Move Rashard Lewis to Small Forward?

A popular fix for what ails the Orlando Magic suggested in these comment pages is for Orlando to go "traditional" and shift power forward Rashard Lewis to small forward, the position where he spent the first 9 years of his career prior to signing with the Magic. Orlando's enjoyed great regular-season success with Lewis playing the stretch four, compiling a 170-76 record. Yet the last three teams to eliminate Orlando from the postseason have boasted physical front lines that can afford to play center Dwight Howard inside one-on-one, ceding far fewer open looks to Orlando's perimeter players. Which includes Lewis. Indeed, the Detroit Pistons in 2008, L.A. Lakers in 2009, and the Boston Celtics in 2010 all had the necessary personnel to throw Orlando's offense out of whack, which has prompted the calls for coach Stan Van Gundy to abandon his four-around-one scheme, which aims to open the middle for Howard to go to work.

So, move Lewis to the three, bring in a conventional power forward, get physical, tough... et cetera. If only it were that easy. Though Lewis can perform tasks typically assigned to a small forward on the offensive end--throwing an entry pass, posting up smaller players, and even creating for himself off the bounce--he's ill equipped to play the position defensively. Van Gundy's said numerous times that Lewis has succeeded on D in Orlando because, at power forward, he doesn't have to chase players through screens around the perimeter, or move laterally all that often. The numbers bear that out.

First, some context: in 2005/06, Lewis logged 2876 minutes on a Seattle SuperSonics squad which ranked dead-last in the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 114.4 points per 100 possessions. That's not just awful, but exceptionally awful, as only three teams in history have ever been worse. It's a team game, and Lewis wasn't surrounded with elite defenders, so by no means am I saying that team's horrid D is his fault. But he certainly played a role in it.

Fast forward to now, and he's on one of the league's best defensive teams. Having the league's top center waiting at the rim to erase any mistakes certainly helps, sure, but so does staying stationary and playing guys who don't move as quickly, or handle as often, as the typical small forward. And when he did have to handle such players, the results weren't great.

Lewis defended an opponent in an isolation set 164 times this season, per Synergy Sports Technology. Per possession, he yielded 0.982 points, which ranks in just the 22nd percentile of all NBA players. That showing is enough to pull him into a tie with Charlotte's Boris Diaw for 38th among the 42 players who defended at least 150 isolations this season. These data seem to support Van Gundy's claim that Lewis is at his best defensively when he's covering power forwards.

But despite all that, I do think Van Gundy has to consider letting Lewis play the three more often. As I wrote in my evaluation of Lewis' disappointing season, my "biggest concern about" him is that he's "too talented to keep loitering on the weak side, waiting for a kickout, for 33 minutes a night." Getting him more varied looks will make him a more dangerous offensive weapon. But if Orlando is to play him there, it needs to find someone who can cover small forwards at the other end. Sadly, defenders with such versatility are hard to come by in this league. You'd have to think that Dallas' Shawn Marion would be ideal, though.

Bottom line? Van Gundy can expect good results on offense when he assigns Lewis to play small forward, but he has to be prepared to live with the consequences on defense, unless GM Otis Smith somehow facilitates a trade for a skilled defensive combo forward. Such an outcome seems unlikely, but perhaps not as unlikely as the prospect of playing Lewis at the four would have seemed 5 years ago.

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