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Friday, June 12, 2009

Player of the Decade? Derek Fisher.

ORLANDO – Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express News had the foresight to write a great story yesterday morning, June 11th, 2009., from his humble abode in Texas, a place he calls the “Tater-Dome.”

Monroe thought about the title and honor of "most dominant NBA player of the decade" and he posed the question to a few NBA experts who were lucky enough to witness all the big games of the past 10+ years and people who really knew the players he put forth in his three-person 'playoff'' for the NBA star who made the most impact during the past 10+ years.

Kobe, Shaq or Duncan asked Monroe?

I can say that I was honored to be among the NBA gurus that he polled as he was doing his research. He also asked Steve Kerr, the overmatched GM of the Phoenix Suns, who carried Michael Jordan's bags for four years, as he spotted up on the three-point line while Tim Duncan dominated the paint in San Antonio for a couple of years. Of course, giving credit where credit is warranted, Kerr did hit a couple big shots throughout the decade, earning himself a championship ring in the 1997 NBA Finals when he drained a shot off a Jordan pass with six seconds remaining to defeat the Utah Jazz..

When Monroe wrote the story, little did he know that Fisher would again be the key player, hitting the two key shots -- both long three-pointers from the top of the key to win a key game in the NBA Finals. (Note: Fisher's prior three-pointer in a big game situation propelled the Lakers past the San Antonio Spurs, but the Detroit Pistons would later outlast the Lakers in the NBA Finals of 2004).

Now, when I was asked to choose between the three players, I defaulted to an answer that Celtics great Bill Russell explained quite eloquently when he was asked who the best NBA players of all-time were during the NBA at 50 celebration.

"There are a lot of ties," said Russ. "How can you possibly say that Oscar Roberston was better than Jerry West or that West was better than Sam Jones or Jones was better than Walt Frazier and so on, describing just a handful of the NBA’s greatest guards, never mind centers like Chamberlain, O’Neal or himself."

So, who is the player of the decade? Is it Kobe, Shaq, Timmy Duncan or do you prefer to nominate another?

Yes, another! As the actual answer might be: Derek Fisher!

“He’s very persistent,” said LA Coach Phil Jackson. “He’s just a dogged player. He’s not blessed with great speed. He’s a good athlete but he’s not spectacularly fast. But, he has a certain sense about him. He knows what’s going on on the floor and can organize a team.

“It’s character. We’ve always said the character has got to be in players if they’re going to be great players. You just can’t draft it. It’s not about talent, it’s about character and he’s a person of high character. He brings that to play, not only in his gamesmanship but also in his intestinal fortitude,” said Jackson.

Where did the clutch performance in Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals rank in Derek Fisher’s personal experience?

“Well, it’s number 100, 101, maybe,” joked Fisher during the league run press conference staged before hundreds or media and the worldwide televisioon cameras of ESPN and NBA TV, staged a few minutes after he won Game 4 and put the Lakers in control 3-games-to-1.

“I don’t compare myself to Robert Horry,” said Fisher when he was asked to compare his career to that of another role player who had a reputation of hitting very big shots in many an NBA Playoff game.

Fisher was selected by the LA Lakers in the first round of the 1996 NBA Draft, the 24th overall pick of that draft. He is currently in his 13th season of NBA basketball after playing his first eight years with the Lakers, then taking a free agent route to Golden State for two years and Utah for a season (2006-07). Fisher re-signed with the Lakers as a free agent on July 20, 2007 after a much publicized personal decision to move to Los Angeles from Salt Lake City to better serve his young daughter who had been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a cancerous tumor in her left eye.

“I gained so much respect for him,” said Kobe Bryant when he was asked about his relationship with Fisher over the decade with the Lakers. “He’s been there before. He’s been there and done that. We teased him a little bit in the locker room, because he was 0-for-5 before he hit the two big shots. He has supreme confidence and those shots at the end of the game were easy for him.”

Fisher finished the game with an impressive statistical line of 12 points and four rebounds on 5-of-11 shooting, playing 42 minutes of time. He was one of four Lakers to log 40+ minutes in the pivotal game in the series.

Here is the story Mike Monroe filed with the Express News yesterday morning:

In the final minute of Tuesday's NBA Finals Game 3, televised close-ups of Kobe Bryant revealed a player mouthing curses, anger directed inward.

The Lakers superstar had missed a critical, late free throw, which made him 5 for 10 on free-throw attempts, incredulous at temporary frailty under duress.

Could it be Bryant now understands how dominant Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal have been over the past 10 seasons, during which each managed to anchor a team that won four NBA titles while simultaneously fearing the foul line?

Depending on your geography or personal bias, the Lakers are either a few Bryant free-throw conversions from an unbeatable 3-0 advantage or one Courtney Lee lob-layup miss shy of a 1-2 deficit in a best-of-7 series that will remain in central Florida for two more games.

Fact is, L.A. holds home-court advantage even if the Magic win Games 4 and 5. That makes Bryant the favorite to earn his fourth championship, his first without O'Neal as a teammate.

When, and if, this happens, expect plenty of experts to declare Bryant the most dominant player of the past 10 years.

Will a fourth title really affirm his ascendancy as the defining player of this era?

Your opinion may depend on the span of your memory.

Wasn't it just two years ago that the Spurs won their fourth championship behind Duncan's play?

Can we be just three years removed from O'Neal's fourth title run, after he became the piece Dwyane Wade and the Heat needed to secure a championship?

Some NBA eras have been simple to define:

The early years belonged to George Mikan, who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles, from 1949-54.

Bill Russell dominated from his rookie season, 1956-57, until he retired, with 11 rings, after serving as Celtics player-coach on the 1969 title team.

Michael Jordan dominated from 1990-98, when he led the Bulls to two three-peats that were sandwiched around his stepping away from the game to dabble at baseball.

Duncan's championship run began in 1999, which puts a neat, 10-year punctuation mark on the latest era. But it is an era akin to the 1980s, when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson shared dominance.

Steve Kerr won three titles as a teammate of Jordan's, in 1996, '97 and '98; then two more alongside Duncan, in 1999 and 2003. As general manager of the Suns, he traded for O'Neal. This gives him a unique perspective to judge this latest, arbitrarily assigned stretch of NBA history.

Kerr, though, swatted the opportunity like an overhead smash on the tennis court.

The Suns' GM said he passed some time during a recent trans-Atlantic flight by reading a newspaper article that compared tennis star Roger Federer, whose French Open men's singles championship was his 14th Grand Slam title, to all-time greats Pete Sampras and Rod Laver.

“I finished the article,” Kerr said, “and thought: This is impossible. Whether it's comparing eras or players, the obvious answer is: They're all great players.

“So: Tim, Shaq, Kobe? They're all dominant. Who's more dominant? It's impossible to say.”

Perhaps there is an alternate answer in the debate. A Lakers championship will give Derek Fisher his fourth title, too. Had Fisher not hit the infamous zero-point-four shot that beat the Spurs in Game 5 of the 2004 Western semifinals, Duncan and the Spurs may have gone on to a second straight title, then a three-peat, in 2005.

Then, there would be no debate at all. The years from 1999-2009 would be the Duncan era, plain and simple.

Maybe Fisher, with one clutch basket, changed the decade as much as the players involved in this debate have.

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