Now that we know Rashard Lewis is slated to miss the first 10 games of the 2009/10 season due to violating the NBA's steroid policy, it's time we tried to figure out how the Orlando Magic plan to replace his production. I grasped at straws yesterday when the news broke, listing Brandon Bass as potentially starting in Lewis' stead at power forward if coach Stan Van Gundy wanted a more conventional lineup. In contrast, Ryan Anderson and Matt Barnes would give the Magic the opportunity to play the one-in, four-out style to which they've come accustomed in the last two seasons, under Van Gundy and with Lewis. Right now, it's anybody's guess as to who'll get the nod. Not even Van Gundy knows for sure. Here's what he told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel after news of the suspension broke (brackets Robbins'):
"We're such a new team now that to say exactly what impact [it has] and who we play in place of him, that's hard to say."
Indeed, Orlando is in the unenviable position of replacing Lewis in the lineup, which it rarely has had occasion to do. Since joining the Magic in the summer of 2007, Lewis has missed a total of 4 games out of a possible 198, counting the playoffs. The first game came in December of 2007, a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, in which Van Gundy shifted Hedo Turkoglu to power forward and moved Maurice Evans--who had yet to take Keith Bogans' job as the starting two-guard--into Turk's usual small-foward slot. Turk, Evans, and Bogans are no longer members of the Magic, so there's very little to take from this game from Orlando's standpoint.
More recently, but just as irrelevantly, Lewis sat out the last three games of this season in order to rest nagging ankle and knee injuries. The Magic had nothing at stake, having locked themselves into the Eastern Conference's third playoff seed, which may have contributed to Van Gundy's choosing to start Tony Battie at power forward during this stretch; were these games more significant, I'd wager that Lewis would not have sat at all. Battie didn't produce consistently last season, but he contributed well during the (admittedly meaningless) final three games, which took place against New Jersey, Milwaukee, and Charlotte, teams which were out of playoff contention. He averaged 16.3 points and 6 rebounds on 48.7% shooting. Not bad for Tony, although Orlando dropped two of those three games. Dwight Howard, incidentally, also rested during the game against the Bucks, making that game even less noteworthy for our purposes.
What we do know is that between Anderson, Barnes, and Bass, Orlando certainly has the personnel to absorb Lewis' minutes. What's far less clear is who will play the most, and more importantly, who will play the key moments down the stretch of close games. Van Gundy has a solid opportunity to tinker with his lineups early in the season, but let's not spin this story as a net positive for Orlando: the Magic will present much more challenges for opponents with their All-Star power forward on the floor, not without, as they will be forced to play the first few weeks of their schedule.
And it's not just the neophyte power forwards--Orlando aquired Anderson, Barnes, and Bass just this summer--who will have to take charge with Lewis out of the lineup. Newly acquired shooting guard Vince Carter must shoulder much of the scoring load, perhaps needing to average 20-plus points per game to start the season, and he'll need to accomplish some of it by taking more three-pointers than he might usually attempt under different circumstances. Lewis has teed-off from three-point range a staggering 1107 times over the last two seasons, or 1307 if one counts his playoff totals. Lewis' primary offensive functions were to a) shoot threes; b) spread the floor with his mere presence; and c) throw the occasional post entry pass to Dwight Howard from the top of the key. Orlando probably figured it'd count on Carter for those things anyway. Now, that need is even more pronounced.
And what of Howard, exactly? Even if Van Gundy elects to flank him with the floor-spreading Anderson or Barnes, neither will make opponents think twice about double-teaming him as Lewis does. Howard posted the second-highest usage rate of any Magic rotation player two seasons ago, and the highest last season. Might that figure take another hike this year, at least with Lewis sidelined? And if so, will the increased offensive responsibilities result in a dip in efficiency, or sap him of his much-needed defensive energy?
More questions than answers, and given the time of year, the Magic's lack of money, and GM Otis Smith's assertion (though one never knows for sure with him) that the team won't sign another player for a few weeks, Orlando fans will have plenty of time to consider the possibilities. So, too, will Van Gundy, who got the Magic all the way to the NBA Finals despite losing All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson for the stretch run. If he can guide his team to the Finals without Nelson--arguably more important to Orlando's success than Lewis--for 40 games last season, he can guide them through the first 10 games of this season without Rashard.
What isn't in doubt is Van Gundy's ability to get the most out of his team. What is, however, is the way in which he'll go about it in this instance, with so many new players to integrate, and an offense that thrives on the attention opponents must pay Lewis.