Flirting with disaster
If Derek Fisher leaves for Miami, he might tarnish his image in the eyes of Angelenos
Derek Fisher and LeBron James don't seem to have much in common outside of Fisher's playoff beard looking strikingly similar to that mountain man thing growing on James' face these days.
For Fisher's sake, let's hope that's where the commonalties between him and The King without a Crown end, because he's flirting with a potentially disastrous decision that will completely color how he'll be remembered in Los Angeles if he, too, decides to take his talents to South Beach.
The flames are still smoldering, not just in Cleveland but also in basketball circles across the globe by angry and disappointed fans and observers who bemoan how James took a blowtorch to his legacy last week when he bolted for Miami.
James' back-to-back MVPs by age 25 just don't carry the same weight they once did after he decided to go from alpha dog to beta buddy by signing up to play alongside a former Finals MVP in Dwyane Wade to try to capture his first championship.
Fisher has one of the most unique legacies with a team in the history of pro sports -- part big-shot maker like Robert Horry; part age-defying performer like Brett Favre; part player-coach like Bill Russell; part expert motivator like Al Pacino's character in "Any Given Sunday." However, all of that will be put in jeopardy if he jets across the country to join James, Wade, Chris Bosh and Pat Riley and leaves the Lake Show for the promise of some South Beach Showtime.
Fisher will turn 36 years old in August and knows that the two-year contract he is seeking will probably be the last of his career. Big men like Robert Parish and Kevin Willis might be able to extend their careers into their 40s, but not a guard like Fisher who has to face the opposing crop of lightning-quick point guards around the league -- perhaps the most promising collection of talent at any position that the league has.
Because of this, and because of the I-told-you-I-still-have-it postseason he just finished, Fisher is seeking a deal worth $10 million with which to ride out his playing days. The Lakers, already deep into the luxury tax, are looking to pay Fisher somewhere near half that because any contract they do offer him will come with a dollar-for-dollar fee paid to the league office.
Plus, should Fisher leave for one of the teams that have expressed interest -- Miami or Minnesota -- Los Angeles already has a capable starter to take his place on the roster now that the Lakers signed Steve Blake to a four-year, $16 million deal.
Despite his obviously important role with the team, Fisher had very little leverage in negotiations with the Lakers after Blake was signed. Going to Miami and getting an offer gives him a tangible chip to bring back to the bargaining table.
Fisher is as bright as they come, and what he's doing is nothing out of the ordinary in the age-old art of negotiation as long as he actually intends to return to the Lakers. But what if Riley woos Fisher the way he wooed James? What if Fisher, who gave up $8 million in salary in 2007 when he left the Jazz to sign with the Lakers so that he could live closer to a medical center in L.A. where his daughter was receiving treatment for eye cancer, left in search of more money this time around?
Just like the memories from LeBron's MVP-trophy seasons became tainted as soon as he left, the gleam shining off of Fisher's five rings with L.A. would become covered in rust if he became in cahoots with the Heat.
What are the chances he'll actually leave? Slim. But if James could change the entire scope of his career by choosing Miami, don't put it past Fisher to do the same for his final act.
The Heat have approximately $8.1 million available to sign free agents to flesh out their roster. Once that $8.1 million is used up, all they can offer incoming players is the league minimum. First priority with that money is Mike Miller, who will command anywhere from an average of $5 million to $6 million a year for five years. The next priority is Udonis Haslem, not Fisher.
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Haslem is to Dwyane Wade what Fisher is to Kobe Bryant. Wade and Haslem joined the Heat together as rookies back in 2003 and have experienced the highest of the highs with a championship in 2006 and the lowest of the lows with a 15-67 record in 2008, forging a strong bond along the way. Whatever is left on the table after Miller is earmarked for Haslem, according to a source familiar with Miami's thinking.
That leaves Fisher with a veteran's minimum offer of approximately $1.3 million based on his 14 years of service in the league.
Even calculating Florida's lack of state income tax, there is one way the number offered to Fisher could balloon to $3.6 million. The Heat could back load an offer to Miller, starting him at $4.3 million, freeing up an extra $700,000. Miami could then offer Haslem a two-year minimum deal with a player option after the first year, instead of Fisher, with the implicit understanding that they would offer the Florida native who's spent his whole career with the Heat a new, more lucrative contract next summer.
By renouncing Haslem to put the Big Three together, Miami lost Haslem's "Bird rights," which would allow the team to re-sign him for any amount of money, regardless of its cap situation. Miami will get Haslem's Bird rights back after a year if Haslem re-signs with the team this summer, and then the Heat will be able to give the power forward his proper payday.
It would take a leap of faith by Haslem, the same type of leap of faith that Fisher believes the Lakers' front office owes to him after everything he's done to prove himself throughout the years.
Representatives from both suitors spoke about Fisher at the Las Vegas summer league on Sunday.
"I can't comment on him right now," Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He has visited, and we'll see where that develops. If it does, I can comment more."
Lakers vice president of player personnel Jim Buss was far more direct.
"We're doing everything we can to sign him," Buss said. "It should get done. I'm not worried."
It should, but it hasn't yet, and the big Miami "if" remains for Fisher.
Let's just hope the man they call Mr. President makes a better choice than the kid who used to be called The King.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten.