- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - Rashard Lewis is an All-Star and his team is in the NBA finals.

He doesn’t mind deferring to the team’s franchise player even though Lewis deserves that title based on salary. His skills allow Orlando to play an unorthodox style on both ends of the floor, and his skills have helped carry the Magic to their greatest success.

So why can’t people forget Lewis’ contract? After all, aren’t there 20 worse deals in the NBA?

“More than 20,” Orlando general manager Otis Smith said. “Way more than 20.”

The Magic surely aren’t going to ask for their money back. Not when for only the second time they are playing in the finals, where they trailed the Los Angeles Lakers 2-1 entering Game 4 Thursday night.

Lewis was Orlando’s best player through the first three games, the leading scorer on a team that on Tuesday won a finals game for the first time. And for $110 million, the Magic should expect Lewis to be their go-to guy.

Except they signed him because they knew he didn’t need to be, and Lewis won’t change his demeanor or his style to justify his paycheck.

“The contract is there and it’s not going nowhere,” Lewis said. “They can’t take it from me and all I can do now is go out there and play basketball and try to win ballgames for my team, not go out there and put up big numbers to show everybody that I’m worth this contract.”

The numbers are staggering, and Lewis knows it. He made $16.4 million this season, and his numbers over the next four seasons increase to $18 million, $19.6 million, $21.1 million and finally $22.7 million in the 2012-13 season. He’s scheduled to make roughly $3 million more in each season than Dwight Howard, the former No. 1 pick and the face of the franchise.

Yet while Lewis has the bigger bank account, the Magic gave him No. 1 player money to be a No. 2 guy.

“He allows Dwight to be Dwight,” Smith said. “That’s what made him so important to us.”

The Magic acquired Lewis in a sign-and-trade deal with Seattle in July 2007. Lewis was a highly sought free agent after averaging more than 20 points in his final three seasons with the SuperSonics and becoming their career leader in 3-point field goals.

By agreeing to do a sign-and-trade, Orlando could add a sixth year to the deal. Critics blasted the Magic for overbidding for Lewis and giving him a contract that could prevent the team from building a winner around Howard in future years.

Smith bore the brunt of the criticism, but was more amused than angered by it.

“I kind of laugh,” he said. “The reason I kind of laugh is because there’s a whole bunch of other guys with max contracts that their teams are not in the finals.”

Smith says those players are the ones who should be criticized because they are “responsible.”

“You say responsible, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he has score 30 every night,” Smith said. “It means he has to get his team to the finals.”

Lewis has done that, and that’s why Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy doesn’t believe Lewis has appeared pressured by the expectations of the deal. He said the only time he noticed that happening was in exhibition play soon after Lewis arrived.

“I think his play in the playoffs, especially in very big moments, has sort of taken care of that question for him,” Van Gundy said. “I mean, he’s really come up big both years in the playoffs for us in the biggest of games.”

All while playing a position that may not maximize his skills. The Magic use Lewis as a power forward, where he often gives up size and strength against the player he is defending. He creates matchup problems for those bigger opponents by playing away from the basket, where his perimeter shooting gives Orlando another weapon to surround Howard.

He and Howard are one of the NBA’s best inside-outside tandems, yet Lewis doesn’t even consider himself the primary complement to the center he wanted to play with when it was time for a new home.

“Dwight is our No. 1 option, (Hedo) Turkoglu is probably No. 2 and I’m 3, and my job is to go out there and help this team win ballgames,” Lewis said.

No. 3?

“That’s how I look at it, but at the same time I get the job done,” Lewis said.

If the Magic can’t afford to re-sign Turkoglu this summer, plenty of blame will come back to Lewis’ deal. Smith understands why many continue to harp on the contract.

“What else are you going to say about him other than his contract?” he asked. “What else has anybody said about him through his career? … He’s just out doing his job.”


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