at the end of this one.
What do you think?
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