Mike Dunleavy, former coach and general manager of the Clippers, takes a look at what the Lakers need to do to repeat their title next season. Dunleavy has coached four NBA teams — the Clippers, Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers. He was NBA coach of the year in 1999 with Portland.
The Lakers will have a lot of difficult decisions in the coming months, but this one is a no-brainer:
They need to keep Derek Fisher.
In a moment, I'll get into some of the other choices the franchise needs to make as it positions itself to make a run at a third consecutive NBA title. First, though, I'll explain why keeping Fisher is so important.
His leadership is essential, on the court and behind the scenes. His shooting is an obvious plus — he routinely makes shots in the fourth quarter that most guys not named Kobe Bryant might be hesitant to take — yet that's just one facet of what makes him such a valuable player.
Fisher has credibility in the locker room, and he's not the kind of guy who would have a problem delivering the bad news to Kobe if, say, he's trying to carry too much of the load himself. As a coach, you need someone who can deliver a message.
Back when I was coaching the Lakers, I had that in Magic Johnson. We had a core group of guys on that team that were tremendous people and tireless workers. Magic was our best player and, like Kobe, led by example with his work ethic. Just as important was the way he helped me as a coach, just the way Fisher helps the Lakers now.
When you're a coach, you might be able to identify problems and know what you need to do, but guys can get anesthetized to your voice. You can't be the only one delivering the message over and over. It's invaluable to have somebody on the team who's levelheaded and understands the reality, what's really going on, and can keep people in check. That takes a lot of the burden off the coach.
Magic and I were able to play good cop/bad cop a lot. The one guy that I had to continually keep motivated was Vlade Divac. As a player and a person, he brought everything to the table, but there were times he wasn't physical enough or just didn't show up in games when we needed him.
So we had it choreographed, completely worked out beforehand. Magic would jump him hard as Vlade was coming off the court. Then, I would get him back in the huddle and calm things down, pat him on the back on the way out and tell him, "I know you can do it, Vlade. You've got to come through for us." That system worked really well.
When I was coaching in Portland, I had Rasheed Wallace. He was a great player and somebody everyone on the team liked. The thing was, he just didn't want to be the go-to guy at the end of a game. He didn't want you to call a play for him, yet if you gave him the ball at the end he would deliver.
To counter that, I would run a play for somebody else, even though the ball would ultimately wind up in Rasheed's hands. I'd tell him, "OK, Rasheed, we're going to run a play for Scottie Pippen. Pipp, you come off that screen and knock down that 17-foot jumper."
And then as they were walking away from the huddle, I'd grab Pipp and tell him, "Don't even think about shooting that jump shot. Drop the ball into Rasheed." And he'd do that, and Rasheed would turn around and hit the game-winner off the glass.
What I'm saying is having players like Magic and Pippen — and, in this case, Fisher — makes your life so much easier as a coach.
With these Lakers, one of the most pressing questions is whether Phil Jackson will be back. I think he will. The lure of another three-peat has to be very tough to resist. The Lakers have reached the Finals in three consecutive seasons and have won the last two. If they win a third, they're at least in the discussion when you're talking about the greatest teams in NBA history.
There are other decisions to be made, particularly at the point guard spot. In addition to Fisher, Jordan Farmar is a free agent, and Shannon Brown can opt out on July 1 to become one too. It would probably work out best for the team if Fisher were the backup point guard, instead of a guy who's playing 30 minutes a game.
The thing is, it's pretty clear the Lakers aren't overflowing with confidence in Farmar or Brown, or they already would have started the process of passing the torch at the position. The team needs to decide whether to go with one of those guys, or shop around and find somebody else.
Another question is, do the Lakers explore options to change their core? Last year, they won a championship and Trevor Ariza had a big role. Still, they let him go and signed a defensive upgrade in Ron Artest, who could potentially match up better with Cleveland's LeBron James or Boston's Paul Pierce, players they could face in the next year's Finals.
You don't know what the brain trust of the Lakers — Jerry Buss, Jimmy Buss and Mitch Kupchak — is thinking now. This is a proactive franchise that is forward-thinking and stays ahead of the curve, even after winning a championship. Do they feel there's a weakness in this core group now? And if so, how might they address that?
There's one school of thought that the Lakers might not spend as much money on players next year. But now that they've won another championship, the pressure might be on to open their wallet just as wide.
What the Lakers have weighing heavily in their favor is they're such a desirable place to play. You have to think there's some free agent out there who's going to force the issue with his contract and say, "I'm going to either go to a team out there that really pays me, and you get nothing, or you can trade me to the Lakers and get something for me. Make your best deal."
That's the kind of cachet the Lakers have. And that's one of the reasons they just might realize their goal and stay atop the mountain.
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