EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant joined the Los Angeles Lakers together in 1996. They've been in the same backcourt for most of the ensuing 16 seasons, winning five NBA titles during their intertwined careers.
Fisher's departure Thursday for Houston and Ramon Sessions' arrival from Cleveland made the Lakers younger and faster at point guard, their weakest position.
The Lakers don't yet know if the trades made the NBA's sixth-best team any better — and they still don't know whether the moves made Bryant angry.
General manager Mitch Kupchak said he didn't speak to Bryant before or after trading Fisher to the Rockets, and Bryant canceled a scheduled interview on the Lakers' flagship radio station when news of Fisher's departure broke. Kupchak also didn't speak directly to Fisher, intimating the 37-year-old NBA players' union leader took the news hard.
"It's hard to put into words what he's meant to this organization, on the court and off the court," Kupchak said Thursday at the Lakers' training complex. "It's one of the hardest parts of the job that a general manager has, separating the emotions of a relationship you've had. ... We think Ramon will make an immediate impact. Despite Derek's presence, we felt that we needed more speed and more quickness in the backcourt."
But the Lakers lost more than an aging point guard whose skills and athleticism have eroded considerably in the past few years. Fisher and Bryant were the Lakers' unquestioned locker room leaders, with Fisher's cerebral calm contrasting nicely with the fiery intensity of the NBA's leading scorer.
Kupchak and Lakers executive Jim Buss slept on the trades before making them Thursday. Kupchak felt the Lakers couldn't justify keeping three point guards — Sessions, Steve Blake and Fisher — on the roster making significant salaries, so Fisher had to go after starting their first 43 games this season.
"I'm concerned, yeah," Kupchak said. "As each day goes on, it will get easier and easier, but you can't underestimate Derek's contribution from a chemistry standpoint. You can't say this team is going to wake up tomorrow and play as if he was never here."
Kupchak is breaking up part of a team that isn't exactly broken, notwithstanding a few awful performances on the road. The Pacific Division-leading Lakers (27-16) have gone 7-2 in a brutal 15-day stretch since the All-Star break, and they've won 18 of their last 19 home games since Christmas heading into Friday's visit from Minnesota.
Kupchak acknowledges concern about dismantling part of the roster that reached three straight NBA finals from 2008-10, winning two titles, yet he is determined to make the Lakers younger. He also didn't hesitate to upend the Lakers' chemistry earlier this year when he shipped angry forward Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks after a trade to land Chris Paul was blocked by the NBA.
Los Angeles had the day off after playing three overtimes in two Eastern road games over the previous two days, so the remaining Lakers couldn't weigh in on the departure of a quarter of their roster. Pau Gasol, who has spent the entire season in limbo ever since he didn't move to Houston in the Paul trade, tweeted his relief at staying with the Lakers.
"The uncertainty has come to an end!" tweeted the four-time All-Star, whose name was heavily mentioned in trade rumors again last week. "Happy to continue wearing the Lakers uniform! Now time to focus (on) playing basketball and winning!"
While Bryant is still an elite NBA player, Fisher didn't quite keep up with his fellow member of the 1996 draft class, who is four years younger than him.
The Lakers' point guards are producing just 12 combined points per game this season, the lowest average in the NBA, and Fisher is a below-average defender on the perimeter against the league's faster guards. Yet Fisher still has started all 371 regular-season games since rejoining the Lakers from Utah five years ago, and he still has his knack for big late-game shots.
Fisher's leadership void can be filled from within, Kupchak believes.
"Derek took the more gentle approach," Kupchak said. "Kobe is not going to change. (Coach) Mike (Brown) is going to have to be more of a leader. It certainly could be Pau, and it could be Andrew (Bynum)."
The Lakers acquired Sessions and Christian Eyenga, who is expected to play for Los Angeles' D-League team, from the Cavaliers for veterans Luke Walton and Jason Kapono, clearing the Lakers' logjam of veteran small forwards who hadn't played much for Brown.
Los Angeles got backup big man Jordan Hill from Houston. Kupchak said Hill, the disappointing eighth overall pick by New York in 2009, will get a chance to improve the Lakers' frontcourt depth.
The Lakers saved money in the deals, clearing Walton ($6.1 million) and Fisher ($3.4 million) off next season's books and shipping out two first-round draft selections who won't have to be paid next year. The Lakers no longer have the NBA's highest payroll this season, but Kupchak said the Buss family won't shy away from making the Lakers better.
"Dr. Buss, he's paid a luxury tax here for as long as I can remember," Kupchak said. "He never gives me a budget. .... I think he'll continue to make acquisitions, but certainly the financial part of this business can't be ignored."
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