Phil Jackson wasn’t going to try and fit a square into a Triangle hole. On Monday afternoon, he found his malleable Play-Doh head coach in veteran Derek Fisher.
The 11-time champion lost one like Lauryn Hill when his original catch unhooked himself from New York’s pole and paddled to Golden State.
Instead, Jackson targeted a former role player with similarities to Steve Kerr, but who is more open to influence. Jackson’s hope is that he’s found the Fish That Saves New York or that he brought his own Daniel LaRusso with ball movement drills instead of repetitive wax on, wax off dojo training. However, Fisher has no connections to New York and has never even played in the Eastern Conference. This is analogous to Daniel-san following Mr. Miyagi to Japan in Karate Kid II.
Fisher has never been thought of as a tactical prodigy, but his composure, leadership and prime positioning as a Triangle point guard in seven trips to the Finals running Jackson’s offense.
The draft class that produced Kobe Bryant and a slew of future celestial talents was also Derek Fisher's NBA birth. Shuttered to the back pages while Bryant captured Tinseltown’s attention, Fisher was the 24th pick of the vaunted ’96 Draft.
Fisher is the latest in a long line of retirees to almost immediately assume head coaching gigs. Kerr was an executive and broadcaster in the years between his retirement and ascension to Golden State’s bench, but Kevin Ollie, Avery Jackson and Jason Kidd have become the generation of veteran student-to-teacher phenoms. Steve Nash, Andre Miller and Chauncey Billups are next in line to make the jump errr…take a seat on an NBA bench if this trend continues.
Fisher’s leadership qualities were apparent to Jackson from the jump and during Jackson’s final playoff jaunt, he praised Fisher's intangibles as the vocal leader of the Lakers.
"He's definitely the spokesman for this team as far as leadership goes," Jackson said.
Fisher was also Jackson’s ideal point guard as the bizarro-Nash. He was the consummate Triangle point guard. His ball handling duties were sparse in comparison to the Nash-centered track meet popularized by Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix. However he was fundamentally sound within the Triangle and had possessed attention to detail. No regular season honors were bestowed upon Fisher, but the postseason became his puppet theatre. Fisher’s penchant for stunning defenses with clutch shots in major moments made him Kobe’s Kerr.
Moreover, Jackson has routinely criticized the overuse of the pick and roll as a de facto generator of offense, which partly explains why great point guards tended to steer clear of Jackson’s offense.
Jackson has railed against pick and roll offenses and would rather lose most high usage rate point guards in the Bermuda Triangle than place them in the Triangle offense.
“Tex would always argue that you didn’t need a great point guard to win in the NBA. This idea of the point guard dominating the ball is a relatively new idea in the game of basketball, really.” Jackson told ESPN.
“One of the things that’s pretty obvious [about my coaching career] is that I never had to fight to get a dominant point guard. Because once you do that, defenses can align themselves against that one guy. You can pressure the point guard high on the floor and move the ball away from whomever you want to shut down. That was always my defensive philosophy against people like Isiah Thomas and John Stockton.” Jackson added.
Footwork, passing, reading defense, and team work. The state of bball now is s/roll which is controlled by the dribbler is the easy way out.— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) August 15, 2013
Until the age of 39, Fisher’s steadiness enabled him to outlast more athletic, larger and more physically talented peers. If he’d agreed to one more tour around the league’s 29 arenas, he’d be the fifth 40-year-old point guard in NBA history. While Nash is on Team Keep Getting’ Dem Checks' injured reserve, Fisher was actually playing crunchtime minutes in the Western Conference Finals.
It’ll also be incredibly frustrating for Raymond Felton to be reminded every day that his head coach is in better basketball shape. At least it should be.
"From the day we got him, he considered himself a guy who had to outwork everybody else to make it in this league," said general manager Mitch Kupchak, who was Jerry West's assistant when the Lakers drafted Fisher. "He has confidence in his ability now, but what he had to do [as a rookie] 13 years ago he knows he still has to do—outwork players, outthink them. His approach to the game and his career has not changed one bit."
As a head coach, Fisher’s fortunes have changed dramatically. Behind Kerr, he was the second overall pick as Jackson’s niche pick. He’s now the known commodity tasked with leading one of the NBA’s most luxurious franchises. Of course, the Titanic was also lavishly decked out.
Unlike Phil Jackson’s coaching origins in Chicago, Fisher will be beginning his coaching career on the bottom rung of the totem pole. Carmelo Anthony would be crazy to return to the Knicks as currently constituted, which means Fisher will have a piecemeal roster led by Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith.
The unfortunate part for Fisher is that as a young coach with a slim resume he doesn’t have the cache to woo Anthony to a submarining roster.
Jackson joked during Tuesday’s introductory press conference for Fisher that he’d have the new head coach come into his first team meeting wearing all five of his championship rings as head coach. Despite their outwardly positive perspectives bordering on denial, that won’t matter much in the long run unless those five rings imbue each member of the Knicks with better basketball IQs and abilities.
Jackson has coached more playoff games than any other peer in league history and his 11 rings as a head coach speaks for itself. Fisher’s credentials are in a league of their own. He played in more postseason games than anyone else in league history and was a key figure in the Carlos Boozer-Deron Williams Utah Jazz advancing to the 2007 Western Conference Finals while the Lakers floundered as a fringe playoff team.
His return to Los Angeles coincided with the acquisition of Pau Gasol and three consecutive NBA Finals appearances for the Lakers.
In his spare time, he served as the most effective NBPA President in recent history, reforming the organization by ridding it of Billy Hunter and his unethical practices.
After being waived by Kupchak two years ago and being picked up by Houston, Fisher wiggled his way out of Houston and re-emerged in Oklahoma City. First as a Weekend at Bernie’s type veteran bench body and ultimately into a viable contributor on the second unit. In between, he also bamboozled the Mavs into releasing him at the start of the 2012-13 season so that could rehab and focus on his NBA presidency duties--only to re-sign in Oklahoma City months later.
Whether or not he’s a legitimate rabbit foot or just a shrewd negotiator of the free agent market is unclear (although Jazz and Mavs fans would say the latter).
However, he’s been groomed in stable environments and been provided with all the natural resources necessary to become a great coach. Even great coaches require gifted court emissaries to carry out their game plans.
Fisher could develop into a smooth operator after the inevitable rough patch, but there’s always the chance that Fisher becomes something he’s been lambasted for doing in recent years—and flops.