A Big Deal: Pistons deadline acquisition of Rasheed Wallace shook the NBA – and brought another banner to Detroit

Rasheed Wallace
Rasheed Wallace completed the Goin' to Work Pistons when they were able to beat the buzzer and acquire him at the trade deadline in February 2004
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically look back at some of the most significant personnel moves – trades, free-agent signings, draft picks – in Pistons history. Next up: The trade-deadline deal that brought Rasheed Wallace to the Pistons in February 2004.)

Your team being ecstatic after pulling off a trade-deadline deal isn’t the best barometer for gauging its ultimate success. When your rivals recoil in disgust over your heist, then you might be on to something.

The Pistons – front office, coach Larry Brown, the Goin’ to Work playing cast, Hooper the horse, everybody – were beyond thrilled when Joe Dumars barely beat the buzzer to pull off the three-team deal at the Feb. 19 trade deadline in 2004 that added Rasheed Wallace to Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince.

Their Eastern Conference rivals were … whatever the diametrical opposite of “beyond thrilled” might be.

“That’s going to make the Pistons awfully tough,” Cleveland coach Paul Silas glumly acknowledged. “I just don’t know what some people are thinking about.”

Dumars had long admired the pure talent Wallace possessed. He’d tried to trade for him for two solid years with all of the NBA aware that Portland – derisively known as the “Jail Blazers” for the litany of bad behavior on the record – was shopping its roster. Just 10 days before the deadline, Wallace was shipped to Atlanta. But the Hawks were bumping along at the bottom of the standings and nobody believed Atlanta was interested in Wallace – a rental about to hit free agency – beyond what he’d yield in trade.

So Dumars kept trying. But there wasn’t a match unless he could find a third team to satisfy Atlanta’s wish list. The deadline was looming. With one final arm twist, Dumars convinced an old playing-days rival, Boston’s Danny Ainge, to take the plunge.

The price tag for Wallace: backup guards Lindsey Hunter, Chucky Atkins and Bob Sura; little-used backup big man Zeljko Rebraca and two future No. 1 picks. The Pistons also got Mike James in the deal from Boston and knew that the Celtics would waive Hunter, who rejoined the Pistons a week after the trade.

“It created cap space and it didn’t mess up the core of our team,” Dumars said. “It was an easy deal to do. It made it somewhat of a no-brainer for us.”

Nobody could have known for sure how emphatically Rasheed Wallace completed the Pistons – five fingers of an iron fist – at the time, though Dumars and Brown loved the idea of adding his elite skill level and versatility to the mix. Dumars waved away concerns of Wallace’s past – the league-record 41 technical fouls from three years earlier, the seven-game suspension for threating an official, the snarling countenance.

Character issues “never entered into our decision-making process,” Dumars said. “Everywhere he’s been, his teammates and coaches rave about him as a teammate and as a guy to coach. His issues have always been about getting calls.”

The ace Dumars held in his pocket was Brown, whose shared North Carolina roots – and shared admiration for the man who’d coached them both there, Dean Smith – made any questions of the defiance skeptics expected from Wallace a moot point.

As in all significant transactions, the Pistons brought in their owner, Bill Davidson, for a veto opportunity. Davidson famously allowed his executives wide latitude, but he wasn’t one to tolerate lawlessness or impudence. But he was an easy sell on Wallace.

“Mr. D told me he’d rather have a guy who cares,” Brown said as he sat alongside Wallace when he arrived at The Palace just in time to suit up the day following the trade for a game against Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves, who at the time had the best record in the Western Conference and were a team the Pistons now viewed as a potential Finals opponent. Brown, somewhat adoringly, said Wallace was “in the top five players in the league.”

A footnote to that crazy night: Wallace came off the bench to play 12 first-half minutes, then was told at halftime he couldn’t re-enter the game. A snafu in the paperwork required to finalize the trade became known at some point after tipoff.

“I went up to Rasheed and said, ‘You and Mike (James) can’t play (in the second half),’ ” Brown said. “He kind of laughed and I said, ‘No, I’m serious.’ We’re on national TV with the team with the best record in the league against you, all this attention, a full house … it’s crazy. It’s not right.”

Wallace’s impact was immediately felt, just as the Pistons’ contender peers feared. They went 20-6 after the deadline despite losing to Minnesota by a point in Wallace’s semi-debut. Two weeks after the deal, they began a streak of holding five consecutive opponents under 70 points, a record that is most unlikely to be challenged, and made it eight straight held under 80.

The Pistons finished with the second-best record in the East at 54-28, seven games behind Indiana. They beat Milwaukee in five games in the first round of the playoffs after splitting the first two games at home, then went seven games in the second round to beat New Jersey, winning a critical Game 6 on the road after falling behind 3-2 by losing an epic triple-overtime Game 5 at home.

The Eastern Conference finals with Indiana was a slugfest in which the winning team never scored more than 85 points in any game. The Pistons needed to win a Game 6 at The Palace to avoid a Game 7 on the road and they got it – a 69-65 mud battle on June 1 to set up their third NBA Finals matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers in franchise history.

It seemed almost anticlimactic when they knocked off the star-studded Lakers – Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton – in the “five-game sweep” just ahead of free agency.

By that time, what seemed likely to be the trade-deadline rental of Wallace became a mission to retain him and keep intact the Goin’ to Work Pistons. One of the purposes of the Wallace acquisition was to create the cap space that would enable the Pistons to have a shot to retain their promising second-year forward/center, 24-year-old Mehmet Okur – the player Wallace replaced in the starting lineup. A since-rectified loophole meant the Pistons had to sign Okur with cap space, putting them at a disadvantage.

At the time of the Wallace trade, Dumars said it was his intention to keep both in free agency, but that was always going to be a stretch. And the common assumption was that the Pistons would prioritize keeping Okur given his youth and potential. But by the time their Finals appearance was achieved, there was no breaking up the five that melded so seamlessly and produced the third NBA title in franchise history. I mean, ball don’t lie.

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