Tonight was all about Ben Wallace

The 2000-01 Detroit Pistons season wasn’t quite as unwatchable as this one. The Pistons played hard, they just weren’t very good. Interest in the team had hit a low point after Grant Hill’s defection to Orlando in the offseason. Jerry Stackhouse chasing a scoring title proved to give the team a bit of interest, but a previously anonymous free agent acquisition named Ben Wallace is what made the team can’t-miss for me, even if they didn’t win that often.

Wallace’s 28-rebound performance against the Toronto Raptors on April 17, 2001, even inspired me to go out and spend some of my minimum wage gas station earnings on a Pistons hat. The clerk at Dunham’s kind of smirked. They weren’t moving much Pistons merch at the time. I always took pride in how beaten up that hat was when the Pistons won a championship a few years later and everyone I knew was suddenly wearing Pistons apparel. I knew before them that Wallace was special, and I’m sure the diehards like myself out there took similar satisfaction in loving what Wallace brought to the table before the masses even knew who he was.

I’ve written at length about my fascination with Dennis Rodman’s uniqueness as a NBA player, how he could dominate a game with only a minimal involvement at the offensive end. I remember watching Rodman when I was young and thinking I would never see a player like him again. I was wrong.

Wallace was every bit the dominant force Rodman was, except with a couple of added bonuses: Wallace could protect the rim and Wallace wasn’t kind of a crazy person. The rebounds, the blocked shots, the stats … those are all obvious memories. But the more subtle Wallace moments, like him hedging out on screens better than any big man of his era (seriously … Wallace, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan are the only bigs of this generation who could single-handedly smother a pick-and-roll). He gave fantastic quotes — my favorite (sadly, I can’t find the link) came when a TV reporter asked him about being a ‘specialist.’ Wallace responded, “I’m not a defensive specialist. I’m a basketball player.”

He’s one of the toughest, rarest, most interesting players of the era. Most people have realized that by now. He’s also one of the most dominant and underrated. When the Pistons won the 2004 title, the common meme was they were a team devoid of superstars. That’s untrue. Ben Wallace was a true franchise player. He was by far the most important component of that team’s success. He’s a Hall of Fame player (trust me, I’ll be stumping for his merits just like I did Rodman before him).

Against the Spurs Tuesday, in a game in which he broke the record for most games ever played by an undrafted player, he gave a few vintage moments in the fourth quarter, nearly helping the Pistons erase a double-digit deficit and nearly (and improbably) upsetting the Spurs. He even got away with mugging Tim Duncan once for old time’s sake. He even made a 3-pointer! (Side Note: I saw him make a 3-pointer live in a game against the Wizards in 2005, one of my favorite live games I’ve ever attended).

There’s still plenty of time to say goodbye to Wallace in his final season, but time is running out. This is a lost season, but hopefully every fan is taking the chance to fully appreciate one of the most exceptional careers not only in Pistons’ history, but in NBA history.

Rodney Stuckey amazes

I have a bit of a reputation as a Rodney Stuckey hater. Admittedly, it’s a bit deserved. I am eternally frustrated by him. And the reasons why were fully on display against the Spurs.

First, a knock on him since he came into the league is he’s not a natural point guard, he doesn’t see the floor well and he can’t create well for others. But the thing is, he can do all those things. He’s a great passer when he wants to be. Twice, on semi-fast breaks, he made perfect fundamentally sound jump-stops and made beautiful bounce passes through traffic to cutters for baskets. He sees the floor. He understands how to pass well. He just doesn’t always do it.

The second criticism of Stuckey has always been about an inability to finish at the rim after absorbing contact. He frequently finishes seasons with poor percentages at the rim. Against the Spurs, he made about 80 percent of his shots in the paint. He can finish at the rim, he just doesn’t always do it.

Stuckey had 23 points, 8 assists and one turnover against a good, physical Spurs team. He shot 67 percent. He helped limit Spurs guards Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal and Danny Green to 8-for-28 shooting. Stuckey can be a lockdown defender, he just doesn’t always do it.

There is no denying Stuckey’s talent. Tonight, he looked every bit like a potential All-Star point guard. But if he has the ability to do it against a good team like San Antonio, he has the ability to be far more consistent than he has been thus far in his career. The frustration isn’t about his talent, it’s about his willingness to play with the same effort and energy level every night.

Minimizing Prince

Tayshaun Prince‘s numbers — 8-for-16 for 18 points — look good enough. But don’t fall for that trap. When Prince was heavily involved in the offense, the Pistons looked worse.

The worst moment for me came late in the first half. After a Greg Monroe tap allowed Prince to get an offensive rebound, Monroe was set up on the block with Richard Jefferson guarding him. Monroe had a mismatch and great position. Prince had a great angle to feed him for the ball. This is what happened:

Fake pass. Fake pass. Fake pass. Kick it out to Brandon Knight to restart the offense.

It was infuriating. Monroe played poorly (more on that in a second), but one of the few times he was clearly matched up against an inferior player, the Pistons’ key veteran, a guy signed because he’s so smart and leadery, couldn’t get off a proper entry pass. Monroe looked mad and it looked like he yelled something at Prince. Good for him. That was a massive failure.

Commenter Frankie D pointed out Prince’s tendency to be overly cautious with his passes a few weeks ago as a possible explanation for why Prince has such a low turnover rate. I’d never noticed that before, but ever since Frankie mentioned it, I see it all the time. This was a perfect example.

And the Pistons clearly played better when Stuckey was pushing the ball and Jonas Jerebko was playing small forward. They played fast, efficiently and were fun to watch. That’s a major contrast to how they play when Prince is getting so many touches.

Can we stop with Monroe-Duncan?

I love Greg Monroe. He’s fantastic. But he’s not Tim Duncan. I get it. They both have average athleticism, they are both fundamentally sound on offense, they are both intelligent, quiet guys who don’t seem to crave the spotlight. But that’s where the comparisons end.

This always happens with the Pistons. They did it with Stuckey when he was younger, pegging him as a “more athletic Chauncey Billups.” They did it with Knight, insinuating he’s kinda sorta possibly the next Isiah Thomas since they’re both totally point guards who were lottery picks. Monroe has already established himself as a really good NBA player, but throughout tonight’s game, there were a handful of “Derp … Monroe is kinda similar to Tim Duncan” references throughout the broadcast. Just let Monroe be Monroe. Comparisons to all-time great players is never a winning strategy, even if there is little else to talk about.

Monroe doesn’t play passable defense yet. He’s slow on rotations, he can’t protect the rim and, as Feldman and JaVale McGee pointed out Sunday, he gets eaten alive by super athletic bigs. Turns out, he also isn’t all that well equipped to handle savvy, strong, big teams that can throw multiple looks at him. Monroe struggled early in the season against Oklahoma City when the Thunder alternated the athletic Serge Ibaka, the brutish Kendrick Perkins and the crafty Nick Collison on him. The Spurs had similar options to throw at him with Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner (don’t laugh … the dude can play some D these days). Monroe shot 2-for-11, struggled to establish position and was largely a non-aggressive non-factor against the Spurs. Monroe has been great this season, and I have no doubts he’ll continue to improve, but tonight was a good reminder of how far he needs to go to become one of the league’s truly elite players.