With an eye on the present and the future, we dedicated a lot of time and effort over the weekend reporting on and analyzing the Orlando Magic's flurry of activity. I think it's fair now to look back at what's now squarely in the past, and specifically Rashard Lewis' days in Magic blue. Orlando traded the 6-foot-10 combo forward to the Washington Wizards for Gilbert Arenas on Saturday in the midst of a disappointing season for the player and the team. His rough year made him a sore subject for fans who just wanted him to hurry up and be productive already, and I get that point of view. But let's not engage in revisionist history here: Rashard Lewis had a successful tenure in Orlando on the whole.
It's easy to forget now, after three 50-win seasons, an NBA Finals appearance, and and an All-Star berth for Lewis, but when Orlando signed him to a a maximum contract prior to the 2007/08 campaign, there were no guarantees he'd work out. Hop in the WABAC machine with me and check out some of the reaction in the wake of his signing. It's not positive. The blogosphere didn't even regard Orlando as a playoff team!
But when Lewis and the Magic took the court, they proved the experts wrong. They improved their record by 12 games and won a playoff series for the first time in 11 years! That wasn't supposed to happen, and as Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said Saturday, it wouldn't be possible without Rashard. "He is the guy most responsible probably for turning this around.," Van Gundy said. "If you look at when he came and when Otis [Smith] signed him, we came off of 40 wins and getting swept in the first round. Grant [Hill] left, [Darko] Milicic left, Tony Battie got hurt and Rashard came in. That was really the extent of the moves."
Lewis' Magic career ends with him ranking third in team history with regard to three-pointers made (658), fourth in three-pointers attempted (1650), fifth in three-point percentage (39.9), and eighth in per-game scoring (16.3). It's impossible to write the history of this franchise without noting his meaningful contributions to successful teams.
Taking a broader view, he served as the second-best player on the Magic's 2009 NBA Finalist team, and without his 34-point, 11-rebound, 7-assist performance in Game 2 of that series against the L.A. Lakers, the Magic would hardly be in position to win the game at the end, when Courtney Lee's famous lob layup attempt missed. I get the impression the same Magic fans calling him a bum now were on their feet, whooping and hollering in their living rooms, during his Game 2 outburst. I invite you to consider his finest performances in a Magic uniform, which all came in postseason play, for what it's worth. Maybe that'll help you appreciate him more, because I truly get the sense that Magic fans have forgotten.
Van Gundy's coaching and Dwight Howard's ascension to NBA superstardom have a lot to do with the Magic's recent success. It's a shame we've failed to adequately appreciate what Lewis means for this franchise. The media are guilty of crafting that narrative too; as I told another writer in the Amway Center Media Workroom on Saturday night, too often I found myself writing throwaway sentences like, "And Rashard Lewis added 20 points to help Orlando pull out the victory tonight." This post aims to right that wrong.
Van Gundy said it best, as is usually the case, in assessing Lewis' impact on the franchise:
He never griped about anything and is one of the best team players that I have ever been around. He cared about nothing but trying to win games and would do everything he was asked. It is ... an absolute honor and privilege to have coached him.
Lewis' career continues elsewhere, and the Magic have some new life now. His days as a Magic-man are over, and may be forgotten. I can't help the former, but I hope you won't fault me for trying to change the latter.