Sunday, Derek Fisher played his 501st consecutive game and 683rd over the course of his 15 year career. The majority of those have come as the lead guard in the triangle offense.
This year, for the first time since a three-year stint through Golden State and Utah between '04-'07, Fisher is being asked to run a traditional offense in which the point guard isn't another, interchangeable part but instead is, well, a point guard.
Like everyone else in a Lakers jersey, he's working through a learning curve. "There are a lot of things we're doing on the floor right now, we're making calls. We're dictating what's going to happen when a play starts, and we haven't yet developed the ability to react properly when a defensive player denies or takes something away. We start to look really choppy," Fisher said Saturday. "So for me, it's finding ways as we grow, to still control the tempo of a game, to make sure that we're executing properly, even when we really don't know what we're doing."
"There's a lot more pressure on that point guard to really get people to the right spots, to make sure we're moving where we're supposed to move, and really attacking that clock early, and not walking the ball up the floor."
Given how long he played in Phil Jackson's system and the way his skill set had come to be defined by it creates a perception Fisher is a triangle point guard who must now adjust his game to play a more traditional role. In fact, Fisher says it's the other way around. "I'm a point guard by nature. That's what I grew up playing, and I adjusted to become the best player I could be in the triangle. I've always preferred to have five or six assists as opposed to one or two. This system will allow me to facilitate more plays," he said.
Fisher is unequivocal in his enjoyment of the system change ("I love it."), and believes nobody should be surprised.
"A lot of people back in '04 when I left and went to Golden State really only focused on the contract as far as why I left. But it was really the desire to be outside of the triangle and try some new things," he said. "A new challenge of really being a point guard, and handling the basketball and deciding who is going to get the ball where. That's exciting. To make a play for somebody else is as exciting to me as hitting a shot myself. That's how I came into this league. I had never run the triangle before I came into the NBA."
For what it's worth, two of Fisher's three highest efficiency seasons came with the Warriors, playing that more traditional role. The Lakers have to hope something similar happens this year, despite the passage of time. With long odds for a sizable upgrade from outside the organization, the question of how well Fisher (and Steve Blake) perform is key to L.A.'s title hopes. Last season, the Lakers had the least productive point guard tandem in the league. ESPN.com's John Hollinger has argued it was quite possibly the worst tandem at any position on any team in the NBA. Some of that was the triangle's natural limitations on point guard production, particularly when surrounded by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom.
Most of it wasn't.
Between last year's failures (his 2010-11 PER of 8.94 was 60th of 64 qualifying PG's), his age (37), lack of quicks, and a summer spent in negotiating rooms, confidence in and expectations for Fisher this year are both incredibly low. Frankly, rising above the level of a liability would be a pleasant surprise for many fans and media.
Early returns this season have been mixed. In the Denver games this weekend, Fisher had nine assists and no turnovers. Working in the half court, he made many solid, decisive choices, and (as it was last year) seemed dedicated to the idea of getting the ball inside. Still, he's a poor finisher at the rim, can't penetrate with the effectiveness the offense needs, and is shooting 11 percent from 3-point range. The first two likely won't change, putting an even greater onus on his decision making and perimeter game.
He'll always make plays like the one helping preserve Saturday's win, beating out Ty Lawson for a 50/50 ball. The work ethic and toughness can never be questioned, and Fisher can't possibly be killing them defensively given L.A.'s early success on that side of the ball. Fortunately for the Lakers Steve Blake appears in line for a rebound season. That wouldn't turn the position into a strength, but certainly mitigates the weakness and also likely pushes Fisher into the 18-22 minute per night role the Lakers have wanted him to play for a few seasons.
As currently constructed, point guard is never going to be a strength for the Lakers. Whether it's a weakness that can't be overcome is dependent in large part on how well Fisher rediscovers his point guard roots, and whether he's got enough juice left in the tank to make it matter.