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Knowing Your Role in the NBA: The Career of Rashard Lewis

In his 15th season and at 34 years of age, Rashard Lewis has been on many teams and gone through many role changes. Most of those he has adapted to and excelled at, even now with the Miami Heat.

Edited by Tiffany Villigan

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In 1998, the Seattle Supersonics used their second-round pick on a forward from Alief Elsik High School in Houston, Texas.

With his lanky frame, elite athleticism, and diverse yet unorthodox skill set, the former McDonald's All-American and Mr. Basketball USA had trouble finding a role with the Sonics right away. In his rookie campaign he started in just seven games, while averaging fewer than three points and two rebounds per game. Some thought that the straight-out-of-high-school player would turn out to be another gamble that the Sonics lost out on in the draft and free agency. Do the names Sherell Ford and Jim McIlvaine ring a bell?

The draft pick from the Houston, Texas, high school would rebound from a sub-par rookie campaign in his sophomore season, appearing in all 82 games and averaging 8.2 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.

The following season, Rashard Lewis lived well past the ghosts of McIlvaine and Ford when he started in 78 games, finished second on the Sonics in scoring with 14.8 points per game (first was the legendary Gary Payton, with 23.1), and finished ninth among the NBA leaders in three-point shooting percentage with .432.

Lewis had arrived and began making a name for himself in a comfortable role playing second fiddle to Gary Payton. He couldn't get too comfortable, though: in the middle of the 2002-03 season he would have to take on a bigger role as scorer and leader when the longtime Sonic, Payton, was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in a package that gave the Sonics up-and-coming three-point sharpshooter Ray Allen in return.

The stretch four's role changed indeed, but for the better. The timing couldn't have been more perfect for the pairing of Lewis and Allen, as they would both grow into the primes of their careers in their new roles as a Batman and Robin duo. From 2003 to 2007, the pair saw their PPG numbers climb to heights they had seldom reached before; after the 2006-07 season, neither of them would reach 20+ points-per-game again in their careers:


Lewis Allen Year
17.8 23.0 2003-04
20.5 23.9 2004-05
20.1 25.1 2005-06
22.4 26.4 2006-07

During their time together, Allen went to four All-Star Games and Lewis went to one. The season they appeared in the All-Star Game together (2005) would be the last time NBA fans in Seattle experienced the postseason as the duo led the Sonics to 52 wins and a trip to the playoffs, the first 50+-win season for the Sonics since the George Karl era ended in 1998 (just prior to Lewis being drafted).

The honeymoon didn't end well. Though both players enjoyed good individual statistical seasons, the Sonics suffered and failed to win more than 35 games in both of the two seasons that followed. After the 2006-07 season it was time to rebuild in Seattle and neither player would stick around. Ray Allen was traded to the Boston Celtics and Rashard Lewis went to the Orlando Magic, signing a sign-and-trade deal worth ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTEEN MILLION DOLLARS over six years.

The contract came with the label of "overpaid," a word that became synonymous with Lewis for the remainder of that contract, and even now.

In Orlando, Lewis would once again go through a role change. This time it came with a position change, moving from his usual position of small forward to power forward on an Orlando Magic team that just wanted to surround center Dwight Howard with shooters. Instead of being an all-around scorer by shooting, cutting, and dunking, the Magic thought it would be best to turn Lewis into a spot-up, catch-and-shoot type player. Lewis adapted, and the blueprint worked.

In his first season with the Magic, Lewis made 226 three-pointers on 40% shooting from behind the arc. The total was 53 more three-pointers than he had ever made in his career, and with that he helped lead the Magic to the second round of the playoffs. In that round, the Magic would lose 4-1 to the Detroit Pistons, but the Magic's lone win came at the hands of Lewis, who dropped 33 points in that game.

His second season in Orlando would be even better. Lewis made his second All-Star Game, finished the season as the league leader in three-pointers made with 220, and stepped up his defense, too, finishing seventh in defensive win shares with 4.8. The Magic were on their way to the playoffs once again, behind the strong presence of Howard around the rim and outside shooting from the likes of J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, and of course, Lewis.

In the playoffs, Lewis showed off his clutch gene by hitting the game winning shot against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic would go on to win the series 4-2, and appear in their first finals since the Shaquille O'Neal era. They would fall to the team that Shaq left them for a decade ago, losing to the Lakers, 4-1.

Lewis enjoyed another solid season with the Magic before being traded the following year to the down-and-out Washington Wizards.

In Washington, along with the Wizards, Lewis struggled. For the first time in his career he was unable to adapt to a new role, something he had done so well up to that point. He battled injuries with his knees, staying in shape with the lockout in the 2011-12 season, and constant criticism of being "overpaid."

In an interview with the Washington Post during the lockout, Lewis addressed the "overpaid" label, saying,

"Talk to the owner. He gave me the deal. When it comes to contracts, the players aren't sitting there negotiating that contract. I'm sitting at home and my agent calls me, saying, ‘I got a max on the table.' I'm not going to sit there and say, ‘Naw, that's too much. Go out there and negotiate $20 or $30 [million] less.' "

Lewis tried to get healthy, he tried to play, he tried to be a leader, and he even (allegedly) tried to fight the coaches in Washington. Ultimately, Lewis in DC just wasn't meant to be, and in the summer of 2012 he was traded to New Orleans and had his contract bought out, making him a free agent once again.

One team called Rashard Lewis, though, and it was the NBA Champions, the Miami Heat. Lewis signed a two-year contract with the team from South Beach. The deal reunited him with former Sonics teammate Ray Allen, but most importantly, it gave Lewis another chance. With that chance once again came a new role for Rashard to adapt to.

In his first season with the Heat, Lewis would be used sparingly, coming off the bench to play the 3 or 4, hit a few three-pointers, play decent defense, and grab a rebound here and there. It was a role Lewis struggled with early: he had to keep himself ready for opportunities, even though it wasn't guaranteed he would play every night on this stacked roster.

Lewis adapted fairly well in his first season, playing in 55 regular season games and averaging 13 points-per-36 minutes. In the playoffs, however, Lewis' role diminished a bit as he played in just 11 games while contributing very little, a combined 17 points and 7 rebounds through the entire postseason.

He was awarded with his first finals win anyway, as the Heat beat the Spurs in a thrilling seven-game series.

This past off-season, a key role player left the Heat for the Memphis Grizzlies. The void left by Mike Miller needed to be filled and so far this season, Lewis has stepped up to the challenge.

The former Sonic has successfully adapted to his new role, one that some (including ESPN's Michael Wallace) define as "the Mike Miller" role. Others call it the "wait for your number to be called" role.

Lewis now knows that with the Heat, any night could be his night, without notice. And even if he performs well, there is absolutely no guarantee that he'll see playing time in the following game.

A prime example of Lewis' new role can be taken from the Heat's most recent games. On January 4th, his number was called due to nagging injuries of those ahead of him in line. Lewis started, played 31 minutes, and scored 18 points on 11 shots in the Heat's win over Orlando. It was Lewis' best game in years.

But the following game? 2 points on 2 shots in 11 minutes of play.

Then, his most recent game: 12 points on 9 shots in 29 minutes of action in a loss against the Brooklyn Nets.

Though his numbers, minutes, and play have been inconsistent, Lewis seems to be adapting well to his new role at 34 years of age and in his 15th season, saying in an interview with ESPN:

"Last year, it was a little rough on me, but this year it's a lot easier," Lewis said. "We know it can be any team, any guy, and any given night. You may play 20 minutes one night, or you might play five minutes. You can go five games without playing, and then you'll be in the starting lineup that next one. That's the system we have here. You just have to be ready."

See, Rashard knows. Rashard knows that in his role that he has now, he can't jack up 7 three-pointers a game, but in Orlando, he made an All-Star team doing that, because that was his role and he excelled in it. His role now is taking fewer than five shots per game and hitting 40 percent of them, which he's doing.

And perhaps that's been his biggest skill and asset that he has had throughout his career. Not nailing three pointers, not cutting to the basket, and not hitting clutch shots either; but knowing his role, accepting it, adapting to it, and excelling in it.