The Perfect Storm
Ezra Shaw (NBAE/Getty)
The Perfect Storm
by Ryan Pretzer
Dancing in the huddle after pregame introductions, Rasheed Wallace gets a laugh out of Pistons fans before every game. But there was a time not long ago when the mention of Wallace would make NBA fans, in any city, cringe.
In the early 2000s, the Portland Trail Blazers endured one embarrassing PR incident after another, and Wallace, in his eighth season with the team, was front and center. He was the most talented player - leading the team in scoring from 2000-2003 - and often the most troubled, setting an NBA record with 41 technical fouls in 2002-03.
As the 2003-04 trade deadline approached, the new front-office regime in Portland sought to rid itself of its “Jail Blazer” image. The Atlanta Hawks were looking for salary cap relief to build toward the future, and Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars was looking for an elite frontcourt player as Detroit geared up for a title run.
It turned out to be the perfect storm.
How the Deal was Done
In the midst of a 28-54 season and ownership turnover - Atlanta Spirit LLC completed its purchase of Atlanta Hawks from Turner Broadcasting in March 2004 - the Hawks unloaded forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who had not helped turn around the team’s fortunes the way they had hoped when he was acquired in the summer of 2001. Making in excess of $10 million in 2003-04 and with the last year of his $71 million contract extension still to come, Atlanta unburdened itself of Abdur-Rahim’s contract in exchange for Wallace in a five-player deal on Feb. 9, 2004.
In the last year of his contract, Wallace provided valuable salary cap relief - but it was a huge gamble for the Hawks, who risked losing him for nothing once the season was over. Not exactly the most patient player, the 29-year-old Wallace had no interest in the Hawks’ rebuilding plans, and the front office knew it.
Dumars knew it, too, and felt Wallace’s offensive arsenal would be the perfect complement to his other four starters, especially defensive dynamo Ben Wallace, who could not provide a similar inside scoring punch.
After one game in a Hawks uniform - he scored 20 points in 42 minutes - the Hawks parlayed Wallace into a first-round pick, Bobby Sura and Zeljko Rebraca from Detroit and Chris Mills from the Boston Celtics (whom the Hawks waived two weeks later).
The Pistons also sent backup guards Lindsey Hunter and Chucky Atkins to the Celtics, who in return provided combo guard Mike James. Hunter was released and rejoined Detroit, where he’s been ever since.
Remarkably, Dumars managed to acquire the best two players in the deal without touching his core players, who had managed to reach the 2003 conference finals and were 34-22 when the trade went through on deadline day, Feb. 19, 2004.
Noted basketball analyst Dr. Jack Ramsay wrote glowingly of the deal:
“The Pistons received what they hope will be the key to the Eastern Conference in Rasheed Wallace. He gives them a dimension that's been missing from their team for quite some time: an experienced offensive big man who can also play good defense. … Wallace can shoot from outside, post up opposing big men and will give Ben Wallace much-needed help defensively in the low post. Before this trade, the Pistons had to slide a guard down to the low post to help out on the blocks. That won't be the case anymore. … With this trade, the Pistons improved themselves and are now able to match up much better with Indiana and New Jersey.”
A Gauransheed championship
Of course, Wallace’s talent had never been in question as much as his mercurial nature. In his first four seasons in the front office Dumars had built the Pistons to be a selfless unit that operated without ego or prima donnas, yet he had just acquired the NBA’s modern-day Bad Boy. Had Dumars sacrificed his own standards for a title shot?
Dumars addressed those concerns when he announced the deal. “Issues like that never entered into the decision making process,” he said. “We know all about the issues that we’ve seen arise in the past, but I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you guys of anything other than the fact that everywhere he’s been, his teammates and coaches rave about him as a teammate and as a guy to coach.
“I don’t think you’ve ever seen him have issues with his coach or with his teammates. His issues have always been with officiating and getting upset about calls. I think he’s coming into an environment with a bunch of good guys. … It’s going to be a great environment for him to be in.”
The new-look Pistons went 20-6 down the stretch with Wallace averaging 13.7 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 22 games. The conference-leading Indiana Pacers were also hot, however, going 22-6 to clinch the top playoff seed in the East.
When the two teams met in the Eastern Conference Finals, Wallace wouldn’t let the Pacers’ home-court advantage decide the series. He guaranteed it. The day after dropping Game 1 at Conseco Fieldhouse, 78-74, the Pistons’ new leader was defiant. “I said it last night, and I’m saying it again,” Wallace said. “We will win Game 2.” The Pistons backed up his “Gauransheed” with a 72-67 win in Game 2 and went on to win the series, 4-2.
With Wallace and Wallace frustrating Los Angeles center Shaquille O’Neal, the Pistons stymied the heavily favored Lakers in the NBA Finals. Three of the Pistons’ four wins were by double-digits as they held L.A. to just 82 points per game - more than 16 points below their regular-season average.
After 14 years, the NBA championship returned to Detroit, where Wallace took on the status of a conquering hero. The gamble had paid off. Not only did Wallace help deliver the title, he was an ideal teammate and leader - just as Dumars had promised.
A second chance
When the deadline deal was made, Wallace looked like he might be a half-season rental. The rental turned out to be James, who turned his productive postseason into a free-agent deal with Milwaukee.
Wallace signed a long-term contract with Detroit, which has reached the Eastern Conference Finals all three full seasons he’s worn Pistons blue, including a 2005 NBA Finals appearance that ended one game short of another championship.
The Hawks didn’t get much to show for the trade initially besides salary-cap relief - Sura and Rebraca would both retire over the next two seasons - but the long-term benefits look bright. With the Pistons’ 2004 first-round pick, the Hawks selected forward Josh Smith, who has become one of the NBA’s most exciting players. After three and a half seasons of faithful service in Detroit, Atkins has become somewhat of a vagabond, playing for five different teams since the trade.
The deal was not just a steal for the Pistons; it was a second chance for Wallace. The former Portland malcontent has made more headlines for his game than his tirades, even receiving an All-Star nod earlier this month from NBA Commissioner David Stern, who has fined Wallace a time or two during his career.
As the Pistons gear up for yet another championship run with Wallace patrolling the paint and stalking the 3-point line, the 2004 deadline deal is the gift that keeps on giving.
Deadline Deals Series: