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Ben Wallace Anchored A Damn Good Pistons Squad

Welcome to the Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players, our tribute to the overlooked athletes who haven’t gotten the respect they deserve over the years. In the first couple of installments, we highlighted two baseball players who were overlooked perhaps because they changed teams too often or excelled at too many little things without gaudy stats. But today we’ll look at a basketball player who fits both of those descriptions: former Detroit Pistons big man Ben Wallace.

HOF resume: Ben Wallace, C/PF

Category Value Rank (since 1976)
Career WAR 113.5 46
Peak WAR 88.6 40
JAWS 101.0 42
Points/gm 5.7 897
Rebounds/gm 9.6 33
Assists/gm 1.3 690
HOF% 45% 89

Sources: Basketball-Reference.com, NBA Advanced Stats

Wallace was a finalist for the Hall of Fame in 2019 but was left off the list in 2020. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame probability model, Wallace has only a 45.3 percent chance of getting in, based on his traditional stats and accomplishments. He might make it to Springfield someday, but his candidacy is no sure thing.

(Sidebar: If any members of the Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players eventually make their actual Hall of Fame, do we revoke their HoPDGP status? Nah. We can just say we had them in our Hall first.)

Forget about the Hall of Fame, though — Wallace took an unlikely path just to make it to the Hall of Pretty Damn Good. Born in rural Alabama, growing up as one of 11 children, Wallace went undrafted out of Division II Virginia Union and briefly played pro ball in Italy before signing with the Washington Bullets in 1996. He offered few signs of greatness in 34 games as a rookie, shooting 35 percent from the floor and logging fewer than six minutes a contest. And just as he was coming into his own as a defender and rebounder over the next few seasons, Wallace was traded twice in the span of less than a year. At best, this looked like the start to a journeyman’s career in the NBA.

When Pistons All-Star Grant Hill chose to join the Magic, Wallace landed in Detroit as part of a sign-and-trade deal. But once he was in the Motor City, Wallace became one of the most iconic players — on one of the most iconic teams — of his era. He wasn’t a scorer, never cracking double-digit points per game in any season of his career. He couldn’t shoot a lick — witness his career rates of 14 percent on 3-pointers and 41 percent on free throws. Yet Wallace still made his presence felt, serving as the interior backbone of a Pistons team that rose from 32 wins in the first year he arrived to an NBA championship just three seasons later.

Wallace’s own numbers during that run were special. During his final five seasons in Detroit (from 2001-02 through 2005-06), Wallace had the league’s second-best rebound rate, eighth-best block rate and even its 29th-best steal rate (a very high placement for a big man). According to our RAPTOR player ratings, Wallace was the very best regular-season defensive player in the NBA over that span by a very wide margin — leading No. 2 Tim Duncan by 2.0 points per 100 possessions — and was one of the few defenders at the top of the leaderboard to improve his rating in the playoffs.

A prime Ben Wallace was the NBA’s best defender

Best regular-season RAPTOR defensive plus/minus ratings for NBA players from 2001-02 through 2005-06*, plus their postseason defensive RAPTOR

Regular Season Playoffs
Player Minutes Def. RAPTOR Minutes Def. RAPTOR Diff.
1 Ben Wallace 14,405 +6.1 3,675 +7.0 +0.9
2 Tim Duncan 14,024 4.1 3,168 3.8 -0.2
3 Andrei Kirilenko 11,212 3.6 267 2.1 -1.5
4 Jason Collins 9,964 3.6 1,452 2.4 -1.1
5 Kevin Garnett 15,805 3.5 1,178 3.9 +0.5
6 Dikembe Mutombo 7,082 3.4 427 0.5 -2.9
7 Metta World Peace 9,171 3.2 1,201 2.4 -0.8
8 Marcus Camby 7,657 3.1 553 2.1 -1.0
9 Nenê 6,082 3.0 233 2.2 -0.9
10 Vlade Divac 7,251 2.9 1,087 2.6 -0.3

*Minimum 5,000 minutes played.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

At the same time, Wallace accounted for 107.2 points per 100 individual possessions on the offensive end during those seasons, well above the league average of 104.7 points per 100 possessions. Granted, he had a usage rate of only 12.5 percent, so he was far from a major offensive factor for the Pistons. But Wallace wasn’t a detriment to the offense when he was asked to finish the occasional play.

Most importantly, Wallace elevated Detroit to another level when he got in the game. Oftentimes we’ll see big individual rebounders not actually improve their team’s rebounding rates when on the court — but not so with Wallace. He boosted the Pistons’ rebounding numbers on both offense and defense, to the point that Detroit outrebounded opponents with Wallace in the game and got outrebounded without him. He also had net positive effects on the rest of the Pistons’ defensive numbers while in the game: Opponents shot worse, had more shots blocked, got the ball stolen more and scored far fewer points per 100 possessions when Wallace patrolled the paint:

Wallace made the Pistons’ defense dominant

Key defensive metrics for the Detroit Pistons with and without Ben Wallace on the court, 2001-02 through 2005-06 seasons

Detroit with Wallace…
Category On Court Off Court Diff.
Opponent points/100 possessions 98.9 103.4 -4.5
Opponent eFG% 45.8 47.5 -1.8
Team offensive rebound % 28.3 27.5 +0.8
Team defensive rebound % 72.3 71.6 +0.7
Team rebound % 50.2 49.7 +0.6
Team steal % 8.4 8.0 +0.4
Team block % 10.2 8.2 +2.0
Team net points/100 possessions 7.0 0.5 +6.5

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Wallace wasn’t the only great defender on the early-to-mid-2000s Pistons, of course. After the team acquired power forward Rasheed Wallace — no relation — before the 2004 trade deadline, Detroit’s primary lineup included Ben (+7.3 RAPTOR defensive rating in the 2003-04 season) and Rasheed (+2.3) Wallace, Tayshaun Prince (+0.9) and Chauncey Billups (+0.3), a combo that played together for 541 of the team’s 1,124 total minutes in the 2004 playoffs. (The other lineup slot was filled by shooting guard Richard Hamilton, who had a -0.2 defensive RAPTOR if we include the playoffs.) With so many plus defenders, it’s no wonder that group came together for arguably the greatest team defensive performance in recent postseason history. But the man they called “Big Ben” was clearly the driving force at the center of it all.

Similar to Chase Utley, whom we covered in last week’s HoPDGP, Ben Wallace was statistically the most valuable player on a team that won one championship and came close to more titles. The core lineup from above was together for Detroit’s playoff runs from 2004 through 2006, and in that span, Ben Wallace led the Pistons with 10.9 RAPTOR wins above replacement, edging out Billups’s tally of 10.5.

Ben Wallace was the MVP of Detroit’s mini-dynasty

Most postseason RAPTOR wins above replacement for members of the 2004-06 Detroit Pistons

RAPTOR plus/minus
Player Years Minutes Offense Defense Total WAR
Ben Wallace 3 2,545 -1.1 +6.6 +5.5 10.9
Chauncey Billups 3 2,571 +4.5 +0.5 +5.1 10.5
Tayshaun Prince 3 2,563 +2.0 +1.7 +3.7 8.6
Rasheed Wallace 3 2,257 -0.2 +3.1 +2.9 6.7
Richard Hamilton 3 2,693 +1.1 -0.3 +0.8 5.0
Lindsey Hunter 3 864 -1.2 +2.4 +1.2 1.8
Antonio McDyess 2 864 -0.3 +0.5 +0.2 1.3
Maurice Evans 1 101 +5.7 -1.6 +4.1 0.4

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

Like Utley’s Phillies, these were also teams without many clear Hall of Fame picks. Basketball-Reference gives Billups an 84.4 percent chance of punching his ticket to Springfield, though he hasn’t gotten there yet. Rasheed Wallace has evolved into a beloved player in retrospect, but his Hall probability is just 8.6 percent — and that’s largely warranted, if you break down the merits of his candidacy. Hamilton (1.8 percent) and Prince (0.1 percent) have even longer odds of enshrinement. (For now, coach Larry Brown and GM Joe Dumars — who made Springfield as a player — are the only Hall of Famers associated with that Pistons era.) This group was criminally underrated at the time — they were huge underdogs against the Lakers going into the 2004 Finals — and it mostly remains that way, which makes the blue-collar Ben Wallace their perfect patron saint.

After leaving Detroit for Chicago and then Cleveland, Wallace wasn’t the same dominating force he had been with the Pistons. He cracked 5.0 WAR on two other occasions (with the Bulls in 2006-07 and then in a renaissance season back with Detroit in 2009-10 at age 35), but he’d done his most notable work by the age of 31, when his first stint in Detroit ended. Wallace’s defensive peak was as impressive as we’ve seen from any player since David Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or maybe even Bill Russell.1 And that might be enough to earn him a place in the real Basketball Hall of Fame. But at the very least, it makes him a first-ballot member of our Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players.

Footnotes

  1. Wallace has the second-highest career defensive RAPTOR (+5.0) of anyone with at least 15,000 minutes since 1976-77, just behind Robinson (+5.2). That includes others in the conversation such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Draymond Green (+4.6 each), Tim Duncan (+3.7), Anthony Davis (+3.4), Patrick Ewing (+3.3), Kevin Garnett (+3.1), Dikembe Mutombo (+2.9) and Dwight Howard and Alonzo Mourning (+2.4 each).

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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