There’s an argument to be made that basketball’s Hall of Fame contains its fair share of players who wouldn’t be members had they played in another era. Just don’t make that argument about Ben Wallace.
He was a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year in an era where offense was a perpetual struggle. Consider: The average NBA team scored 93.4 points a game when the Pistons won the 2004 title. In an era dominated by defense, Ben Wallace – who officially becomes a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame this weekend – was recognized universally as the NBA’s best defensive player.
Just 17 seasons later, the average NBA team scored 112.1 points a game in 2020-21, more than a 20 percent increase. A dominant defender today in an era with more possessions and more shot attempts would have an even greater ability to affect outcomes … if – and it’s a big if – the way he played defense in his era would translate to what’s asked of defenses in the modern NBA with a premium on defending far more square feet of court space than was required back then.
Ben Wallace answers that question with a resounding “yes.”
“I think my game would be tailor-made for today’s game,” he said in June on the night he represented the Pistons as they won the NBA draft lottery. “In my prime, I was that guy on the floor somewhat out of place because of my size and the way I played the game. I had to play in the land of the giants. The game is a lot faster. I think this style of basketball would’ve been tailor-made for my game.”
The pick and roll has been part of basketball since before the NBA was born 75 years ago, but it wasn’t the dominant piece of every team’s offensive scheme until the past decade or so. There is a sameness to today’s offenses: run pick and roll on one side of the floor, reverse the ball and run it on the other, get defenses on the move to allow penetration and then either produce a layup or exploit collapsing defenses to shake loose an open 3-point shooter.
Ben Wallace smothered – absolutely suffocated – pick-and-roll plays. And nobody who blocked shots or dissuaded layup attempts the way he did covered the ground he covered.
The Goin’ to Work Pistons turned basketball into an art form with their basketball IQ, their discipline and their selflessness. Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton gave them size, shooting and synergy in the backcourt. Tayshaun Prince’s all-around ability at both ends gave them tools to counter any variety of schemes. Rasheed Wallace’s addition at the 2004 trade deadline completed them, adding needed size and athleticism while turbocharging their us-against-them mentality.
But it was Ben Wallace who galvanized them into an elite defensive team, arguably the greatest to ever lace ’em up. In a defense-first era, the Pistons emerged as the NBA’s pre-eminent defense and Ben Wallace was unquestionably at the heart of it. Only Dikembe Mutombo in NBA history can match Wallace’s four Defensive Player of the Year awards.
He played defense with every inch of his being, too, even if it wasn’t all of the 6-foot-9 he was listed at. He played it with his broad shoulders and his massive biceps. He played it with his eyes and his ears and the 6 inches between those ears especially. And most of all he played it with his feet, the feet of a ballet dancer on the body of a blacksmith. Those feet would have made him a menace to modern offenses, blunting pick and rolls before they turned the corner and recovering to the paint to turn away weak-side penetrators.
But what about offense? How would Ben Wallace survive in an era where big men are valued for their ability to shoot from the 3-point line to keep the paint uncluttered and allow freer access to penetration?
No, he probably wouldn’t have developed into a consistent perimeter shooter, though it bears remembering that the Boston Celtics – after Wallace went undrafted in 1996 following his four years at Virginia Union – brought him to Summer League to convert him to shooting guard.
But his screening, his dribble handoffs, his innate sense of how to exploit gaps for rebounding angles and his motor would have absolutely played up in today’s game. When Larry Brown coached the Pistons to the 2004 NBA championship, he encouraged and empowered him to exert a greater influence on the offensive end, too. All that extra space available to drivers and shooters today would have helped him, too, in neutralizing some of the size he gave away when his workspace was limited to a far more confined area.
And all of that would have allowed for an easy adaptation to whatever rules changes and shifts in ideology altered the course of the game over time. Right up to today’s game with its outsized importance on 3-point shooting and floor spacing.
“There’s no rule you can put in place,” he said, “to stop me from playing defense.”
The other headliners going into the Hall of Fame with Wallace this weekend are Chris Webber, Paul Pierce and Chris Bosh. Typically, they are players recalled far more for their ability to put points on the scoreboard, not to prevent them. That’s the recipe for getting to the Hall of Fame. For all the lip service paid to defense as half the game, offense always takes precedence when it comes time for recognition.
Ben Wallace – first undrafted player in NBA history voted to the Hall of Fame – beat those odds, too. He’d be a Hall of Famer in this or any other era.