The summer of 2007 was a big year for the Magic. They hired Stan Van Gundy as their head coach and then picked up Rashard Lewis on a controversial max contract.
That summer, financial decisions aside, obviously changed the Magic as they won the division the following year and then escaped the first round of the Playoffs for the first time since 1996. A Finals trip followed in 2009 and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010.
Whatever is ultimately written about Rashard Lewis' contract — a nearly $105 million behemoth over six years — his presence in the lineup as a stretch-4 revolutionized the NBA and brought the best out of the Magic and their star, Dwight Howard.
It almost did not happen though. Stan Van Gundy explained in a wide-ranging interview with TrueHoop's Ethan Sherwood Strauss that had Tony Battie not injured his shoulder (practicing against Howard) before the season, the Rashard Lewis experiment at power forward may never have occurred, or maybe not to the extent it did:
When we looked at guys — I mean they drafted [J.J.] Redick — shooting was always a priority. And then what happened in that first year the same summer that I came here. Then we got Rashard [Lewis] and [Hedo Turkoglu] who are both 3-men, but clearly among their top four players [at their position], along with Jameer [Nelson], so they obviously were going to have to play together.
So one of them had to become a 4-man. Rashard was just a better fit at the 4. Look, if Tony Battie had not gotten hurt that year, there's a good chance that we would have played big at least half the game and not been quite as much four-out. With the roster we had, it was just an absolute necessity that we played the way we did. And I thought the shooting around Dwight really helped. The thought was always trying to put guys around Dwight that complemented him.
To that point in his career, Rashard Lewis had never really played power forward. He was always an oversized small forward. Many criticized Van Gundy's decision — particularly when the Magic struggled in 2011.
Many wanted to see Lewis post up more and to do that he would have to play the three. Others saw Lewis as a glorified spot-up shooter, and that is not something you pay more than $100 million for.
There is still no denying the results. The Magic had the most successful four-year run in franchise history from 2008 until 2011. Van Gundy's decision to put Lewis in as the stretch-4 was a big part of that. Virtually no team at that time was doing that — really only Mike D'Antoni's Suns and Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks would try such a thing — and it gave the Magic a distinct advantage.
Battie was a solid power forward who could step out and hit a jumper and play decent defense. His role on that team was really more of a mentor for Howard (they are still close).
What Lewis did was transformative though for this team. It gave it an edge that few other teams had at the time. Van Gundy found it and exploited it.