Last year when the Wizards visited Orlando for the second time, Rashard Lewis was in unfamiliar surroundings. Lewis was locked out of the Magic locker. This was on purpose of course because Lewis was traded to Washington in December. He was no longer a member of the Magic, after putting the team over the top and helping lead the team to three straight Southeast Division championships, two Eastern Conference Finals appearances and the 2009 NBA Finals.
Lewis, often criticized for the somewhat bloated maximum contract he received in the summer of 2006, was a solid player for Orlando. He did whatever was asked of him and often did it pretty well.
Even with a new year in front of him, and ice packs taped around both knees and a few gray hairs starting to come in, Lewis still appreciated how the Magic franchise welcomed him back last year with a short video tribute. How they will receive him tonight when Lewis steps on the Amway Center floor for the first time against his former team remains to be seen.
Lewis knows that it is a good feeling to be back in Orlando.
“I think coming back, I found myself walking around, smiling and looking at the banners that we accomplished when I was here,” Lewis said after the Wizards’ shootaround on Wednesday. “I’m just looking for people to talk to, people that I remember and recognize. It was cool to be coming back to the arena.
“I don’t know (what Lewis’ emotions will be like). I think maybe at the beginning of the game, I will be a little nervous. I’m kind of excited to come back and not only play against the Magic and play in front of the fans that I grew to love when I was here for the past 3-4 years. We had good times and fun times. I’m just excited to come back in this arena and play int his game, even though I’m in the other jersey.”
It will be weird seeing Lewis in the new red, white and blue duds for the Wizards. Rashard said he still feels a bond with the Magic and that he felt he was still a part of the team. Lewis said he followed teh Magic’s season last year when he could and was pulling for his former teammates and still close friends in the Playoffs.
In a lot of ways, still, Rashard Lewis does not get the appreciation he deserves for the impact he had on helping the Magic rise to the top.
In three and a half years in Orlando, Lewis averaged 16.3 points per game and shot 39.9 percent form long range. His stats did not live up to the six-year, nearly $70 million contract he signed in 2006. But you cannot argue with the team’s results.
As Stan Van Gundy has pointed out numerous times, the Magic went from 40 wins and sneaking into the Playoffs to 52 wins, a division championship and being a perennial contender with little personnel change aside from Lewis.
“To me, it’s pretty simple, the team here before [ . . .], and granted guys were young, [had] 40 wins and made the playoffs, which was a big step. And then Rashard comes in, [Darko] Milicic, Grant Hill go out the door and Tony [Battie] gets hurt, and 52 wins,” Van Gundy said. “It just turns around. And I think he obviously was the major addition to that and then a year later you’re in the Finals. He was the major addition.
“And, on top of that, he came to a new team, changed positions, had to battle bigger guys at the four so we could get our best players on the floor and really changed the whole way that the Magic played because of his skills. I thought in that turnaround when he came, a lot of it revolved around him.”
Van Gundy is one of those that believes Lewis does not get enough credit. That is not only for his playing ability but his unselfishness too. Van Gundy called Lewis one of the best team guys he has been around — citing the fact Lewis never made excuses or complained about his shots or having to change positions.
That is one of the intangibles Lewis now brings to the Wizards. Even though they remain the lone winless team in the NBA at this point, Washington is stacked with some very talented players — including last year’s No. 1 overall pick, John Wall, and promising young big men JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche.
Lewis, who sat out good portions of last season with a knee injury that he might have been able to play through if his team was more competitive (not questioning his effort, but how you treat injuries does change when you are that far out of playoff contention), had to adjust his frame of thinking from playing for a contender to being the veteran on an extremely young team.
It could get frustrating having to deal with the mistakes, but Lewis remembers how valuable it was playing with veterans like Gary Payton and Ray Allen when he was younger. Now it is his turn to teach the young players.
“Sometimes it gets frustrating after coming from a successful organization like the Orlando Magic, playing with spome veteran guys, going to a team that’s trying to make the playoffs,” Lewis said. “At the same time, we’re a very young team. At times, it gets frustrating, but then i have to remember that this is a young team and you have to let some of the mistakes go and try and teach these guys.
“When I played in Seattle, when I was a young guy, I had veterans that taught me how to play the game. I didn’t know how to play the NBA game. You got to learn before you go out there and do things. I most definitely learned from Gary Payton and a lot of the other veterans that showed me the ropes. That’s something I have to do now.”
One thing Lewis was always known for in Orlando was his constant professionalism. It seems that has carried over into his time in Washington.
The Wizards have a long way to go just even to get through this season. For one night, Lewis can live in the past just a bit and enjoy being back in Orlando.