NBA’s Ocean Eleven: Before Pau Gasol, there was Rasheed Wallace


In the winter of 2008, general managers, head coaches, media members and fans were outraged at the idea that the Los Angeles Lakers had acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in a swap for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, the rights to Marc Gasol and two first round picks (2008 and 2010). The trade was viewed as preposterous and horribly one-sided in favor of a Lakers team that had become a championship contender with the acquisition of the Spaniard.

Some made the argument that the trade should be vetoed – the irony of course is that a trade involving the Lakers would actually get vetoed in December 2011 with Chris Paul being the big prize – given how much it impacted the balance of power in the Western Conference. Phil Jackson would now have a great high and low post option to use in the Triangle Offense to help complement the wide array of skills of Kobe Bryant.

Gasol had a high basketball IQ and managed to pick up the triple-post offense on the fly and he combined that with a refined and aesthetically pleasing post game to turn the purple and gold into the best team in the conference.

In the Gasol era, the Lakers would make three straight NBA Finals appearances and win back-to-back titles.

At the time, it made sense for teams not owned by Jerry Buss to be annoyed.

Mind you, one team had no right to complain about what was perceived as high way robbery from Memphis at the time: the Detroit Pistons.

The 2002-03 Detroit Pistons were a good but not good enough.

Indeed, they faced off against Jason Kidd and his New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals and were taken down in four games as the Nets essentially never truly got tested by the Pistons.

Joe Dumars had assembled a solid team with good players at just about every position.

Indeed, they had a terrific backcourt that complemented each other almost perfectly. While Billups orchestrated the offense and also figured out when to assert himself to score, he also had a terrific scoring option in Richard Hamilton. Rip would make his defenders dizzy by simply running through a multitude of screens to get free just long enough to attempt and convert midrange jumpers.

The guards were good offensive options but also brought a lot to the table defensively. Billups was good at staying in front of opposing guards and forcing them make tough decisions with the ball while Hamilton was a great full-court man-to-man defender that forced ball handlers to exert more energy than they were typically accustomed to when bringing up the ball.

The team’s biggest problem was in their frontcourt. Detroit had a host of players they could throw out to get buckets near the basket, but one big problem with their band of misfits was that their presence often meant that they were lacking in another department. For instance, Corliss Williamson could get some minutes at the small or power forward position, but the team lost something in terms of ball movement and long-range shooting.

In Mehmet Okur, the Pistons had some 3-point shooting, but lacked an interior presence capable of putting up points near the basket as well as a stout defender at the big-man position.

Thus, the team might have had Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace to help cover up for teammates and also defend their positions, but the four spot often left much to be desired.

And then, the theft happened.

Rasheed Wallace had been a member of the Portland Trail Blazers for seven seasons and half and had played at a very high level for the team. Although few may remember this, Wallace almost singlehandedly carried the Portland Trail Blazers to a Game 7 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals.

The big man was a rare talent.

AT 6-foot-10, he could play all the frontcourt positions and play them well. His long arms coupled with quick feet and defensive discipline made it a nightmare for opponents trying to score against him. On the other side of the ball, he was as complete a big man you will ever see.

Sheed was the prototypical stretch four-man of today’s NBA, making it rain from 3-point range; but what made him different than most big men was that he also had the ability to go down on the low block and dominate the game of basketball there. Other than perhaps Dirk Nowitzki and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it’s tough to argue that any other player in league history had a more unblockable shot. Indeed, the former Tar Heel held the ball high above his head on his jump shots, which meant that no one could ever get to it given his 6’10’’ frame and his high elevation off the ground.

Thus, Wallace had the face-up jumper, the turnaround jumper and the pump fake and explosion to the rim (where no one could conceivably block his dunk attempts given his unreal elevation). Those three moves in his arsenal made him a beast down low.

Mind you, the big man had character issues.

His game had always been top notch, but his behavior often left much to be desired. Wallace would coast through games if he felt the opponents weren’t good enough, and as the years went by, he became less and less interested in banging down low with the big guys and instead drifted out to the perimeter to take long-range shots. The big man needed to be challenged, but his problems off the court as well as the Blazers multiple infractions with the law meant that the franchise had to clean house and start anew regardless of how talented the roster was.

Consequently, Rasheed Wallace was traded on February 9th, 2004 to the Atlanta Hawks.

And then 10 days later, the Detroit Pistons acquired the talented forward via trade. Here’s the breakdown of the three-way trade:

  • Atlanta acquired Chris Mills (from Boston), Zeljko Rebraca, Bob Sura and a 2004 1st round pick (from Detroit).
  • Boston acquired Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter and a 2004 1st round pick (from Detroit).
  • Detroit acquired Mike James (from Boston) and Rasheed Wallace (from Atlanta).

If you’re scoring at home, the Detroit Pistons surrendered Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter, Zeljko Rebraca, Bob Sura and two first round picks to acquire Rasheed Wallace from the Atlanta Hawks. Joe Dumars gave up a bunch of bench players and two picks to get a big man that would go on to make two more All-Star appearances (four total). In a league where talented big men are a precious commodity, you would think Detroit would have given up at least two starters or something close to that effect to acquire Wallace, but such was not the case.

The Detroit Pistons would go on to become the perfect illustration of team basketball.

With Wallace on board, what was already a great defense actually became better. Big men had trouble finishing over the outstretched arms of the North Carolina product, his sharp rotations helped take away any advantage opponents might have, he rebounded his area and his individual interior defense made it quite difficult for his opponents to score. And on the few times he got beat, he had a four-time Defensive Player of the Year protecting his back.

On offense, Detroit gave teams headaches.

Rasheed would occasionally operate down in the post where few could stop him, but his value came in screen setting as a stretch man. Whether he was screening off or on the ball, his ability to step out and shoot gave defenses fits. Indeed, whenever the player defending the former Trail Blazer would retreat to the paint to help out against cutters or players that had gotten free off of screens, Wallace would step out and drill shots.

If his man stayed at home, well the Pistons would get an uncontested look right at the basket. And just to throw a few wrinkles at teams, Sheed would occasionally roll to the basket for alley oops.

The acquisition of Wallace helped the Pistons win the 2004 NBA Finals by upsetting the Los Angeles Lakers, make back-to-back trips to the finals and six straight appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Although the team “only” won one title, Rasheed Wallace helped the unit become a championship squad thanks in large part to his vast array of skills at both ends of the court.

Joe Dumars’ transactions as the Pistons general manager might not be impressive as of late, but make no mistake about it; he completely fleeced the Atlanta Hawks. The fallout just wasn’t the same when Detroit was involved in comparison to the purple and gold.

Quite a heist it was nonetheless…