Whenever Ben Wallace is mentioned in an NBA conversation, one of four topics is inevitably brought up: his physique, his afro, his block on Shaq, and his contention for GOAT defensive player. More than anything, his vaunted defense has catapulted him into conversations only reserved for all-time players. Don’t believe me? Tell the two all-time drafts in which I participated where Wallace was drafted in the second round. Regardless, I wanted to cut through the rhetoric to answer the question of how good was Ben Wallace in his prime. I’ll look at statistics and tons of footage, focusing primarily on the Detroit Pistons 2003-04 season, but a few points I make extend beyond that. Let’s get to it.
Ben Wallace on Defense
Let’s face it: you’re all here to read about Wallace’s defense, so I won’t bury the lede. In short, Wallace was an all-time defensive force that would’ve seamlessly fit onto nearly any defensive roster during any era. However, he has some limitations that holds him back from being in the top tier of GOAT defensive players in history.
Few teams are defensive juggernauts because of one player, and even fewer teams are transcendent on defense without at least one otherworldly defender. The early 2000s Pistons embodied both of these by combining rugged, flexible defenders with one of the greatest defensive coaches in basketball history: Larry Brown.
Drop defenses weren’t in vogue yet, and Brown refused to run zones. With Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace – two hyper mobile, strong, and long post defenders – Brown had the Pistons run an aggressive hedging pick-and-roll defense. Whenever a defensive big man set a screen for a perimeter player, either Ben or Sheed stepped out to momentarily impede that offensive players movement into the paint. Both were quick enough to recover back to their man who was rolling to the basket. A pass should still be able to beat any player’s recovery speed, so Sheed and Wallace would seamlessly switch to prevent any passing lanes from opening.
In this next play, Ben stifles Jamal Tinsley’s dribbling attack while Billups funnels Jermaine O’Neal into a rats nest of Tayshaun Prince and Sheed arms. None of this is possible without a combination of every Pistons player being both on the same page and high-level defensive players.
I’ve discussed how it’s a myth that Ben Wallace shut down Shaq in the 2005 Finals. Shaq couldn’t be stopped by any single player in history (except maybe Yao), so the Pistons built their entire defensive scheme around shutting down the paint and forcing tough perimeter shots. Watch how the Pistons rotate as Shaq catches in the post. Every single Pistons defender touches the paint before madly scrambling out on the kickout.
My point with this first section is that Ben Wallace was a tremendous defender who happened to be flanked by other great defenders while being coached by an all-time defensive coach. His situation, especially during the early 2000s before offenses exploded, was literally perfect for maximizing his defensive talents which were phenomenal. The Pistons couldn’t have been as good defensively without him, and he couldn’t have been as impactful without them.
With that all said, let’s look at what Wallace specifically did well.
I know that it’s blasphemy that I start off talking about a body part that’s not his biceps, but a cat would have been jealous of Wallace’s hands. Most notably, he used them to make routine entry passes a nightmare for unsuspecting post players. Notice how he is constantly moving on this play. Because of this, Jermaine O’Neal struggles to seal Wallace.
Honestly, O’Neal struggled to establish any consistency against Wallace’s defensive tenacity. Here’s a one-minute montage of Wallace bullying O’Neal in the 2004 Eastern Conference FInals.
Against a bigger force like Shaq (who was unstoppable once he caught the ball near the basket), it was necessary to Wallace to prevent him from making a clean catch. Watch how he absorbs contact and contorts himself to swipe his powerful mitts against the ball.
When defending in space, he lulled players into thinking they had more space than they did. Kenyon Martin tries slipping the screen here, but Wallace lurches forward to easily tip it away for a turnover.
The Pistons used Wallace’s off-ball activity to their advantage against the Lakers. Walllace was Shaq’s primary defender for some of the time, but he spent a good chunk roaming for an errant Shaq kickout.
In my study of Ben Wallace, I can’t say that I found any plays of Wallace outright picking a ball-handler’s pocket. Nevertheless, he was masterful at racking up steals in these off-ball situations and against players in the post.
Obviously, mobility is implied in Wallace’s ability to hedge so well, so I won’t focus on the Pistons’ defense as a unit here. Even so, Wallace was an extremely mobile center whose general foot-speed and quickness rivaled any center in NBA history (except maybe young Olajuwon and Garnett). This allowed the Pistons to employ him at the top of a full-court press – 98 feet from the basket.
That’s simply not fair! Point guard Omar Cook is unable to gain any ground on Wallace that far from the basket. Wallace makes this defense work even smoother by recovery in time to still play half-court defense.
In half-court sets, Wallace actively covered any rare mistakes his teammates made. Here, he and Billups start with an expert hedge-and-switch before Wallace notices Shareef Abdur-Rahim open on the perimeter. Without missing a beat, he rotates and blocks the jumper.
His ability to freestyle made him a particularly deadly defender. While switching schemes weren’t in vogue like they are now, centers still found themselves on an island against perimeter players. Wallace was comfortable in these situations. During this first play, Hunter gets caught on a Shaq screen, so Wallace switches onto Fisher. Fisher probes for a beat or two, but after making contact, he backs out and opts to pass.
Similarly, Wallace switches onto Richard Jefferson who tries to attack more aggressively. Watch Wallace’s ballerina feet as he dances with Jefferson forcing him to give up the ball. Even if Kittles had handled the pass well, Wallace was in position to contest at the rim.
Okay, I’m going to start with a lot of caveats. First, I get it, muscles don’t always translate to non-lifting athletic performances such as basketball. Second, strength is a nebulous term that cannot be boiled down to a single (or even two or three) lift. Nevertheless, Wallace was the extremely rare individual who could bench 460 pounds, play NBA basketball 38 minutes a night, and jump 40 inches in the air.
Don’t believe me on the 460 pound bench thing? Well, don’t take my word for it: listen to NBA sideline reporter Michele Tafoya.
When we’re talking physical attributes, Wallace was in a class of his own. Since he was shorter than most traditional centers, his lower center of gravity made him a nearly immovable ball of muscle in the post. Here, Zach Randolph (a hefty fellow in his own right) tries posting up Wallace, repositions, and literally gets no closer to the rim. Only after facing him up and driving does he get better position.
Kenyon Martin found out the hard way that backing down Wallace is a fruitless task. In these situations, only Shaq was able to really back him down making it impossible exploit him in the post.
With players like Kawhi, LeBron, Butler, and other premier scorers, players resort to a post up when they can’t beat their man off the dribble. Wallace showcases his ability to stifle those kinds of plays here. Granted, it’s against notable not-LeBron Rodney Rogers. However, his transition from perimeter to post defensive mastery here is impressive.
When people think of rim protectors, guys like Rudy Gobert, Brook Lopez, and Anthony Davis come to mind. Because he didn’t possess their height and length, his rim protection fundamentally looked different. He was more apt to rotate quickly for a help-side block rather than have players funneled to him like in a typical drop scheme.
In this play, he steps up and is subsequently burned by Eddie Gill. However, Wallace uses his ridiculous mobility to recover for a block to prevent an easy layup.
A player like Gobert will meet a player at the rim by virtue of sheer length, but Wallace’s blocks were predicated more on his absurd hand-eye coordination on defense. His timing was impeccable as you can see here where he quickly explodes to erase Kenyon Martin’s reverse layup.
Again, neither of these blocks look like a Rudy Gobert block simply because of their physical differences (I’ll discuss this more soon). Since his rim deterrence wasn’t on par with contemporaries Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan, he would slide over to draw a charge rather than go for a vertical contest. His strength made him sturdy, but his quick feet helped him jump into position with little warning.
From the plays I watched, I wouldn’t say that Wallace would be near the top of the league in charges draw like a roving Anderson Varejao, but he also didn’t shy away from taking them either.
Honestly, I’m including this section because Wallace might be the most aesthetic rebounder in history. Again, his hand-eye coordination helped him snatch rebounds with one hand even over opposing players. Combine that with his strength, leaping ability, and low center of gravity and you can see how he led the league in rebounds per game two years in a row. Anyway, here are some staggering rebounds.
Concerns about Ben Wallace on Defense
I’m going to start off by saying this as clearly as possible: Ben Wallace was NOT the GOAT defensive player in NBA history. Could he be in the top 5? Maybe, but even then my hunch is that he’s on the outside looking in.
While he boasted all-time stamina, strength, leaping ability, and timing, his height and length really held him back. I introduced the idea earlier, but players weren’t necessarily fearful of driving directly at him like they would be against Gobert, Walton, Olajuwon, or Anthony Davis. He deterred shots, but not to the same degree as these other skyscrapers.
For example, here is Rodney Rogers driving straight at Wallace in transition. Wallace awkwardly leaps backwards and doesn’t have the standing vertical reach to contest the dunk.
This next clip may seem unfair because it’s against Shaq, but it illustrates Wallace’s size. As I said earlier, Shaq couldn’t be defended in single coverage, but Wallace doesn’t have nearly the size to even bother him in the post.
Another area in which Wallace struggled was closing out on the perimeter. Now, this doesn’t mean that he couldn’t guard on the perimer. On the contrary, he was a fantastic 1-on-1 defender, but players could easily take him off the dribble if he wasn’t at a stand still. Watch as Richard Jefferson takes advantage with a simple pump fake on two different plays.
Honestly, Wallace’s weakness in closing out is baffling to me. A player with his gifts and defensive awareness should be much better than this, but the amount of mistakes he makes in this situation is startling. Nevertheless, I want to reiterate that Wallace was tremendously mobile and would fit with any hedging, icing, or switching scheme, but if he needed to run out for a closeout, it might not turn out well for him.
According to Jacob Goldstein’s D-PIPM and Basketball Reference’s DBPM, Wallace was near the top of the league every season of his prime. Here is how Wallace stacks up against his contemporaries in these two metrics.
No matter how you slice it, defensive metrics loved Ben Wallace and consistently graded him as a top-5 defensive player.
Between the 2003 and 2005, Wallace missed a total of 18 games. With Wallace in the lineup, the Pistons’s defense was 5.3 points better than league average, and without him, they were 2.3 points worse (a swing of about 7.7 points on defense alone). If we include all NBA team seasons from 1990 to 2020, that would place the Wallace Pistons in the 95th percentile of all relative defensive teams and the no-Wallace Pistons in the 22nd percentile. This is a huge swing, and it grades out as one of the fattest relative defensive differences from defensive stars from the last 30 years.
Back in 2004, the Detroit Pistons traded for Rasheed Wallace midway through the season, and the statistical change was staggering. During the 60 games they played without Sheed, their defense was 3.9 points better than league average: 88th percentile since 1990. In the 22 games with Sheed in the lineup, their defense ballooned to an unprecedented 13.1 points better than league average. The only defense that comes close to that number in NBA history is the 1964 Bill Russell Celtics which were just below 12 points better during the season.
Why then is Sheed not known as being a better defensive player than Ben? Actually, these numbers provide more evidence of Ben’s (and Sheed’s) transcendent flexibility on defense. Ben solely anchored the defense as the hedging and rim protecting demigod, but Sheed could essentially do the same thing. Having two strong, rim protecting post players who could also step out on the perimeter made their defense impenetrable especially near the apex of hero ball and post ups.
Ben Wallace on Offense
If you’re just here to read about Ben Wallace’s defense, I get it. Before leaving, scroll down to the “Concluding Evaluation” section, and you can be on your way. However, you’ll miss the complete picture of Wallace without knowing his offense.
Back in 2004, Larry Brown worked to instill confidence in Ben Wallace by actually telling him to shoot more. While he peaked in field goal attempts per game that season, between 2000-06, he averaged about 6.9 per game. Still, it was jarring to watch Wallace whip out his midrange jumper with little hesitation. The results in this video paint a prettier picture, but through that same 2000-06 time frame, he shot about 26 percent on these jumpers. Even if you’re anti-analytics (whatever that means), you have to be against that shot.
Furthermore, he showcased his lack of touch closer to the basket as well. When posting up, he actually showed some solid footwork. Unfortunately, the shot attempts themselves weren’t quite as smooth. Here he pivots himself to a nice reverse before slamming the ball off the backboard.
Against Jason Collins, he finds a little bit of daylight before short-arming a hook/floater thing.
Additionally, he displayed this lack of touch out of post situations. In a prior section, I posted a video of Wallace finished off a transition alley oop. That wasn’t always the case. In this play, he mistimes his steps, opts for the reverse instead of the dunk, and botches the layup.
Undoubtedly, a lot of these struggles come from a lack of touch, but his aforementioned lack of size made it tougher for him to finish around the rim. Combine those two factors for a center and you have a player who gets rim blocked when someone like Gobert would have dunked it.
Because of his tenacity and athleticism, Wallace added some scoring value through his offensive rebounding. He was pretty smart about not forcing shots after securing an offensive board, but many times, his timing allowed him to unleash ferocious putback dunks.
Even in transition, I found that Wallace rarely changed pace. This is far from an indictment as his strides and timing (yes, his timing was that good) helped him patiently seek out the optimal position. You can see his consistent pace in this play as he seemingly waltzes in for the putback.
Subsequently, Wallace’s pacing helped him play enormous minute loads while engulfing rebounds and shutting down offenses. In my film study, this may be my favorite play that I encountered. It begins with a patented Wallace defensive rebound followed by a crowd-pleasing putback dunk.
Wallace’s passing was a mixed bag. On one hand, he would make some high-level reads (especially later in his career), but on the other, he seemed limited to waiting for cutters or just missing looks all together. Here’s a series of good passes he made to cutting teammates.
In general, Wallace was not a frantic player. His patience and pacing translated into a player that never seemed to make passing or defensive mistakes when surrounded by defenders. I found that his interior passes, especially after a bit of a scramble, were extremely valuable in that he created open layups and didn’t turn the ball over.
Nevertheless, Wallace’s repertoire is missing both the sheer volume of these passes to make him a valuable passing hub à la Bam Adebayo and creation off the dribble. From my study, these are the two best passes that Wallace threw, and no other passes came close to their excellence.
The touch pass to the corner in particular showcases Wallace’s mind for the game. He had the ability to throw passes, but he didn’t have the requisite offensive skills like a solid handle to really create for his teammates.
Ultimately, I’d say that he was a functional passer who could help grease a movement heavy team, but he couldn’t be the engine of a potent offense.
Let me be frank: Wallace’s offensive numbers are not pretty. In his entire career, Wallace only registered an above average true shooting percentage twice. During the 2004 and 2005 seasons (the years he went to the Finals), those percentages dipped as low as 7 points worse than league average. For a center, those numbers are catastrophic.
Interestingly, in those 18 games that he missed between 2003-05, the Pistons were actually 0.2 points worse on offense when Wallace was out of the lineup. This is obviously a negligble difference, but this small sample size at least points to a player that wasn’t that detrimental to the Piston’s offense.
In 2005-06, Wallace’s final year with the Pistons, new head coach Flip Saunders installed a new free-form offense that swung their offense from 0.5 points worse than league average in 2005 to 4.6 points better. Wallace played every game that season, so we can’t look at how they performed with and without him. While understanding the limitations of on/off data for players, it’s all we have to look at for their season. When on the court, the Pistons’ offense was actually 3.8 points/100 possessions better than when he was off. Granted, this number was significantly lower than Billups’, Sheed’s, and Prince’s impact, but it was higher than Hamilton’s.
O-PIPM has him hovering between -1 and 1 during his prime stretch, and OBPM has him above 0 in every season between 2001-2007.
Ben Taylor’s passer rating ranks scores him consistently between 4.5 and 6 out of 10 from 2003-08 which jives with my analysis of the film.
Concluding Evaluation of Ben Wallace
Ben Wallace’s peak was defined by an all-time defensive presence and a middling to detrimental offensive game. What makes him difficult to retroactively analyze is the stark differences between early 2000s NBA and today’s NBA. Without Ben Wallace, the early 2000s Pistons don’t succeed, but it’s not clear if those teams could replicate their defensive dominance in today’s NBA. Consequently, I don’t know if Wallace could replicate his value in today’s league.
Regardless, Wallace’s defensive peak places him just outside the pantheon of great defenders. His mobility and ability to fit in any defensive scheme and next to any defensive players makes him a portable defensive force. On his own, he could transform a defense, or he could provide impact to an already established team. This makes his defense closer to a player like Draymond Green than Rudy Gobert.
In a drop coverage, Rudy Gobert easily outpaces Wallace especially when looking at rim protecting numbers. In an earlier generation, Gobert may be known as an even more impactful defender than he is today. However, Wallace’s flexibility in all other facets of defense, including his incredible hands, makes him more valuable on better defenses and while facing better offenses. He would without question, continue to be a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
It was much easier to hide poor NBA players during Wallace’s time which contributes to his offensive numbers not dipping below a 0. However, those might be different in today’s league. His paltry shooting and creation numbers make him ripe for essentially ignoring him on offense similar to how the Warriors treated Tony Allen. His offensive rebounding and above average passing vision help buoy his value, but I don’t see them overcoming his scoring/creation game.
Where Should I Draft Ben Wallace in an All-Time Draft?
This is honestly the most difficult question regarding Wallace. I’ve talked about how to pick the best NBA players before, but the all-time wrinkle adds more challenge.
Most of these drafts use modern rules, and in that case, Wallace’s defense is perfect for today’s NBA. He could be the sole defensive system, or you could be funky and pair him next to Hakeem for an unparalleled tandem.
In two different all-time drafts I joined this year, somebody selected Wallace in the 2nd round. Frankly, I view this as way too high for him. Early on in drafts, you should avoid players that have harmful weaknesses. There are situations where Wallace might be played off the court, and you can’t afford to have one of your top picks in that situation.
Ideally, I would wait for the 4th round to take him, but if your team hinges on his specific abilities, you could stretch to the 3rd.
Final Grades (A+ to F) for Ben Wallace