In the latter half of the 2003-04 season, the Pistons played the Blazers in what would be Rasheed Wallace’s first game facing the Blazers after being traded. The final score of 83-69 resembled what most fans might think came from a game 50 years ago and not 16 years ago. In fact, this was one of 11 games in which the Pistons held their opponent under 70 points that season (they won all 11 of those games). At the center of that impenetrable defense was Big Ben Wallace.
Today, I’m going to discuss what Ben Wallace brought to the table on March 4th, 2004 against the Blazers by talking through his notable defensive and offensive plays. This will be the first of many articles scouting Ben Wallace. It will ultimately culminate in a YouTube video breaking down his 2004 season. Since this article only looks at one game, I won’t be making any sweeping statements. I’ll only discuss what I saw in the film.
Let’s be honest, you’re all here to read about Wallace’s defensive prowess, and let me tell you, he didn’t disappoint. However, I have at least one critique which I’ll bring up after showering him with praise.
The main aspect of his defense that stood out was seamless ability to switch onto perimeter players and switch back to his man before the offense could find a mismatch.
Wallace’s almost psychic connection with the rest of the Pistons was mind-boggling. First, he and Billups execute the same switch that I pointed out above. Second, without any wasted time, Wallace recovers to and blocks a popping Shareef Abdur-Rahim who Tayshaun Prince started off the possession guarding. Prince switches onto and blocks out Wallace’s assignment, Dale Davis. We should hang this defensive possession up in a museum.
Because of the Pistons’ defensive cohesion, Wallace didn’t have any possessions where he switched onto a perimeter player and finished the possession. The closest example is when he jumped in front of Abdur-Rahim after a dribble handoff, contained his attack, and blocked his shot at the rim.
While a few modern big men hang their hats on being able to guard 1-5, Wallace upped the ante by acting as the point-of-attack defender in a full-court press. Granted, Wallace only found himself in this position twice during this game, but his ability to effortlessly take on this role was transcendent.
The 6’1″ Omar Cook could not dribble past Wallace 98 feet from the basket. After forcing Cook to pass it, Wallace hustles back in time to deter a driving Ruben Patterson from shooting in the paint. I can’t stress to you how rare this sort of defensive versatility is in a center. Really the only analogue I can think of is Horace Grant in the 90’s Bulls’ full-court press.
Here's a great example from Game 3 of the 1992 ECSF between Bull/Knicks.
Grant makes the free-throw, leads the full-court pressure, recovers in time to defend a post shot, and grabs the defensive rebound. pic.twitter.com/9KS19Sdk7g
— Cody Houdek (@codyhoudek) July 26, 2019
Other Notable Defensive Plays
In general, Wallace was a terrifying combination of pesky, strong, and athletic. Wallace’s lack of traditional size at the center position allowed him to be more nimble on the court while his low center of gravity increased his already dominant strength. Here, he easily jumped around Ratliff to steal the entry pass (bonus alley-oop on the break).
On other post-ups, he was able to push out stronger one-on-one players so that they wouldn’t start with deep post position. On this play, Zach Randolph, a bulky post presence, initially caught the ball 20 feet from the hoop, and after kicking the rock out to reestablish position, he succeeds by starting off 16 feet away.
Randolph successfully backs down Wallace, but Big Ben doesn’t react to any fakes, doesn’t require help, continually makes contact with Zbo, and ultimately forces a miss with a strong contest.
This next play might be the only true defensive error I saw from Wallace this game, but he responds by recovering and blocking Eddie Gill at the rim.
Much ado has been made about the value of rebounding, but Wallace excelled at preventing the Blazers from securing offensive rebounds. I have a few examples of Wallace out-hustling opponents to loose-balls and contested rebounds, but this rebound showcases his physicality and athleticism.
With his left arm, Wallace boxed Dale Davis out. As he jumped for the rebound, he kept his elbow lodged into Davis’ side which allowed him to throw off Davis’ balance and reach with his strong hand for the rebound. Notice his contortion in the air. Unbelievable.
A Pedantic Critique
Look, I know that I’m sitting behind a computer thinking about why Ben Wallace’s defense wasn’t perfect, but I’m doing it as a compliment! If you just Google the best defensive players of all time, Big Ben’s name appears on almost every list. When talking about the GOAT in anything, the margins for critiques becomes small.
I discussed why Wallace’s shorter height actually worked to his advantage, but at times, it prevented him from making more spectacular defensive plays. Here, Darius Miles sneaks in for a point-blank layup, and as the help defender, Wallace can only stand and watch. The time between the ball leaving Miles’ hand and going through the basket is minimal. If Wallace were a few inches taller, he might’ve been able to react quickly enough for the block.
This play produced two spectacular highlights.
1. It's not assist, so Mitchell's beautiful look away will be forgotten. This was just a perfect set up though.
2. I'm convinced that Davis (maybe Giannis?) is the only player who could've reacted quickly enough to block this. pic.twitter.com/tootcthqQf
— Cody Houdek (@codyhoudek) October 26, 2019
Before I dive into Wallace’s offense, I want to acknowledge that this game was a bit of an anomaly. In his career, Wallace played a total of 1088 games, and of those games, he only took 15 or more field goal attempts six times (.55% of his total games). This happened to be one of those games.
This context helps because I was shocked by Wallace’s willingness to shoot in this game.
I was pretty surprised by how often Ben Wallace fired off a midrange jumper. pic.twitter.com/s221vV951D
— Cody Houdek (@codyhoudek) June 28, 2020
Yes, that is a career 41% free throw shooter taking a pull-up midrange jumper. Sure, one could argue that there were only four seconds on the shot clock, but that is more than enough time to drive to the basket or kick it out to the wide open Tayshaun Prince (we’ll talk more about this soon). His shooting mechanics also indicate that this wasn’t a shot that he often made.
When he posted up, he showed some solid footwork, but he didn’t have any sort of touch around the basket. Here he showed off a a nice up-and-under, but his left-handed layup slammed off the backboard with no backspin.
However, he used his athleticism in the pick-and-roll to finish at the rim. This might have been the only example of this from the game. However, he showed a couple of explosive moments that prove he could have some value as a roller.
Once again though, his height and lack of a touch limited his ability to be much more than an average roller.
In general, I found Wallace’s passing to be significantly worse than average. At times, he had complete tunnel vision leading to some bad shot attempts. He made the post fade in this play, but look at how open Prince is at the top of the arc especially after the savvy off-ball screen from Rasheed Wallace.
Wallace is more than capable of making the kickout pass, but like I said, it just seemed like he had no interest at times.
On the other hand, Wallace threw a high-level pass at one point this game that led to Rasheed free throws. In one motion, Wallace grabbed an offensive rebound and touch passed it to Rasheed under the basket. Because of the video quality, it’s a little difficult to see, but trust me, it’s there.
One area where Wallace provided tremendous offensive value was through his offensive rebounding. Especially in an era (and a team) that played a much slower pace, securing more possessions was paramount to a team’s success. In this particular game, the Blazers grabbed 11 offensive rebounds. By himself, Wallace grabbed nine. When you consider that each team had an estimated 79 possessions this game, nine additional chances greatly improves offensive potency. Furthermore, offensive rebounding makes a player more portable making them fit into more team builds.
Generally, Wallace was excellent at placing himself in the right place at the right time. His strength and ability to carve out space around the basket made it seem more like the ball just fell into his hands while it was actually him creating these opportunities.
In this case, Wallace showed off that athleticism and nose for the ball. He times his jump perfectly to rise above everyone else to snag the rebound with one hand (a skill that really stands out for him) before quickly kicking it out to reset the offense.
During this particular matchup, Ben Wallace was a prominent figure on both offense and defense as he led the Pistons in field goals (15) rebounds (19) steals (4), and blocks (4). Granted, his per game average in rebounds, steals, and blocks led the Pistons for the season, but all of them were significantly higher than usual.
It’s clear that Wallace was a defensive powerhouse who anchored a cohesive and disciplined unit. Instead of having to cover mistakes, he was able to spend his time switching between matchups, skying for defensive rebounds, and leading the full-court press. As a result, I want to see more games when other Pistons make more mistakes so that I can get a better feel for Big Ben’s ability to help.
On offense, Wallace was featured more than usual. He didn’t hesitate on more than a couple jump shots (most of which were unsuccessful), and he happily looked away from open teammates to try and self create. His passing was worse than I expected, but his offensive rebounding deflated the Blazers and gave a patient Detroit offense even more opportunities.
Next time, I’ll start analyzing Ben Wallace as the Pistons fought their way to the 2004 NBA championship.