By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
MIAMI – The 24-year-old Rashard Lewis would have wanted no part of this 34-year-old Rashard Lewis guy or, for that matter, the job he has.
If RL34 tried to pitch his role with the Miami Heat to RL24 – a lot of sitting, scarce playing time, limited touches on those occasions when you do play and a heavy priority on defense – the younger version of himself might have walked away muttering expletives and fearing insanity in his future.
“Ten years ago? [Bleep],” Lewis said Sunday, talking after the Heat’s practice about him then vs. him now. “I’d have been [hacked] off.
“Even if we was winning the ball game, I’d have been sitting over there furious. If I was in the game and felt like I hadn’t gotten a shot in a long time, and it came to the fourth quarter and zero points, I probably would have taken a bad shot trying to get myself going.”
Lewis came into the NBA projected as, and expecting to be, a star. He was drafted straight out of a Elsik High in Alief, Texas, by Seattle in the second round of the 1998 Draft and the only reason he slid that low was because he was 19 and the preps-to-pros thing still was sorting itself out. Not every high school kid was proving to be Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett. But Lewis figured to be plenty good and after a couple of years, he got real traction with the Sonics.
By age 24, in 2003-04, the 6-foot-10 forward was logging 37 minutes nightly, putting up 15 or 16 shots and averaging in the high teens. The next year, he was named to his first of two All-Star teams and began a streak of three seasons averaging at least 20 points.
In 2007, Lewis “got paid” – overpaid actually, in a six-year, $118 million sign-and-trade deal to Orlando – and while he never grew into that contract as a superstar or a franchise guy, Lewis did make it to another All-Star Game, led the league in 3-point attempts and makes and helped the Magic reach the 2009 Finals.
And yet here he was at 34, getting praised for a Game 3 performance in the Eastern Conference finals in which he played almost 18 minutes, shot 0-2, didn’t grab a rebound and went home scoreless. RL24 wouldn’t have wanted any part of that stats line, either, but RL34 felt proud of it because the players and coaches around him were pleased.
“It’s big time,” Miami’s LeBron James said. “For the non‑basketball people, you look at this stat sheet and see zeros across the board. When he was on the floor, it was a plus-21. That’s winning basketball. He sacrificed, defended, and he helped us get the lead. There’s a plus on the floor with him out there.’
Lewis hadn’t played at all in the first two games against Indiana, but when Chris Bosh got into foul trouble, coach Erik Spoelstra called on Lewis primarily to guard Pacers power forward David West. His best work came in the second quarter, then Lewis played nine minutes, West played 12 and the Indiana strongman got up only two shots for two points.
“He just brought energy,” Spoelstra said Sunday. “It was just we went deeper in the rotation. And maybe that’s a function of having a fresh body at that point in the game. It was a spark. It wasn’t necessarily planned. It just happened, we had to go deeper, and he produced.”
Lewis is a special case among the veterans on the Heat bench. Some, like Shane Battier and James Jones, always were destined to be role players and adapted to that over years. Ray Allen is 38 years old and by design has honed his game to become mostly a 3-point specialist.
Lewis, though, signed with Miami in 2012, accepting a two-year, minimum-wage deal because he still had money coming from his whopper 2007 contract. He was 33 years old and relatively healthy, with plenty of game left and interest from teams that wanted him to play longer minutes and a bigger role.
He opted for Miami’s bench, knowing full well that much of the skills he had left would be left in the Heat’s practice gym.
Said Lewis: “I said to myself after I left Washington, D.C., ‘I’ve played on All-Star teams a couple of times. I’ve made a good amount of money. I’ve been in 3-point contests. I’ve averaged 20 points. I’ve done a lot of things over 12, 13 years. But I don’t have a championship.’
“So watching the Miami Heat win their first championship , I told myself I wanted to be part of a team like that, a good team. But it’s like the Spurs – you have to sacrifice. Everybody on our team has to sacrifice. I knew that coming to our team, so I was mentally prepared.”
Not just anybody gets chosen, however. Spoelstra acknowledge that plenty of free agents have come knocking in recent seasons, eager to jump aboard the James-Bosh-Dwyane Wade bandwagon. Most say all the right things, too, about being willing to scale down their ambitions and such.
The Heat do not simply take that at face value.
“We paint the worst picture,” the Miami coach said. ” ‘How would you handle it if you’re sitting? This might not be the place for you. And that wouldn’t mean you’re a bad guy.’ “
Some players, when it has been put to them that way, have demurred, opting to sign somewhere else. None, Spoelstra said, has lied, joined in, then become a problem later.
“It also doesn’t mean that, while you’re in it, it’s going to be easy,” Spoelstra said. “Or that you’ll respond the right way.”
Lewis averaged just 4.3 minutes in last year’s playoffs for Miami. This season, he started just six times and scored 10 points or more only eight times in 60 appearances. He also had a stretch of 10 DNPs in March, sitting out 17 of 22 games around that stretch. And when he does get into games, Lewis remembers the talks he had with Spoelstra back in training camp, that it’s defense first.
“You’ve got to be mentally prepared,” Lewis said of the Miami bench dynamic. “Not only myself but guys like J.J. [James Jones] and Michael Beasley – a talented young guy, drafted No. 2. I’m sure it’s frustrating for him at times but in the locker room, I think, we keep him grounded.”
Lewis, meanwhile, sounds like he’s past the what-if games. He has earned more than $155 million and now he’s chasing another one of those baubles money cannot buy.
“As long as we can compete for a championship, I want to be here until I retire. I wouldn’t want to go to a team where I’m playing 30 minutes but it doesn’t result in anything. I’ve done that – in Seattle, in Orlando. Now I’m at the point where I want to get as many championships as possible.”