Free-Floating Hostility

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Remaking the Pistons

My lasting memory of the Eastern Conference semifinals has nothing to do with LeBron James. When I think of that series now, I remember watching a lanky center with funny hair come off pick-and-rolls for easy dunks, clean up the boards, beat everyone to seemingly every loose ball and provide a jolt of energy to his team whenever he was on the floor. The problem was that the center in question was Anderson Varajao, and he was doing it against Ben Wallace and the Pistons. So no, I'm not convinced that Ben Wallace heading to the Chicago Bulls is really that bad an idea. As the New York Knicks have proven, in the NBA you can always recover from the personnel move you don't make. By the 2008-09 season, the Bulls will owe Wallace $15.7M and he'll be 34. The following year Wallace's bill will be around $17.2M. This for a player who has relied on his energy to become an All-Star rebounder and defender in the NBA. It strikes me as risky, especially the way the season ended in Detroit.

Wallace's energy wasn't particularly noticeable during the postseason this year. Even though the Pistons won 64 games, Wallace's rebounding numbers were down (under 13 per game). This was perhaps a function of the improved Pistons offense and a team whose field goal percentage against was middle of the pack instead of the top. But he also refused to back into a game at one point and then played inconsistently in the postseason. Perhaps Wallace was so crippled by angst over his exclusion from the offensive renaissance in Detroit that he just didn't have the energy to jump out of the gym like he used to. Now he's leaving, which would seem to suggest that the Pistons' locker room wasn't the diva-free zone that everyone said it was.

The Bulls are a high-energy young team. Wallace at 27 and without a ring would be a tremendous fit. But now? Who knows. It's hard to get excited about doing the proverbial dirty work when you're 32, your knees aren't quite as springy as they used to be and you're fabulously wealthy already. Wallace's two best offensive seasons came under Larry Brown, who called plays for him and demanded that he be an entity on both ends of the floor. During the playoffs, ESPN told the story about how Wallace was the leading scorer on his JC basketball team, which only means that he, like, say, Doug Christie, found that defense can be a very good NBA meal ticket. Christie checked everyone's best perimeter players during Sacramento's run, showing up with the occasional jumper every so often. But eventually he turned 34, his offensive production dwindled, and Sacramento traded him to Orlando. Last year he played in exactly seven NBA games.

This is not a blanket indictment of 34-year-old athletes. After all, Dennis Rodman grabbed 14.9 rebounds per game for Chicago's 72-win team when he was 34. Rodman is the exception, not the rule. As they say, age gets to all of us, if we're lucky. I don't blame Wallace for cashing out on what probably amounts to his last chance. Even though they're both obscenely outrageous sums of money, there is a real difference between $48M and $60M. And maybe getting the smaller offer from the Pistons will be the perceived slight he can use to motivate himself for the next four years.

This is not to say that Wallace's departure is a good thing. The Pistons have gone from an elite team to a good one, especially on the defensive end. Without Wallace to defend the rim, Chauncey Billups' failings as a defender will become increasingly apparent. In the new NBA, with all contact on the perimeter whistled, shot blocking will grow increasingly valuable. And suddenly the Pistons don't have a great shotblocker, although it's early in the offseason, and people could become available.

It was probably a pretty tough day in Detroit all around, as both the Pistons and Red Wings saw their signature players announce their intentions. But as we're in the process of trading in hockey for Premier League soccer, we won't be discussing Steve Yzerman here, other than to say that we really liked him for a really long time.

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