NBA

Derek Fisher's Trade Shows the High Price of Unproductive Leadership

When the Lakers unceremoniously dumped Derek Fisher last week, the press was split on the merits. Kevin Ding, for one, wrote, in effect, that the Lakers loved Fisher enough to set him free. Less cheery was Bill Plaschke, whose first reaction was that the Lakers “traded their soul,” as if such a thing exists in Los Angeles. Hence Plaschke’s follow-up, that Fisher’s signing with the first-place Thunder made OKC the new greatest threat to the Lakers’ path to the Finals. Clearly Fisher wasn’t quite ready for the glue factory if the Thunder and the Heat, both title-ready clubs, were so eager to include him in their elite rotations.

A former boss of mine likes to say that the easiest thing in the world to do is someone else’s job. In contention for that title, though, is spending someone else’s money. Plaschke determined that Fisher, the head of the NBA players union and a five-time champion with the Lakers, is too smart, too clutch and too selfless to quantify with such trifling commodities as the $3.4 million or so that the Lakers pocketed. “The money dump is obvious,” Plaschke wrote. “It’s the same thing that Jim Buss did to Lamar Odom. For the first time ever, the Lakers are clearly being guided by economics, one of the greatest franchises in sports suddenly reduced to tripping over relative pennies.”

Later in the week, an interview with Buss, the Lakers’ executive VP of player personnel, illustrated just how that seven-figure spare change gets magnified under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. Some of these figures, in fact, are wild:

The Lakers will try to parse down their hefty payroll of approximately $85 million for this season, which is well above the $70.1 million luxury tax level. While they will owe a dollar-for-dollar penalty to the league office at the end of this season of approximately $15 million, it will be much harsher in two seasons when all the terms of the new CBA kick in. For teams $0-$5 million more than the luxury tax, there will be a $1.50 per dollar penalty; $5 million-$10 million over is $1.75; $10 million-$15 million is $2.50; and $15 million-$20 million is $3.25. If a team finds itself above the luxury tax four years out of any five-year period, it will owe a repeater tax which would apply an extra dollar to every increment (i.e. if a team was $0-$5 million over, it would have to pay $2.50 instead of $1.50 per every dollar above the line). …

The Lakers also will be affected by the new revenue-sharing model the NBA has adopted. Buss estimated the Lakers, who used to dole out approximately $4 million-$6 million a season in revenue sharing, now will owe anywhere from $50 million-$80 million in revenue sharing each season.

Not to say that Fisher was going to make it another couple of years, necessarily. But the Lakers are clearly thinking more about those relative pennies than in years past, if Buss is honestly looking ahead to sharing the equivalent of a lesser franchise’s entire payroll and forking over the equivalent of yet another just in luxury taxes and overages. Maybe it is humbling for the Lakers brass to have to regard their five-time champions with all the suspendered suspicion as the Bobs. Six points, three assists, a couple of boards a game … Derek, what would ya say you do here? But $50 million here, another $40 million there, and pretty soon you’re talking some real money.

So how does a club assign a dollar value to leadership? Last week right after the Jets signed Tim Tebow, their owner felt compelled to justify it as “just for football,” pointing to Tebow’s history of winning to elide the fact that no one’s sure why that keeps happening. Like the Broncos, the Lakers opted for quantifiable quantity. The Lakers got to upgrade their speed, defense, scoring ability and versatility by plugging in Ramon Sessions at the point. In his first two games, he registered 20 dimes — six games’ worth, in Fisher’s 2012. Fisher hasn’t exactly lit Oklahoma City on fire yet, scoring 10 points in two games on 3-of-14 shooting. In Friday night’s double-overtime orgy against Minnesota, in which the teams combined to score almost 300 points, Fisher made two shots and assisted on three more in 36 minutes. Westbrook pumped in 45 points on 28 shots. Against the Heat on Sunday, Fisher collected one rebound and two fouls in 18 minutes. If he’s worth his reported $2.3 million this season, it’s not for his ability to goose a box score.

The dude is old — 37, in fact, not far from playing against guys half his age. His new jersey number in Oklahoma City is 37, all the better to remind the Lakers, if they do play the Thunder in the playoffs, that they’re losing to an antique. Whatever he accomplishes with the Thunder is, for his career, just gravy. If he hits a big shot late, super. If Westbrook matures and pushes the Thunder past L.A., Fisher will get a dose of reflected credit. If Los Angeles out-Kobes the Thunder in May, his role will be too modest for him to catch any blame. In effect, Fisher has found a no-lose situation. It’s what leaders do.

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