Monday, July 2, 2007
Updated: July 3, 7:00 PM ET
Top free agent Lewis to leave Sonics for Magic
By Marc Stein
The NBA's most sought-after free agent is going to the Magic Kingdom.
After being treated to an aggressive 24-hour courtship, Rashard Lewis told the Orlando Magic on Monday that he plans to leave the Seattle SuperSonics to sign a max contract with Orlando on July 11.
That's the first day free agents are allowed to officially sign new contracts. Free Agency Season in the NBA began Sunday at 12:01 a.m. and Lewis was in Central Florida by that afternoon to take in Orlando's persuasive recruiting pitch, including lobbying from franchise big man Dwight Howard.
"Orlando was my main focus and No. 1 on my list from day one," Lewis told Florida Today. "Me and my agent sat down and talked about it after the season and we determined that Orlando would be No. 1, and when they gave me that call on the first [of July] I was just so excited."
The exact value of a max contract won't be known until the league announces the salary-cap figure in effect next season on July 11, but it's believed to be between $75 million and $85 million over five seasons.
The price for Lewis' services could grow, though. Unless a sign-and-trade arrangement can be worked out with Lewis' old team or unless it can otherwise shed a contract or two to create more salary-cap space in the next week, Orlando will have to renounce the rights to restricted free agent Darko Milicic to create the cap room to fund such a lucrative deal, instantly making Milicic an unrestricted free agent.
And that might only heap more pressure to live up to this contract on Lewis, who is poised to become a very high-priced sidekick to Howard.
The 6-foot-10 forward -- having spent all nine of his NBA seasons in Seattle after famously slipping to the Sonics in the 1998 draft as the No. 32 overall pick -- is a proven scorer who averaged a career-high 22.4 points last season. Yet Orlando is bound to be questioned for committing so much financially to a player known only for his scoring.
Overlooking last month's aborted hiring of Billy Donovan as their new coach, it's the biggest free-agent splash from the Magic since the summer of 2000, when Orlando signed both Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady to matching $93 million contracts.
"Orlando made the playoffs last year and I see no reason why we shouldn't just go up from there," Lewis told Florida Today. "I could see anybody going to the Finals from the East because it's so wide open. Cleveland went this year and they're still a lot of good teams, but a championship chance is right there for a lot of teams."
Only the Sonics had the right to sign Lewis to a six-year deal and pay him more than he'll get from the Magic, but the 27-year-old apparently was eager to team with Howard and move out of the Western Conference.
When the Sonics traded Ray Allen to Boston on draft night, after selecting new face of the franchise Kevin Durant at No. 2 overall, Allen told the Tacoma News Tribune: "Now that I'm no longer there, I'm not even sure Rashard is going to want to come back. He wants to win and you almost think they are starting to rebuild with all these young players. I'm not sure Rashard is going to want to be a big brother to all these young guys."
Said Howard, speaking to Orlando reporters on Tuesday: "Having a guy like Rashard around would help my game out tremendously. The more shooters that we can bring in here, the better. Rashard is a shooter and a scorer, and that would help our team so much. We have some young guys on this team who can play, and hopefully we can add somebody like Rashard."
Florida Today reported in Tuesday's editions that Howard -- as expected even before Orlando secured Lewis' commitment or hired Stan Van Gundy to replace deposed coach Brian Hill -- still plans to sign a five-year extension with the Magic this summer.
"I definitely want to do the maximum of five years," Howard told the paper. "There's a great opportunity there for me, and I want to take it."
Milicic, meanwhile, figures to have no shortage of free-agent opportunities if he is indeed released onto the open market, despite a fourth straight season marked by concerns about the 7-footer's intensity. The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 draft by Detroit averaged just 8.0 points and 5.5 rebounds for the Magic in his first full season of regular playing time, but the 22-year-old did raise his game in the playoffs by averaging 12.3 points on 58.8 percent shooting in Orlando's four-game elimination by the Pistons in the first round.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.