Through the first half of the NBA season, the ongoing conversation around Lakerdom has focused mostly on the team's frontcourt. From Andrew Bynum's post-surgery rehab, to the rise and fall (and perhaps rise) of Pau Gasol, to the occasional perplexities of Ron Artest, the story of the Lakers' three-peat campaign has so far played out in the paint. Aside from the customary agita over Kobe Bryant's shot attempts, there haven't been many storylines - juicy, banal or in between -- concerning the Laker backcourt. In every season, though, it seems the play of Laker point guards eventually becomes a concern, so it's worth checking in to see how they've been faring lately.
Dashing the heartfelt hopes of many Laker fans, Phil Jackson has not meaningfully reduced Derek Fisher's playing time this year. Night in and night out, Fish starts and logs 25 to 30 minutes. What's left over gets scooped up by Steve Blake, signed in the offseason to replace Jordan Farmar as lead guard of the second unit. Together, Fisher and Blake form one of the oldest and least athletic point-guard tandems in the league, and statistically one of the least dazzling.
At 36 years old, Fish is turning in one of the worst shooting performances of his career. His three-point accuracy is actually up, from 35 percent last season to 40 percent now. But fewer of the shots he's taken have come from behind the arc. Last year about 40 percent of his FGAs came from distance; this year it's about 30 percent. The problem is that Fisher is one of the worst players in the league at making two-point shots: his accuracy from inside the arc is a breathtaking 37 percent. Basically, any time Fish takes a shot that's not a three, you can write it off as a wasted possession. He's also turning the rock over more frequently and getting to the free-throw line less frequently.
On the whole Blake has been better, though his performance has been lumpy. His Laker career began in fine fashion, as he posted an effective field-goal percentage (which gives extra credit for threes) of 57 percent in October and November. In December, though, a slump took hold and his eFG for the month crashed down to 43 percent. He has shot well in recent games, so it looks like December was just a classic cold streak. There's no real reason to think he won't settle in at a 50 to 53 percent effective field-goal mark that he's posted the last few years.
When taking the measure of Laker point guards, you do have to be careful not to get unduly hung up on the numbers. The Triangle offense isn't a system that requires, or could even readily accommodate, a paradigmatic ball-dominating point. There's no drive-and-kick element to it, and although there are pick-and-roll sets embedded in the Triangle playbook, in practice they almost always involve Kobe Bryant acting as the primary ballhandler. And at the end of close games, Kobe will always assume point-guard duties himself. High usage rates and assist totals aren't things you're ever really going to see from Fish and Blake, and you probably wouldn't want to.
The to-do list for a Laker point guard basically reads as follows:
1. Keep the ball moving.
2. Make open shots when the ball comes back out to you.
3. Play defense.
4. Get out of the way.
The first of those three items Blake does really well. He regularly gets the rock inside to Gasol, who's usually the guy playing center with the reserves, and he does a nice job of finding the open man in transition. As for Fish, he still has the occasional moment when he fires up a foot-on-the-line J with 20 seconds left on the game clock, but they seem to come less often this season. He's been more disciplined this year about routing the ball into the paint.
On the second point above, as discussed, both bros need improvement. Blake's shooting touch will be fine in the long run. The most beneficial thing Fish could do is stop shooting two-pointers except when he's unguarded under the basket. Aside from a turnover, a Fisher two-point attempt is the worst possible outcome of a Laker possession.
The defensive performances of Fisher and Blake are especially difficult to evaluate because of the collective-responsibility concepts hard-wired into the Laker system. Often the defensive task of the point guard is to steer opposing ball-handlers toward the Laker bigs. So, for instance, if you see in the box score that an opposing PG had a big scoring night, blame shouldn't necessarily land on his Laker counterpart.
Having watched every Laker game this season, I give both Fisher and Blake barely passing grades for their D. Neither one moves well laterally. Fish, like Kobe, has slipped into the annoying habit of sagging off shooters to double in the post unnecessarily; please do stop that. Blake has better length, but Fish has old-man strength and veterany tricks and subterfuges he breaks out from time to time. The two are better equipped to handle opposing guards who aren't super-athletic but instead rely on size and power. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook are bad news for the Lakers. Ray Felton, whom the Lakers faced on Sunday night, didn't present much of a problem, and against someone like Jason Kidd, Fish should be able to hold his own without great mishap.
In last year's playoffs, Phil Jackson showed a deft ingenuity in working around Fisher's defensive limitations. In four series, the Lakers faced four elite point guards -- Westbrook, Deron Williams, Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo - and though all four had their moments (Westbrook and Williams, especially), none proved deadly to the Lakers' title hopes. Against the Thunder, Phil assigned Kobe to check Westbrook for the decisive fifth and sixth games, a maneuver made possible because Thabo Sefolosha, Oklahoma City's starting shooting guard, was invisible on offense. In the second round, Williams had a terrific series, but the Jazz couldn't begin to stop the Laker attack so it didn't matter. In the conference finals, Fish did just fine on his own against Nash. And in the NBA Finals against Boston, Kobe half guarded Rondo and half played free safety.
Barring an injury to the seemingly indestructible Fish, we can assume he'll play just as many playoff minutes as he always has, and we can expect Phil to contrive makeshift defensive solutions as matchups dictate. There will be times when Fisher's limitations make us wonder aloud why he's on the floor. For the time being, though, his shortcomings are the price we pay for the continuity he brings to the Laker rotations and the never-trivial possibility that he'll shut us all up by doing something like this:
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.