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BILL PLASCHKE

Lakers need to do the right thing with Derek Fisher, and that's to keep him

Even at 35 and having lost a step or two, the veteran point guard continues to be an essential ingredient on a championship-caliber team with his sturdy defense and clutch shooting. The Lakers mustn't forget that this summer when he's a free agent.

June 05, 2010|Bill Plaschke

Every time his old butt skids, the mandate speaks. Every time his rainbow jumper drops, the message soars.

Every time he stares down basketball's scariest player in the corner of the locker room and tells him to zip it, dude, his bosses better listen.

When Derek Fisher becomes a free agent next month, the Lakers have one directive for which there can be no caterwauling or confusion.

Don't mess it up. Don't let him walk.

Go ahead, sign a younger point guard, but don't think it will make Fisher irrelevant or undeserving of crunch time. Fine, cut his $5-million salary if you must, but don't embarrass him or make him beg.

You don't need to star him. You don't need to even start him. But you do need to keep him.

Fisher is 35, his legs are slowing, his stamina is fading, but his impact is enormous. He is ordinary in autumn, forgettable in winter, but absolutely irreplaceable in the spring, where once again he is six feet of rock and two hundred pounds of glue.

"Our captain," Jordan Farmar said simply. "Our leader."

Imagine someone making that statement on a team that includes Kobe Bryant, yet not saying it about Kobe Bryant, but make no mistake.

Kobe has never won a championship without Fish. Kobe cannot carry a team without Fish. Kobe would be a lonely locker-room dictator without Fish.

Bryant is the main reason Fisher was brought back here in 2007 after he spent three years understandably chasing big money in Golden State and Utah. Bryant is one of the reasons he can now not be allowed to leave, as he constantly clears the path of communication between the Lakers' intense superstar and his occasionally intimidated teammates.

"Most of what Fish does, you'll never see," Lamar Odom said. "He keeps everything level, everyone on the same page. He is one person, one speech, one word."

Sometimes that word is for Bryant — "I'm sure there's some times he wishes I were taller, faster and quicker . . . and there's sometimes I wish he would pass a little bit more," Fisher said with a twinkle.

Usually, though, that word is for everyone.

In the Lakers' 102-89 victory over the Boston Celtics on Thursday in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, that word was "bump." The raw Fisher bumped the skilled Ray Allen through screens, through breaks, down the lane, over the top, bumped him right into three-for-eight shooting with zero threes and a bunch of ouches.

This is the same Fisher who, just three months ago, supposedly couldn't guard anybody. This is the same Fisher who was beaten so badly by Russell Westbrook in the Lakers' opening playoff series against Oklahoma City, the defensive assignment was eventually given to Bryant.

But this is the same Fisher who ignored the snub — like he ignores all snubs — and hit three treys in the decisive Game 6 against the Thunder. This is the Fisher who tuned out the obscene chants in Salt Lake City and hit a three-pointer in the final minute that propelled the Lakers to the Game 3 victory that led to the sweep of the Jazz. And, of course, this was the Fisher who scored 22 points in the turning point that was Game 5 against Phoenix.

Now this, a fist to the chest of the mighty Boston Celtics that should put him back in the good graces of fans and officials for . . . "Two days?" Fisher said, laughing. "Depending on what happens in the game on Sunday, that's over."

It shouldn't be over. These things add up. It's time for the Lakers to take count. Remember his hardball speech last spring against Denver, followed by his longball heroics against Orlando? Remember what happened the last time he left here? Remember Chucky Atkins and Smush Parker and Shammond Williams, oh my!

Fisher's oh-point-four shot against San Antonio is precisely how long the Lakers should need to give him a fair deal and keep him a Laker forever.

He said this week that he is not retiring, and that he would "love" to remain with the Lakers. But he won't do it with Sasha Vujacic minutes or minimum pay, nor should he.

"I definitely believe I can play a lot of minutes, and I'm capable of being a starter. . . . I'm still willing to demand what I feel like is deserving," he said during a rare private moment in a Staples Center hallway. "But I know what's important to me is being in this position time and time again."

He looked around at the Finals clutter. He heard the Finals buzz. He briefly stared up at the championship banners.

That "position" is a championship one. That "position" is sliding on his back while drawing a charge, fighting through a pick to stop a shooter, staring down a star to make him start passing.

You heard him, Lakers. He wants to be here. He will sacrifice a little bit to be here. But he still needs to matter here.

Don't mess it up.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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