29 June 2007

The Orlando Magic Free-Agency Countdown, Part Five: Rashard Lewis

As the July 1 start of NBA's free-agency period comes closer, 3QC is taking a look at the free agents who may be able to help the Magic the most by counting down from the 5th-best option to the best option. Today's post concerns the player who should be the Magic's first choice: Rashard Lewis.

Throughout this week's countdown, I've stressed that the Magic need to sign a guy this summer who keeps the so-called "window of opportunity" open for several years. We have a young team that isn't ready to contend immediately and still needs to develop further; thus, it does us no good to sign an established, on-the-decline superstar. Vince Carter and Chauncey Billups are in their thirties, so their long-term value to the Magic is minimal. Mo Williams may be the right age, but he wouldn't generate enough buzz around the team, nor would he improve it single-handedly. Gerald Wallace fits the bill in terms of age and skills, but he's an injury risk. That leaves us Rashard Lewis, the Seattle SuperSonic and All-Star who opted out of his contract and will become an unrestricted free agent.

The Magic's Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard used to worry about containing Rashard Lewis. If they're lucky, they'll get to play alongside him next season.
Photo by Kevin P. Casey, Associated Press

It's hard to find a negative in Lewis' game, at least as far as the Magic are concerned. Lewis would provide some much-needed scoring -- his 22.4 per-game average last season was a career-best. He also rebounds well. As a bonus, Lewis is remarkably durable; Even counting the time he missed last season with a dislocated finger, Lewis has appeared in 87% of the Sonics' games in his nine-year career. Further, he's just 27 and has improved his scoring in each of the past four seasons. Essentially, Rashard Lewis is the Magic's best bet on the free-agent market. He's young enough to produce consistently as the younger players around him develop their games, he can score, and he rarely gets injured.

Money, as always, is an issue. Lewis is believed to be seeking a deal in the $13-15 M range. If he won't settle for less, the Magic would likely have to reluctantly jettison Darko Milicic, whom they hoped to re-sign. The only scenario that would allow for both Milicic and Lewis to play in Orlando next season involves trading away a player with an average-sized contract. The player who makes the most sense in that regard is Hedo Turkoglu, who makes $5 M a season and plays Lewis' position of small forward.

Magic fans shouldn't be bowled over if Hedo Turkoglu is traded to clear salary-cap space for Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu.

Photo by Gary W. Green, Orlando Sentinel

Although Lewis clearly wants to play for a winner, it won't be easy to pry him from Seattle. Last night, the Sonics traded Ray Allen, their other All-Star, to the Boston Celtics for Jeff Green, whom they selected with the fifth overall pick, and some other players. With Allen gone, the Sonics are left with Green and Kevin Durant, whom they drafted second, to lead the team. Seattle's ownership can be pretty inept, but I don't think they would let go of two of their All-Stars in the same summer. Lewis declined a two-year, $25 M extension from the Sonics before opting out, but he might be more inclined to listen to them knowing that he would play alongside Durant and Green. Additionally, Seattle can offer him a six-year deal, whereas other teams can offer him five years. Because NBA contracts are guaranteed, an extra year makes a world of difference financially, and Lewis may indeed be enticed to stay.

The chance to share the floor with the electrifying Kevin Durant may persuade Rashard Lewis to stay with the Sonics.
Photo by Jason DeCrow, Associated Press

All that said, I think Lewis would be foolish to stay in Seattle. I mean no disrespect to the Sonics, because they're actually one of my favorite teams, but Orlando is the better destination for Lewis. The Sonics will likely relocate within the next few years, and Lewis would eventually lose playing time to Durant. Further, Lewis has never had the opportunity to play alongside a dominant center like Dwight Howard. If LeBron James can single-handedly take the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, how far could the inside-out combination of Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis take the Magic, especially in arguably the worst conference in North American professional sports? Another consideration: the last time the Magic had a great center/wing player combination, it was Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway, and the Magic rode that combination into the NBA Finals in 1995.

We Magic fans should hope lightning strikes twice.

Monday: Part One in 3QC's Free Agency Countdown: Vince Carter.
Tuesday: Part Two in 3QC's Free Agency Countdown: Mo Williams.
Wednesday: Part Three in 3QC's Free Agency Countdown: Chauncey Billups.
Yesterday: Part Four in 3QC's Free Agency Countdown: Gerald Wallace.
Today: Part Five in 3QC's Free Agency Countdown: Rashard Lewis.

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