The news of Ben Wallace's decision to leave the Detroit Pistons for the Chicago Bulls, and an extra $10 million or so, is a sobering shock to Pistons fans. General Managers throughout the league should take note of this incident.
Just two years ago, the Dallas Mavericks faced a similar defection by fan favorite and offensive spark plug Steve Nash. Both situations share enough commonalities that fans and General Managers clearly have something to learn from to prepare for the future.
Both players were entering their early thirties, coming off of decent but not overwhelming contracts, had strong support of the local fan base, and were central figures in the team's public identity while arguably not being the most talented player on the team. In Nash's case, Dirk Nowitzki had claimed at least equal if not higher billing while Finley owned the established, veteran star respect. For Wallace, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton equally shared the bright lights as the offensive stars and Rasheed Wallace carried the public spotlight with his many antics and ready quotes for reporters.
And yet, ask the average local fan of each franchise who they paid to go see and Nash and Wallace would have likely won their respective votes. Maybe it is the hair or more generally their visible expression of style. Steve Nash has the moppy hair and Ben Wallace has the famous fro. But most likely it is the effort both players put on the court, day in and day out for the fans and the team.
Each guy approached free agency with similar issues. An opportunity to sign their last big contract, to define with what team they will ride out the prime of their careers on the court, to cash in on the years of sacrifice in the gym and on the court, to be recognized formally for what they bring to the franchise. Each guy held down a steady spot at one of the two most difficult positions in the NBA to fill: Point Guard and Center.
Difficult To Re-sign
And each franchise faced harsh realities in trying to keep their star. For the Mavericks, Steve Nash was the key cog in getting their fast paced offense in gear. He, almost literally, made just about everything in the Mavs offense happen. For the Pistons, Ben Wallace was the glue that held the team and specifically the defense in place and made them championship contenders in each for the last four or five seasons.
And yet, both players were looking for paydays in the latter portion of their career. Neither player could boast of being the most talented player on the team. At least, not without a good deal of argument. And both players represented playing styles, on each extreme, which popular opinion suggested might not be able to win a championship at the time. Nash represented the all offense, no defense philosophy which was derided by critics and Wallace the all defense, no offense philosophy which appears to be headed towards extinction thanks to the modern NBA rulebook.
Both teams responded in a similar fashion. They openly preached confidence that their star would re-sign and they quickly offered a large but not overwhelming contract for a limited number of years. Each offer would have represented a considerable raise in yearly salary but came far from the league mandated maximum dollar amounts and maximum number of years.
A Rival Poised To Steal
And each player was pursued by a conference rival who happened to be considerably under the cap, full of young talent and on the cusp of becoming a really good team or collapsing into the pool of mediocre teams that battle it out for the right to lose in the first round of the playoffs to the conference bully. Phoenix saw Steve Nash as the player that could immediately step into the role as leader of the team on the court and perfectly fill in the position they needed to run their new offense. Chicago apparently sees Ben Wallace as the key cog that will solidify their front line, lock down their defense and rebounding and raise the Bulls from first round fodder to title contender.
And so, each team forfeited their cap freedom for their coveted free agent. Grabbing a player still in his prime and locking him into a sizable contract that will likely out last his current ability. The Suns and the Bulls saw an opportunity and took the gamble. The Suns have prospered for their gamble, but the cap hit they took in stealing Nash has hindered their operations ever since and cost them numerous talented players.
The Sun's Price
Because of the spending spree they took on two years ago, the Suns have had to pass up draft picks that could have netted Luol Deng or Andre Iguodala in the past, Marcus Williams or numerous other talented players this draft. And they had to let Joe Johnson leave via a sign and trade and they were unable to re-sign Tim Thomas just this past week. In all likelihood, All-Star Shawn Marion may have to be traded within the next year or two as well.
Was the price worth it? The Suns went from lottery team to playing in the last two Western Conference Championship series and if Amare is healthy next season they will likely be the favorites to win the West. Right now, Suns fans would likely agree that gamble has paid off.
Adding Players That Fit The Franchise
For the Bulls gamble, we will have to watch and see. Like the Suns before them, the Bulls team already features some relatively established, talent laden players. For the Suns, it was Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson. For the Bulls, it is Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and several other young players like Kirk Hinrich. The Suns already had an been using a primarily up-temp style for some time and Nash fit the need to take it to the next level and to take advantage of the growth of Amare Stoudamire. The Bulls team has already established itself as a defensive oriented system under the guidance of Scott Skiles, although it has lacked the consistency and rebounding to dominate with that style.
Thus, each player was taken to fulfill plans that were already in motion. Ben Wallace is, by all appearances, fully capable of meeting those needs and anchoring the Bulls defense for the coming years. In the Suns case, Nash's defensive liabilities were not considered a problem because the game plan did not rely on Nash providing anything substantial on the defensive end. For Wallace, much the same is true on the offensive end. However, given that the Bulls were already somewhat offensively challenged his addition does little to help an existing and glaring weakness.
The Team Left Behind
As for the teams they abandoned, all is not lost but changes are unavoidable when a player of that magnitude leaves. In the case of the Mavericks, it appears that then head coach Don Nelson lost a bit of his heart for the team and the game when his favorite player flew the coup. He tried to give it a go, but he never sounded the same after that and almost immediately began setting the groundwork to hand the team off to Avery Johnson.
Without Nash, the Mavs had to change almost everything about their offense. Dirk slowly became more of the focus of a one-on-one game, the pace slowed somewhat and the focus on defense and young, athletic players began to re-shape the team. Josh Howard's role increased, Finley's role disappeared, and Shawn Bradley was quietly retired. It appears to have worked out well for both teams. Steve Nash has won consecutive MVP trophies, a feat he would almost certainly not have achieved in Dallas, and the Mavericks have become a solid, young contender that just came two games shy of winning the NBA Championship.
The Bulls will likely be much better in the coming season, with Ben Wallace, a young superstar obtained through the draft and what is shaping up to be a solid free agency haul around Wallace. The Pistons, on the other hand, have much work ahead of them.
Nazr Mohammed has accepted the tough job of taking Ben Wallace's place. He will have to be better than ever to ingratiate himself to the Piston's faithful as Jason Terry has managed to do in Dallas to ease the pain of losing Steve Nash. The Pistons have little money to make other moves in the off-season and their shallow bench makes it difficult to make a splash with trades. If Larry Brown were still in Detroit, he very well might respond much like Nelson did to the loss of Nash, lose heart and leave quickly. But, being Larry Brown, he skipped town before this adventure even got started and has already been fired from his next job. Flip Saunders, meanwhile, must figure out how the Pistons will move forward from here.
Will he reshape the team to be more offense oriented? Will he call the team to rally around the remaining core and prove to the world that they can succeed without Big Ben? When Nash left the Mavericks, they were loaded with expiring contracts and valuable commodities to trade and re-shape the team. The Pistons have four core players under contract, each of which could be traded for varying values but would probably not bring back enough in a two-for-one deal to actually increase Detroit's depth. The Pistons do have a couple of key role players that may be primed to step up to the demand and one or two young guys who may be ready to contribute more minutes and ease the pain of Ben's departure.
The Road Ahead
But the road ahead for Detroit is not pretty. This team has already achieved NBA glory once and came narrowly close a second time. But that glory seems further away now than it has been since Ben Wallace arrived in the dust of Grant Hill's defection years ago. And Wallace's departure re-opens the recent wound of the failed Darko experiment. Fans will be talking for years about how different the situation would be right now if Darko were still on the team at this point or if the Pistons had drafted Bosh, Carmelo, Wade or Josh Howard instead.
But all of that is in the past. Like Ben Wallace, those players are not part of the Pistons future. What is done is done and the Pistons must move on. Pistons fans must move on as well.