Person of Interest: Rasheed Wallace

Over his 15-year NBA career, Rasheed never came close to the statistical landmarks that define a great or even a very good career in the NBA. He never averaged more than 20 points or 10 rebounds per game. Despite his reputation as an unselfish, defense-first player, his assist and blocked-shot totals never registered as anything but average. He never made the first orsecond All-Defensive teams. On Basketball-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame index, which rates Hall of Fame candidacy, Antawn Jamison, Larry Nance, Tom Chambers, and Larry Johnson all have better shots at enshrinement in Springfield.

Rasheed Wallace excelled at two basketball things. The first: He was an elite one-on-one post defender who could match up against Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett or Tracy McGrady without needing a double-team. Basketball’s ongoing love affair with Tyson Chandler has helped elevate the perceived importance of this particular skill, but there’s no reliable way to measure just how much impact this has on a team’s overall defense. The second: Rasheed Wallace, by all accounts, understood the pace and rhythm of the game. He knew when he should go on the block, he knew when he should shoot from the top of the arc, he knew when to defer to hot teammates. These instincts and the accuracy with which they are applied get lost somewhere in the vagaries of “basketball IQ,” the extremes of which are easy to spot.

Rasheed spent a lot of his time on the court making explicitly “low basketball IQ” plays. He was an average passer at best. He spent much of the second half of his career launching ill-advised 3-pointers. He racked up technical fouls at bad times and turned referees against his teams. He threw a towel in Arvydas Sabonis’s face. And yet, he never once played on a team that finished with fewer than 39 wins. This fact can be attributed to the surrounding talent, but Rasheed never played with a truly elite talent in his prime. In their two successive trips to the Western Conference Finals, the leading scorer for the Blazers averaged 13.9 (Bonzi Wells in 1998-99) and 16.4 (Wallace in 1999-2000) points per game. Given that those years approximate the peak of Wallace’s career, it’s worth questioning whether he might have scored more on a bad team. The record will show that he was a very efficient scorer, but he probably would have been a more effective player if he had shot more and been more aggressive in the post. He was, I believe, the best player on seven Portland teams, each of which made the playoffs. But that’s a pretty vague way to evaluate a player, especially when those claims can’t really be backed up by numbers, and when the print record is so overrun by talk of marijuana, technical fouls, leadership, and pretty much everything but basketball.

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