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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…


  • Aug 2, 201211:41 am
    by RyanK


    There was a lot of crying by other teams when this happened.  It wasn’t the same type of “fix” crying that the Lakers received.  I remember both the Hawks and the Celtics said they were better off facilitating this trade than not and that’s why they did it.  Paul Silas had some very harsh words from both teams when they helped the Pistons pull the trade off.

      • Aug 2, 20125:07 pm
        by CNA5


        The Lakers also got that because the League owned the Hornets at the time.  Unlike the Rasheed trade, the Hornets had quite a few substantial offers from a number of teams.
        I remembered a couple of the deals that looked as good, if not better, than the first deal.  I think Boston offered Rondo and a pair of firsts for Paul.  And, I think OKC offered Westbrook, Maynor, and a pair of firsts for Paul.
        That’s the problem with Leagues having to take ownership of franchises.  It’s really hard to avoid allegations of impropriety when other deals get rejected.

        • Aug 3, 20129:07 am
          by tarsier


          I doubt that OKC offer ever happened. I never saw anything about it anywhere reputable, OKC/Durant firmly maintained they’d rather hang on to Westbrook than chase after Paul, and it would have been the best offer for Paul so I can’t really see the Hornets opting for another package instead.

          • Aug 3, 201212:57 pm
            by CNA5

            It’s hard to say.  Deals are often fabricated and perpetuated by agents or GMs to meet their own objectives.  Just was saying a rumored deal.  I read some other ones too ranging from Minnesota offering several players and several draft picks to the ridiculous with New York getting Paul with the help of a third team (which I scratched my head at, because there was no way I thought they could get Paul after amnestying Billups and signing Chandler).  The Westbrook rumor at least made sense.
            Here’s one thing I absolutely DO know.  There was a lot of talk in OKC’s front office about whether or not Westbrook was a long term running partner to Durant.  This came out during the contract negotiations (I believe Marc Stein was one reporting it) for Westbrook’s contract.  There was a lot of talk that OKC’s offense would be more balanced if they had more of a pass first PG.
            That’s not a criticism of Westbrook.  Let’s face it- on that team he NEEDS to score 20 most nights to win.  If he, Harden, and Durant don’t score 60 points together, it’s often a tough game for OKC.  We saw that first hand in the Miami series when Harden struggled.
            It’s hard to know for sure.  Also, there may or may not have been a number of deals offered that were tentative on Paul signing an extension.  *shrugs*

  • Aug 2, 201211:56 am
    by Crispus


    I remember watching Sheed in all those epic Portland series against the Lakers. It broke my heart every year. Sheed was putting so much passion into the games and always ended up in foul trouble trying to guard Shaq. I’m glad he finally got a championship, and against the Lakers no less.

  • Aug 2, 20121:51 pm
    by Brandow


    and the fact that the 1st round pick the pistons gave up was considered to be a josh smith pick, so i wonder how the pistons would contribute if j smooth was with the team

    • Aug 2, 20122:00 pm
      by Crispus


      Wouldn’t he be in his flying knucklehead phase during the Pistons’ turmoil? I doubt it would have ended well.

    • Aug 2, 20123:28 pm
      by tarsier


      It is interesting how for both of these really lopsided deals, one piece (Marc Gasol and Josh Smith) turned out to be so much better than expected that both really helped both sides.

  • Aug 3, 201212:24 am
    by Keith


    Not to take away from any of the facts presented here, but I think Sheed was highly overrated as a scorer with us. For one, our offense was bottom 10 in the league even when he was on the team. Not to say it was his fault, we have consistently run a low mistake-low reward system for over a decade. For two, Sheed was himself well below league average efficiency every year he played for us (most especially for a 7 foot big man). Sheed, to me, while still a great player, will always be something of a poster child for never reaching one’s potential.
    Sheed had all the skills in the world. He had incredible defensive awareness and good feet. He had footwork and unblockable shots in the post. He could hit threes and defend out to the perimeter. But his total was always less than the sum of his parts. He never really hit the boards. He consistently took bad outside shots despite, ultimately, not being a very good shooter (we’re talking about a 7 footer who never shot better than 44% from the field with the Pistons). His defense was generally very good, but he also coasted there when the competition didn’t meet his standards (the Horry mental lapse is the most notable, but not the only).
    Rasheed should have been Tim Duncan with more range. But he never seemed to want to be that great. While the move worked, and we won the championship, I think comparing him to Gasol is too much. Gasol has been a consistently better player than Rasheed for all of their respective careers. Gasol single-handedly turned the Grizzlies into a playoff team, he was a true star at C in the West when Shaq, Yao, Duncan, and Garnett were still in their primes. Trading for Sheed was a huge upgrade for us, but we weren’t trading for a franchise player (what Gasol has legitimately been). And that’s a big difference. Trading for Sheed then would be more akin to trading for DeMarcus Cousins now. Both had crazy skill, both have significant holes in their approach to the game. Getting either guy might put a good team over the top, but neither guy should have ever been the foundation around which your team is built.

    • Aug 3, 20129:11 am
      by tarsier


      I wouldn’t call Gasol a franchise player but he was definitely better on the whole than Sheed. That said, the two trades are still very comparable. And it was fun watching Sheed absolutely embarrass Malone in the Finals.

  • Aug 3, 20121:50 am
    by MrHappyMushroom


    He was the best of ‘Sheeds, he was the worst of ‘Sheeds.
    In 2004 and 2005, the situation was perfect for him and he was fabulous.  After that, he got bored, frustrated, butt-hurt, lazy and was ultimately a guy the Pistons couldn’t count on.  The last year, his refusal to give a flying fucque left a bad taste with me.
    And I’ll maintain his selfishness cost the Celtics a championship.  He was out of shape all year and tried to turn it on for the playoffs.  But when Perkins went down for Game 7, the Celts needed 30 full-force minutes from ‘Sheed.  He only had 25 to give them and I absolutely believe that resembling Morganna for 2/3 of the season was the reason.

  • Aug 3, 20123:49 pm
    by Joseph


    To say that the Piston’s had a bottom 10 offense during those years is misleading.  If you look at solely point per game this is accurate however if you turn back the clock you will remember that the Pistons grinding out possessions frequently taking shots with under 5 seconds.  This generates lower scores but combined with that lower numbers of possessions and less of an opportunity for the opponent to score.
    In 2005 – 6 The Pistons were the second most efficient offensive club (highwater mark for offense in the ‘Sheed years)
    The championship year is misleading as ‘Sheed wasn’t on the team until later in the year.
    2004 – 5 The Pistons were a middle of the pack offensive club with offensive efficiency but were dominating on the defensive end. Only the Spurs and Bulls were better defensively.

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