Continuing in my quest to chronicle role players, I turn to the opposition. Sure, it's hard to argue that a player with two all-star berths and multiple 20 ppg seasons is a "role player," but Rashard Lewis is still a player that is often overlooked. This is partially due to the fact he has never played in a large market, but is also due to his demeanor and style of play. I don't think Lewis is either over- or underrated, but I do think that he has been under-analyzed. Thus, the need for a player profile.
Rashard Lewis has been overlooked since he was a teenager. When he bypassed college for the pros in 1998, he was an intriguing prospect to the point that he was asked to sit in the Green Room on draft night. However, Lewis was the last man standing in the Green Room, a la Brady Quinn. When the dust settled, Seattle stole him with the 32nd pick. As a point of reference, 1998 was the year Michael Olowokandi was picked #1 and Raef LaFrenz was picked #3.
Lewis was probably overlooked because GM's hadn't fully embraced the new regime at the time of his arrival. They hadn't foreseen the impending transforming of the game where all 5 players must be able to score in a variety of ways. They hadn't foreseen the value that could be derived from a 4-man who could stretch the defense or the forthcoming defensive rule changes that would allow teams to hide weak individual defenders behind zone defenses. Outside of Bird, tall shooters hadn't made their mark on the game and GM's still believed that there were five distinct positions with five distinct skillset requirements. (NOTE: This thinking was evidenced further by the Olowokandi pick at #1 and Tractor-Traylor at #6). As such, Lewis was too slight to bang down low as a 4, and lacked the ballhandling & lateral quickness to play on the wing. He was a 'tweener, a distinction that only had negative connotations at the time.
Another factor in Lewis' descent on the draft board was that the 1998 draft class included Antawn Jamison (#4), Nowitzki (#9), and Al Harrington (#25). Even Raef LaFrenz (#3) and Michael Doleac (#12) were more highly-coveted than Lewis at the time. Lewis was considered a second-tier version of these players, and aside from Garnett executives were still skeptical about a player's ability to transition to the NBA without intercollegiate experience.
As time passed, the NBA's transformation became more apparent. Nowitzki transcended the game as the first 7-footer who could play effectively from the 3-point line in, but other aforementioned members of the '98 draft class (Jamison & Lewis) were part of the transformation, as well. In fact, today's team builds are due in large part to the contributions of the draft class of '98. Orlando's current composition of 4 shooters and a big man would have been considered foolish just 10 short years ago. Today, range from the four-spot is considered a necessity.
As stated earlier, Lewis has always done most of his damage behind-the-scenes. He shared the spotlight with Ray Allen in Seattle, and shares it with Dwight Howard in Orlando. Lewis is a rarity in that he shows glimpses of being a franchise-type player (see big shots against Cleveland in the Conference Finals) and there are also times when he's seemingly invisible on the court. It's as if he's comfortable with the spotlight, but equally content playing second- or third-fiddle. Call it Lamar Odom Syndrome.
Until this season, Lewis had never been considered a "winner" in quantitative terms. He had played many seasons of losing basketball, and his greatest accomplishment from a win/loss standpoint had been a trip to the second round with Seattle. When he signed that ridiculous contract with Orlando in '07, skeptics were quick to point out his track record of losing and his incapability to play the star role. Why pay a guy star dollars if he couldn't play the part of a star?
Well, like everything else, opinions change. We are now embracing the idea that Rashard Lewis was never put in a position to win. Maybe he is capable of being a star, but flourishes as a secondary option. Maybe Lewis never desired to hold the key to a basketball city's championship aspirations. Maybe, just maybe, Lewis lacks the intangibles or the "win at all costs" mentality required of a winning star. If put in the #1 role, maybe Lewis' teams would have been destined for mediocrity. As crazy as it sounds, maybe Lewis yearned for the #2 role where he could continue in his predestined trade without the level of praise and criticism that attaches itself to a bona fide #1.
This isn't the first time a phenom has saved his best for when he became second best. It is becoming more and more evident that championship teams need players with star pedigrees to fill secondary roles. Pippen was the enabler for the Bulls' championships (disgruntled or not) and Parker/Ginobili were a huge part of the Spurs' championship parades as well. The Cavs couldn't do it in '07 with one star, and neither could the Sixers in '01. On the flip side, only the Pistons of '04 have done it without at least one brand name.
But while it seems rather simple -- teams are at an advantage having multiple threats on the court -- it is not always as easily done as it is said. The deepest pockets in the league have tried and failed to build team environments where multiple big names (and games) can coexist. It may work for one season, but it is often difficult to sustain this type of environment successfully. The ego-to-skill ratio must be less than 1-to-1. For as the tides become rocky and adversity strikes, most players of this caliber have a difficult time accepting the criticism without deflecting blame. We saw the failed experiment of four #1's in L.A. in '04. To be accurate, we saw the failed experiment of two #1's in L.A. in '04. If Kobe or Shaq would have been willing to concede a few shots, or interviews, or prideful moments, we would have seen five or six straight titles instead of three.
For it to work, one of the stars must be humble enough to accept the #2 role. He must be capable of delivering in #1 fashion, but content receiving #2 attention. The Celtics found the right personalities to pull it off last year. The Magic and Lakers have found the right personalities to pull it off this year. For all of his god-given ability, it is rare to hear Pau Gasol gripe about touches (although, ironically enough he did have these qualms against the Nuggets), and it is even more rare to hear those types of complaints out of Rashard Lewis.
Some may call it timidness, others unselfishness. I prefer self-awareness. Rashard Lewis' self-awareness has propelled the Magic to their first finals berth since the mid-nineties. He's willingly accepted a back seat in Dwight Howard's car. He's willingly accepted an unrecognized voice and an uncelebrated celebrity. He knows that Dwight Howard is the star and the face of this franchise, and that doesn't seem to bother him one bit. If it did, his face would have been photoshopped into one of TNT's "Gone Fishing" mosaics after the first round.
If the last twenty years has taught NBA GM's anything, it should be this: when shopping for sidekicks, start with guys who don't need a lot of coddling. Make pushes for Pau Gasol, Rashard Lewis, David West; steer clear of Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Allen Iverson. Follow this rule, and championships may be attainable.