Rashard Lewis went to Orlando, Grant Hill headed out. And both think they moved closer to an NBA title.
The swingmen changed addresses Wednesday, the first day teams could sign free agents. Hill signed with the Phoenix Suns, with Lewis essentially taking his old starting spot after coming from Seattle in a sign-and-trade deal.
Chauncey Billups stayed put, returning to a Detroit team that has reached five straight Eastern Conference finals. And Lewis believes the Magic could soon be there, too.
Lewis joins Dwight Howard to give Orlando one of the East’s top frontcourts. Lewis thinks that makes the Magic good enough to compete for the conference title in his first season in Florida.
“I feel like we’re going to have a chance to maybe even get to the finals next season,” Lewis said.
The Magic lost in the first round of the playoffs last season, the final one of Hill’s disappointing seven-year stint in Orlando. Hobbled mostly by ankle injuries, Hill played in about a third of the Magic’s regular-season games after signing a seven-year, $93 million contract.
But he was largely healthy and played well last season, averaging 14.4 points in 65 games. He showed enough to make the Suns believe he could be the piece they need to play for a title.
“He’s really been our only target, our priority, during free agency,” general manager Steve Kerr said. “He was the guy we felt could make the biggest impact for our franchise. We’re excited about what he’s going to bring to us, both on and off the floor. Basketball-wise, I think he’s the perfect fit for our system.”
Hill will have a chance to start on a team that has won three straight Pacific Division titles. The 6-foot-8 forward agreed to a two-year deal worth about $1.8 million for the first year, with a second-year player option for about $2 million.
“I’m sure everybody knows I’ve been through a lot,” Hill said. “But I feel like this is a reward, the opportunity to play here and try to win a world championship. You want to win, and that should be your goal every year. That’s the goal here.”
Detroit has usually been a contender since Billups arrived in 2002 after bouncing around the league. The Pistons’ run of five straight conference finals appearances is the NBA’s longest since the Los Angeles Lakers reached six in a row in the late 1980s.
The Pistons knew they couldn’t let Billups get away after losing Ben Wallace in free agency last year. They gave the 2004 NBA finals MVP a $60 million, five-year contract that is worth $46 million guaranteed over four years and includes a team option for the fifth year.
“We said from the beginning that re-signing Chauncey was our top priority, and now we can move forward knowing that Chauncey will continue to lead this team,” Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars told The Associated Press on Wednesday afternoon. “One of the toughest positions to fill in this business is the point guard position, and that’s why it was imperative that we re-sign Chauncey.”
Billups’ preference was to stay in Detroit, but Lewis was eager to leave Seattle to play with Howard in Orlando. The money certainly helped: He was able to get a sixth year with the teams agreeing to the sign-and-trade, bringing the value of his contract well over $110 million.
But Lewis said he had reason besides the dollars. He feels a move to an East Coast city allows him to be exposed to a segment of NBA fans that may not previously have known much about his game.
“Honestly, at this point in my career, it’s not about the money. I went through three contracts with the Seattle SuperSonics,” the 27-year-old Lewis said. “I have money saved, so that’s fine.
“To me, I’m looking at my future and playoffs, championships … and I feel like coming here with Dwight Howard getting his extension, with both of us under contract for five or six years, there’s no doubt we’re going to grow together.”
The Magic sent Seattle a conditional second-round pick for Lewis, who averaged a career-best 22.4 points last season.
Also Wednesday, the Portland Trail Blazers bought out the remaining two years of Steve Francis’ contract and completed a deal with Phoenix from draft night. The Blazers acquired James Jones and the draft rights to Spanish guard Rudy Fernandez, the 24th overall pick in the NBA draft, for $3 million.
Francis was acquired from the New York Knicks on draft night along with Channing Frye in the deal that sent Zach Randolph, Dan Dickau and Fred Jones to New York.
The Toronto Raptors signed Jason Kapono, who led the NBA in 3-point shooting last season for Miami.