The Early Returns on Rashard Lewis' Shift to Small Forward Are Positive

The Orlando Magic are determined to play Rashard Lewis more often at small forward this season than in the past, which is sure to be a hot topic around the league, particularly for their fans, many of whom believe Lewis is better suited to play small forward than power forward. The Magic got a first look at what Lewis can do at small forward last night in their 97-88 preseason victory against the Houston Rockets, and the early results were encouraging. Overall, Lewis shot 5-of-6 for 12 points, and finished with a plus-10 differential, meaning Orlando outscored Houston by 10 points when Lewis played. Let's take a closer look at what happened with Lewis in that game.

Lewis played 24:35 last night and was the only Magic player to shift between two positions; the other 10 players stayed confined to their respective natural positions. In his 11:26 at power forward, Lewis scored 3 points on 1-of-2 shooting from the field, and Orlando scored 27 points on 25 possessions. In 13:09 at small forward, Lewis shot 4-of-4 for 9 points, while the Magic managed 27 points at 26 possessions. So on the surface, it appears as though the Magic's offense proved more effective with Lewis as the big forward despite his diminished individual numbers there.

But we need to look closer, as one alignment with Lewis at small forward may have won Orlando the game. In the final 6:03 of this first half, Lewis took the court with Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick in the backcourt, as well as Brandon Bass and Dwight Howard manning the power positions. During this key stretch, the Magic's offense was as potent as ever, scoring 21 points on just 12 possessions. Defensively, the team yielded 10 points on 12 possessions to Houston. Overall, no other Magic unit posted a plus-minus rating of better than plus-4; this one had a plus-11. It was, by any measure, Orlando's most effective unit on the night.

It's hard to draw many conclusions from a one-game sample size, let alone a 12-possession one. And the Rockets made four substitutions during that 6:03 stretch, further calling into question its significance in the bigger picture. But it'd appear, at least initially, that the never-before-seen pairing of Lewis and Bass at the forward spots could pay dividends. The maddening thing is that the rotations will likely change as the preseason progresses, so we may not see some of these groups get extended minutes again. But with an Excel spreadsheet and NBA.com's play-by-play data, I plan to continue tracking unit performance on a game-by-game basis throughout the preseason.

Other observations from the rotation chart:

  • The Magic's worst lineup also came with Lewis at small forward, but this time, he was up front Ryan Anderson, while Vince Carter took over for Redick at shooting guard. Houston clawed back into the game with a 15-6 run to start the second half against this Orlando unit. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy countered by shifting Lewis back to power forward and re-inserting starting small forward Quentin Richardson.

  • Orlando's offense vanished whenever five reserves shared the court at once, to the tune of 18 points on 24 possessions. We can attribute some of that deficiency to Redick's wayward shot--he finished 1-of-6 from the field--but shot-creation is a concern for this group.

  • The Magic's starting group only played the first 9:08 of the game, but impressed in the process. 23 points scored in those 19 possessions, while they allowed only 19 points in 19 possessions. A 21.1 efficiency differential from the starters, assuming Richardson doesn't lose the small forward gig, will indeed get it done.

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