Welcome to Basketball News' 10-part mini-series, Blazing the
Trail, where Mat Issa breaks down the most revolutionary players of
the 1990s and 2000s. Throughout this series, we'll examine how
these players changed basketball and pioneered their respective
In this second installment, Mat goes in-depth on two-time
All-Star power forward Rashard Lewis and his lasting impact as a
stretch 4 with insight from Bob Beyer and Ahmad Ajami, two former
Orlando Magic assistants who worked closely with
Like many things in basketball, the concept of the "stretch 4"
was not invented in the 2000s.
However, before the turn of the century, the archetype was
almost exclusively viewed as a matchup-based tool. Using a baseball
analogy, it was like having a lefty reliever in the bullpen
reserved for specific circumstances rather than an ace at the head
of your rotation.
But that all changed when a combination of untimely injuries and
coaching ingenuity led to Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy
starting Rashard Lewis at the power forward position. Lewis became
a true All-Star while playing the stretch 4 and helped influence
What Made Lewis Special
Like his stretch-4 predecessors, Lewis was lethal from the
perimeter. In the 2008-09 season, he shot nearly 40% from downtown
while leading the NBA in total three-point makes and attempts.
Despite his prowess, Lewis was far more than just a stationary
sniper. During his formative years, he underwent what I call "the
Anthony Davis growth trajectory" — a phenomenon where a basketball
player grows up playing as a guard, hits an unforeseen massive
growth spurt and then matures into a big with guard skills. And,
because that happened, Lewis was able to combine a 6-foot-10
stature with his bucket-getting chops, which earned him the
moniker: “Sweet Lew.”
Sweet Lew quickly became a defense's worst nightmare.
“At that time, length and athleticism at the 4 wasn’t as
prevalent as it is now,” said Ahmad Ajami, a former Magic assistant
coach under Van Gundy for five seasons between 2007 and 2012.
“He could play both inside and out,” Van Gundy’s longtime
right-hand man Bob Beyer stated about Lewis.
Too big for smalls, too fast for bigs. This was a recurring
storyline throughout Lewis’ career.
That narrative reached its climax during Orlando’s iconic 2009
Eastern Conference Finals bout with the LeBron James-led Cleveland
Cavaliers. During that series, Lewis burned slow-footed big men
Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejão with his superior
quickness, and alpha'd the smaller Delonte West by elegantly
lofting jumpers over top of him.
“The guy who probably [doesn’t get] the credit that he deserves
is Rashard... It [all] goes back to Rashard,” Beyer recalled when
describing Orlando’s success against Cleveland. “Rashard could
exploit their two bigs out there.”
In the six-game series, Lewis eviscerated Cleveland, averaging
18.3 points on 64.0% True Shooting, all while hitting some critical shots en route to Orlando’s only title
appearance of the aughts.
Throughout his career, Lewis’ impact derived primarily from his
value as a scorer and spacer. During his All-Star campaign in
2008-09, he was second on the Magic in both scoring volume and
efficiency (among players who played at least 50 games). He also
ranked in the 93rd percentile in spacing league-wide, according to
The impact metrics available at the time seem to agree with his
nomination, painting Lewis as a fringe All-Star contributor.
However, what he accomplished by working in unison with Magic
frontcourt mates Dwight Howard and Hedo Türkoğlu was much more
important than his individual success. In isolation, each member of
the trio was a solid offensive player. But in the aggregate, the
three coalesced to form a multi-faceted machine.
On the surface, this particular Magic team greatly resembled the
infrastructure of the two-time world-champion Houston Rockets from
the 1990s. Under the guidance of Rudy Tomjanovich, those Rockets
deployed a progressive 4-out, 1-in offensive scheme with the
legendary Hakeem Olajuwon flanked by four shooters on the
However, those Houston teams were founded on Olajuwon’s
reputation in the post that allowed him to regularly commandeer the
attention of a second defender (like
this). Meanwhile, Howard was more of a play-finisher than a
pure isolationist on the low block.
“Dwight could really excel when he was on the move. He was a
good runner in transition. He was a good roller in pick-and-rolls,”
Beyer said. “Runner, roller and the other thing — we would get a
lot of spin-out lobs.”
Pair Howard's finishing with TürkoÄŸlu’s size, ball-handling and
pull-up shooting, and add Lewis’ expansive scoring repertoire, and
you had a recipe for offensive brilliance.
The Magic (like the D’Antoni-led Suns) were
a pick-and-roll-centric team, with their pet play being a three-man
action involving their frontcourt triumvirate.
Beyer said that Orlando called it a “Thumb Down Spread,”
basically a middle pick-and-roll featuring TürkoÄŸlu as the
ball-handler and Howard as the screener, with Lewis lurking one
Here’s a demonstration of the play in theory and in practice
(with a roll-and-replace wrinkle from
Visual diagram presented by
“That was our go-to play,” Beyer said. “It forced the defense to
protect the basket... because Dwight [was] such a dynamic roller.
If you consistently dropped your big back to take the roll away,
Hedo was more than capable of making that three-point shot or
pull-up two. We would run the roll-and-replace action where we
would come and lift Rashard up, and then, there’s another deadly
“You’re talking about scoring options at all three of those
positions on the floor."
(Beyer also mentioned another variation of the play that
utilized Lewis as the screener called the “Thumb Up Spread,”
literally signaled by a thumb up.)
Typically, the major drawback that comes with playing these
offensively-slanted lineups comes at the defensive end, as more
offense usually means less defense. But this iteration of the Magic
defied the laws of statistics, touting the No. 1 defense in the NBA
The keystone to this formidable front was, of course,
“[You’d] be hard-pressed to find a rim-protector and [overall]
defender — on-ball and off-ball — like Dwight,” Ajami stated.
And despite his slender frame causing some issues against
"classical" power forwards (see: 2009 Finals), Lewis compensated
for his deficiencies by leveraging his great length and sound hands
(87th percentile steal rate in 2009, per Cleaning the Glass) to
create chaos on and off the ball.
“Both Rashard and Hedo TürkoÄŸlu were so long,” Beyer said.
“They were very intelligent [and used] their length to defend guys.
They were active with their hands. Their closeouts were appropriate
— based on who they were guarding. And, if they were to get beat,
they still had confidence that the next play could be made by
Dwight to clean it up.”
While some view their magical run as an anomaly, the threesome
operated at the level of a true contender. According to PBP stats,
in the 1,268 minutes Lewis, Howard and TürkoÄŸlu shared in 2008-09,
the Magic posted a Net Rating of plus-12.68 (the equivalent of a
71-win pace in an 82-game season).
For reference, that is a higher
NET number than what the trio of Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton
and Giannis Antetokounmpo posted during their championship season
with the Milwaukee Bucks.
“Nobody would have ever guessed that we would have been as
successful as we were,” Ajami smiled. “But we were right there.
“That group of guys was extremely special.”
Weaving the Thread
feature article from 2020, The Athletic's Josh Robbins credited
two factors for Van Gundy’s decision to start Lewis at the 4:
“Necessity and smart thinking.”
For some context, the Magic initially planned to start
traditional power forward Tony Battie. But when he was ruled out
for the entirety of the 2007-08 campaign, Van Gundy decided to
experiment with Lewis playing the stretch 4 full-time.
However, dig into the weeds a little further, and one could
posit that this innovation was more than happenstance, and that Van
Gundy and Lewis had seen this before.
In 2008-09, Orlando’s three-point attempt rate (3PAr) had a
frequency 11.1% higher than the league average. Let’s look at teams
that posted a similar relative 3PAr that came before them:
An interesting cast of characters indeed (man, Pitino's teams
loved to let it fly).
Now, let’s narrow our focus to three specific instances:
First are the 1996-97 Miami Heat, led by "The Godfather" Pat
Riley. Who was his lead assistant during that time? None other than
Stanley Alan Van Gundy.
Secondly, the 2003-04 Seattle SuperSonics. Before he landed in
Orlando, Lewis had some practice slotting in at power forward under
Sonics head coach Nate McMillan — spending 20% of his minutes that
season at the 4 spot, per Basketball-Reference. Although, it is
worth noting that Vladimir RadmanoviÄ‡ was Seattle's primary
stretch 4 (playing 80% of his minutes at power forward).
And lastly, the 2006-07 Houston Rockets. It was the last pit
stop for the legendary Jeff Van Gundy, Stan’s younger brother. Also
featured on that team was Tracy McGrady — a player whom Lewis has
publicly acknowledged he studied and
modeled his game after.
“I don’t know if I would specify it that cleanly," Beyer
said with a chuckle. "But I do know this: I know how much Stan
values shooting, and I know how much Stan is always trying to come
up with lineups where the best players are on the floor together.
So, your theory makes a lot of sense to me.”
The point is that, whether it was an intentional decision, a
freak coincidence, or a case of cryptomnesia, you can see that past
experiences in Lewis and Van Gundy’s professional lives had them
trending in this direction the entire time. And together, they made
Impact on Today’s Game
Unlike Steve Nash, finding direct descendants for Lewis is more
of an arduous endeavor because, nowadays, seemingly everyone
employs a stretch 4 to some degree. In this past season alone, 15
players listed as power forwards on Basketball-Reference surpassed
4.4 three-point attempts per game (Lewis’ career average).
Ajami stated that, because of the absence of positional
constructs in modern-day basketball, he only thinks about positions
as who you guard on defense.
“Basketball has almost become positionless,” Ajami said. “To me,
you playing the 4 or 5 really just means who on the other team
you're defending because, for us, our 4 and our 5... have got to be
able to do the same things we ask our 2 and our 3 to do.”
With that said, more direct comparisons still exist.
In 2020-21, the Utah Jazz led the league with a relative 3PAr of
plus-9.6. One could find a lot of parallels between their
frontcourt of Joe Ingles, Bojan BogdanoviÄ‡ and Rudy Gobert and the
one the Magic rode to the NBA Finals. (BogdanoviÄ‡ plays the role
of Lewis in this analogy.)
Coming into the 2018 NBA Draft, some scouts viewed Michael
Porter Jr. as a new-age version of Lewis. And when his back was
right, Michael Malone would frequently run jumbo frontcourt lineups
featuring MPJ, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic. (Coincidentally,
Malone’s father Brendan was an assistant coach on those Magic
You can even see some influence from the Magic on this current
iteration of the Cavaliers — three seven-footers in the
frontcourt with Lauri Markkanen operating as their de facto
Ironically enough, Lewis’ legacy has made his offensive
archetype less unique than it was when he was playing (something we
will see a lot in this series). None of the heirs to Lewis we
listed have achieved All-Star status because the stretch 4 has
become a staple feature on every team.
Nonetheless, Lewis and those Magic teams pushed the limits of
what was once thought possible for the position — the hallmark
feature of any basketball pioneer.
And for his overarching impact on the game, Lewis deserves his
respect, his All-Star nominations and, most of all, his own chapter
in the history of the NBA.
Tune in next week for Part III of Blazing the Trail, which
focuses on Shane Battier — the data-ball defender.
Click here to read Part I:
"Steve Nash, the magician who danced in the