Though his seven-year, $118 million deal he signed with Orlando in 2007 was criticized over the summer, Rashard Lewis, 31, has been integral to making the Magic a title contender over the last two seasons. The former Seattle SuperSonic and 13-year veteran was a career 39.2 percent shooter from three-point range entering the 2010-11 campaign. Lewis has struggled so far this season, averaging 10.5 points on 37.8 percent shooting through 11 games. But with Dwight Howard still in the middle and a team that has been to the Eastern finals for the past two seasons, Lewis is sure to play a pivotal role in deciding the conference champ again.
We checked in with the two-time All-Star to get his thoughts on the season so far.
SI.com: After falling short in last year's Eastern Conference finals, what is the team's approach to this season?
Lewis: We still feel like we have a team that can win the NBA championship. We played a lot of small-ball last year; when we played some bigger teams, we struggled a little bit. But with [Stan Van Gundy's] coaching experience and the lineup we have, and now with me going back and forth between the 3 and 4, we can play big as well as we can play small. That's going to help us in the long run when we face good teams like Boston or the Lakers, as well as Miami.
SI.com: You've played power forward since you've been in Orlando, but played small forward while you were in Seattle. How do you approach the switch back to the 3?
Lewis: It's easy to remember; it's almost like riding a bike. Offensively, it's pretty easy, but on defense I had to learn how to get back to slowing guys on the perimeter. Even more difficult is slowing guys in the pick-and-roll and when guys are getting screens. I'm not used to guys coming and setting screens on me. Playing the 4 used to mean a guy calling out the screen, me jumping out and showing, then trying to stop the guard and getting back. With your back to the basket, you have to listen to the screens getting called out and react that way. Getting through those has been an adjustment.
SI.com: Playing the 3 also puts you on the front lines of defending the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Does that worry you?
Lewis: It does make your job a little more difficult because you're guarding guys who can shoot the three-ball, so you have to close out on them, but they're also liable to pump-fake you and drive right around you. You're facing the most athletic and talented guys on the court -- they can do anything or play more than one position.
SI.com: You got a little help over the summer in that effort from former 12-time All-Star, Hakeem Olajuwon? What did you work on with him?
Lewis: We worked on footwork, which is where a lot of his moves came from. We also worked on post moves, facing up and isolation plays. But it was mostly about the footwork, how to make those moves. He showed me a lot. I haven't necessarily used it a lot yet; usually when practice starts you're working on a lot of team concepts and not individual stuff. But I'm still working on it when I do get a chance. I've been playing a little bit in the post and have tried to add [some of what I learned] to my game.
SI.com: You've taken heat for getting off to a slow start this season. Are you concerned about your play thus far?
Lewis: No, I just haven't been knocking down shots as much as usual. It's still early in the season, but I can't stop shooting it, I have to keep shooting until I get it going. If anything, I've got to get the ball up. I've been shooting the ball flat; a lot of my attempts have been coming up short, so I just need to work on my form, get some more leg in it and get the ball up. I'm sure as the season goes on everything will pan out.
SI.com: In your fourth year of playing under coach Van Gundy, what has been the hardest part about working with him?
Lewis: He wants everything to be perfect. If we could hold our opponents scoreless, then he'd be happy. When they do score, he's a little upset because that's the type of coach he is; he wants everything to be perfect, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
SI.com: The team still responds well to him, though.
Lewis: He's a great coach -- a great defensive-minded coach -- and defense wins championships. We feel like we're a pretty good defensive team, but sometimes we don't play as well on that end and hope that our offense can make up for it. But you have to be tough, and Stan is a great coach for that.
SI.com: Van Gundy isn't alone in getting criticism in Orlando; Pat Riley seemed to question your deal with Orlando in defending his moves over the summer. What's your response to such criticism?
Lewis: That type of stuff doesn't bother me. When I jumped from high school to the NBA, I had to have thick skin. So I just decided to go out there and do what I'm supposed to do and help win ball games. Sometimes I feel like I put too much pressure on myself instead of playing relaxed and more loose; I feel like I've got to go out there and really show up. But we have good talent on our team, so it's not one guy who gets all the shots or has to score all the baskets. All that matters is winning ball games. If you win, then everything else just kind of takes care of itself.
SI.com: If the NBA's age rule had been in place when you were in school, do you think a year of college would have made a difference for you?
Lewis: Maybe it would have helped me in life a little bit. You can never say college wouldn't have helped, especially the way professional sports are. But I think I made a good decision; I've been here for 12 years.
SI.com: Last year you began the season with a 10-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance (DHEA) that was an over-the-counter supplement you were taking. At the time, your GM, Otis Smith, said the league needed to do a better job of educating players as to what they can and can't take? Has that happened?
Lewis: They have a program where they talk about it every year, but I'm a lot more cautious now. Anything I might take, I search the description and I clear it with the team before I take anything, no matter if it's even a flu medicine.
SI.com: Overshadowing this season is the upcoming CBA talks. We've heard a lot about what the owners want. What should fans know about the players' side of things?
Lewis: One thing is that we don't know what's going on behind the closed-door meetings teams had with commissioner David Stern in the offseason about a potential lockout. We don't know how that affects us or how much the league really lost [eds. note: In February, Stern said the league projected a $400 million loss for this season]. We've learned a little bit, but we don't know the main numbers. Right now, our jobs are to make sure our finances are good.