Underrated Rashard Lewis, a second-round pick who's now an elite scorer, will be the summer's hottest free agent
The pistons' Chauncey Billups and the Nets' Vince Carter are likely to re-sign this summer, which means 6'10" Rashard Lewis will be the most-sought-after free agent available when the bidding opens on July 1. In spite of his relatively low profile, the 27-year-old Sonic has established himself as one of the league's top combo forwards, scoring more than 20 points per game and shooting better than 46% from the field and 38% from beyond the arc in each of the last three seasons. At week's end he was averaging a career-high 21.8 points and 6.9 rebounds despite suffering a strained tendon sheath in his right hand that caused him to miss 22 games.
Lewis is intriguing because of his rare blend of production, upside and humility. Still remembered as the 19-year-old from Houston's Alief Elsik High who was reduced to tears when he slipped into the second round of the 1998 draft—Seattle took him 32nd—Lewis grew from a rookie who played in just 20 games to an All-Star in 2005, when he and guard Ray Allen led the Sonics to their first division title in seven years and into the second round of the playoffs.
"He's up to about 75% of his potential," Seattle coach Bob Hill says of Lewis, who has upgraded his one-on-one skills in the last year. "You can pick-and-roll him, you can baseline-screen him, you can isolate him, you can post him, you can do anything with him."
What makes Lewis especially valuable is his minimal ego; there isn't a hint of envy that Allen is the Sonics' primary option. And yet Lewis won't run from the big shot: Witness his game-winning three with 4.8 seconds left in a 100--99 victory in New York on March 6. "He's right up there among the top five at the position," says Celtics star Paul Pierce. "I don't think he gets as much publicity as he should, maybe because of the team he's on."
The Sonics (25--38 through Sunday and lottery bound for a second straight year) have declared their intention to re sign Lewis this summer when he opts out of the remaining two years and $21 million on his contract. But Lewis knows that he must first establish his market value—probably a six-year deal starting at $12 million next season—by seeking offers from other teams. Further, the uncertainty in Seattle is motivating him to look for a new home. Though Lewis isn't too concerned about a move to Oklahoma City in 2008--09, which will most likely happen if a new arena deal can't be struck with local officials, he does worry that new owner Clay Bennett might shake up management, replacing Hill (perhaps with Rick Adelman or Lenny Wilkens, currently serving as a chief adviser to Bennett) and general manager Rick Sund (with rumored candidates Wilkens; the Spurs' G.M., R.C. Buford; or Buford's assistant, Sam Presti).
While Lewis won't discuss potential suitors, he is intrigued by outfits in the weaker Eastern Conference. "Even with a .500 record you could win a division and compete to get to the Finals," he says. "I want to be an All Star player every year, make the playoffs every year and get a ring."
Teams that could free enough cap space to afford Lewis include the Bobcats, Magic, Hawks, Bucks and Grizzlies. The best fit would be in Orlando, where Lewis would form an imposing, young front line with Dwight Howard and Darko Milicic. The Magic would have to think hard before committing, in a sign-and-trade, more than $80 million to Lewis because such a deal, in combination with extensions for Howard, Milicic and point guard Jameer Nelson, could eventually push its payroll above the luxury-tax threshold.
But don't put it past Orlando. Owner Rich DeVos will take the plunge if he's convinced Lewis can help Howard win a championship. And Lewis can.
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A So-So Summer
Chauncey Billups, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis are the only free agents likely to receive max offers come July. What's left is a deep pool of solid players, highlighted by the following:
Desmond Mason, G-F, Hornets Can score, defend and jump out of the gym
Darko Milicic, F-C, Magic (restricted free agent) Expected to be re-signed as complement to Dwight Howard
Andres Nocioni, SF, Bulls (restricted) Hard-nosed scorer and rebounder adds hustle, other intangibles
Jerry Stackhouse, SG, Mavericks Former All-Star has thrived as sixth man and rehabbed his image
OTTO GREULE/GETTY IMAGES (LEWIS)
SONIC BOON Lewis will jump at the chance to sign a max contract with a title contender.
DARREN HAUCK/AP (WILLIAMS)