Ben Wallace wasn’t just the best defender of his era. He wasn’t just a four-time, NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He wasn’t just a great rebounder who blocked shots and walled up bigger post players on the block.
He was the best off-ball defensive big man of the last 30 years. Only Draymond Green might eventually take that title.
If you’re wondering why he just made the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, that’s it. Because that ability changed a game, a playoff series, a franchise.
Wallace came to the Detroit Pistons as a toss-in when Grant Hill left for Orlando, then turned himself into the franchise’s most indispensable piece.
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You can argue about who the most talented player on those Goin’ to Work Pistons teams was. I’d say Rasheed Wallace, followed by Chauncey Billups. But most important? That’d be Ben Wallace.
And you can argue that no title team in the modern era relied so heavily on the whole — that despite being their most important player, Wallace didn’t carry the burden in the way other title-winning superstars did. (And yes, he was a superstar… defensively.)
But you can’t argue that Wallace wasn’t the Pistons’ furnace — the creator of their identity, the one barking on the court, the one setting the standard.
It may be cliché to say he could tilt the floor without scoring, but that doesn’t make it untrue. It may also be cliché to say he guarded everyone, but he did.
Mostly, he guarded space and, in that way, was ahead of his time. Which is funny, because these days so many think of Wallace as an anachronism.
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But … his shot? His handle? His scoring ability?
Judging by today’s standard, sure. Then again, Wallace had sneaky vision and a feel for cutters in the lane; in today’s game, he might have evolved into a player like Green. Yet we shouldn’t assess Wallace through today’s lens. We must assess it through his own era’s.
And in his time?
He was unique. An All-Star — four times. An All-NBAer — five times. An all-timer with top-20 ranks in rebound percentage (18th), blocked shots (16th) and defensive rating (fifth).
Yet, again, this isn’t just about metrics. It’s about his force, and how no one else played quite like him. That teams of his era regularly scored in the 80s only made him more valuable; a block in today’s game doesn’t matter in the same way it did, say, in the mid-2000s, when Wallace was at his peak and there were fewer possessions.
The same goes for a steal.
There is one in particular I’m thinking about, one that changed the course of the NBA Finals.
When the Pistons arrived in San Antonio in 2005, two days after holding off the Miami Heat in seven grueling games in the Eastern Conference Finals, they were spent. Wiped clean. It was obvious for everyone to see.
The Pistons scored 69 points in Game 1 of the Finals. They lost by 14. Three nights later, they lost by 21.
Energy was the issue, and when they boarded the plane to head back to Detroit — down 0-2 — the series felt like it would be over soon.
Then Game 3 began at The Palace of Auburn Hills, and on the Spurs’ first possession — the jump ball led to a sideline out of bounds pass — Ben Wallace cheated around Nazr Mohammed’s left shoulder (near the right wing) and slipped into the passing lane, knocking Manu Ginobili’s inbound pass toward the Pistons’ basket. He exploded toward the ball, ahead of everyone else, took one dribble and leapt — right hand extended, afro flapping in the wind he’d created — and flushed the ball through the hoop, getting fouled as he scored.
In exactly four seconds, Wallace had set the table. He gorged on the Spurs for the next 48 minutes.
Whatever exhaustion the team felt before the Finals, whatever accumulative body blows the Pistons absorbed during three straight deep playoff runs, Wallace let everyone in the building know: None of it mattered.
They weren’t going to get swept.
And if not for a brain cramp by Rasheed Wallace at the end of Game 5 with the series tied at two — when he left Robert Horry open for a crushing 3-pointer — the Pistons might have secured consecutive championships that year.
The box score won’t tell you what the Pistons’ undersized center did against San Antonio in that Game 3 — the 15 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks and three steals don’t quite stand out. But the film will. So will his coach, Larry Brown, who said after the game:
“I think we figured out how hard we have to play.”
Wallace was the one who showed them. He was always the one showing them.
In the history of the Pistons’ playoff runs, I’m not sure a non-scoring big man had ever dominated a game the way Wallace did that night. He was just as good in Game 4, too.
It was the kind of effort that showed up only in parts of a box score but showed up everywhere on the court. And it was the kind of night that defined the best years of his career, which is why he headed to the Hall of Fame.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.