Win. Spin. To do the former, you often need to do the latter. The wheels began turning in Detroit on Thursday afternoon, the moment Rasheed Wallace, a big, volatile guy whose former owner all but threw a party when he finally dumped him, joined the Pistons in a three-team trade. The Pistons are a team that prides itself on selfless, blue-collar behavior. Wallace fits that bill the way Janet Jackson fits “overdressed.”
But Rasheed wears their uniform now, and he can help them win. So the Pistons spin. They insist he can be controlled. That environment is everything. That the new coach, Larry Brown, will have a good rapport with him. And if that’s not enough, they remind you that he is, contractually, here for only a few months.
“This is a short-term gig for now,” admitted Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ president of basketball operations who pulled off this deal, giving up several mid-level players but gaining an All-Star and lots of salary cap relief. “It could be great for him, or not so great for him. It could be great for us. But it won’t ever be bad for us. I didn’t tear up my team to do this.”
As for Wallace’s history of marijuana, bad temper and outrageous comments?
“The fact is,” Dumars sighed, “if you’re looking for all Boy Scouts, this is the wrong league to be in.”
Win. Spin. And make no mistake. This is a winning basketball move. Wallace is a major talent, a big man (6-feet-11) who can score from all over the floor. When he wants to play hard, he can change a game by himself. The Pistons need that kind of force, especially on offense. Dumars believes they even need a little of Wallace’s “edge,” although the difference between a little and a lot of that edge is the difference between a poke in the ribs and a knife through the gut.
“What did he say to you when you spoke on the phone?” I asked Dumars.
“He was excited about coming here. He said, ‘We can win this thing.’ “
“And what did you say?”
“I said, ‘That’s what I want to hear, chief.’ “
A long rap sheet
With this move, Dumars enlarges his reputation as a major front-office player. He takes the Pistons from over the salary cap to $9 million under it, giving him enough money to keep Mehmet Okur from walking away as a free agent this summer. Dumars also has the potential of signing Wallace back or sign-and-trading him for other major talent.
And — oh yeah — he gets to use Wallace the rest of the year, which takes the Pistons from, as Dumars called it, “a pretty good team to a very, very good team.”
The flip side, of course, is if Wallace, in the few months he’s here, reverts to the knucklehead behavior that has made him one of the most dreaded headlines in the NBA.
In Portland, he was part of a Team Rap Sheet, a Trail Blazers group so entrenched in bad behavior, it was news when players didn’t get arrested. Wallace’s personal history includes an assault charge by a former girlfriend, a 2002 arrest for marijuana possession, an NBA record for technical fouls in one season, and multiple fines for his behavior, such as threatening a referee, throwing towels, and trying to go into the stands after a bench-clearing brawl.
He also, in a rare extended interview — and rare may be a good thing — claimed the league deliberately exploited black players, and wanted them “dumb and dumber.”
Detroit is not a town that brooks that sort of attitude. Look around. The champion breed Red Wings are personified by quiet Steve Yzerman. Heck, Sergei Fedorov was considered a prima donna because he wanted ice time.
The Lions are led by a Boy Scout quarterback, Joey Harrington. The Tigers signed Pudge Rodriguez because, among other things, he’s considered a good guy.
The Pistons, under Dumars, have systematically removed the egos, malcontents and off-court disrupters. Their “musketeers” approach was the envy of many markets.
And, best of all, they were improving.
But only so much. Dumars and Brown have seen that the all-good-guys thing may have a limit. A recent six-game losing streak and a new history of close defeats suggested a change. Brown says he “loves” Wallace, and they share North Carolina connections, as do several members of the Pistons’ staff. And, as everyone keeps reminding everyone, the deal is binding only until the end of the season.
“The truth is, everyone is rented in the NBA,” Dumars said. “It’s either a short-term rental or a long-term rental, that’s all.”
Team’s core untouched
For now, it’s short — “a dating period,” Dumars called it — although the Pistons hope Wallace will extend this year as long as possible. He gives the team a formidable front line, with Ben Wallace and Okur alongside him. If he plays to his ability, the NBA Finals are a real possibility. And consider the teams the Pistons would likely have to defeat: Indiana, no stranger to controversy with Ron Artest, or New Jersey, with happy campers like Kenyon Martin.
As for the players the Pistons gave up — Bobby Sura, Lindsey Hunter, Zeljko Rebraca, Chucky Atkins? None was irreplaceable. Only Atkins made a marginal difference in many games. “I hesitated on him,” Dumars admitted, “because he’s played well for us. But we got a good guard (Mike James) from Boston. And in the end, was I not gonna get Rasheed Wallace to keep Chucky Atkins?”
Meanwhile, the Pistons also get all sorts of business perks, like extended cap room and dumped contracts, while Atlanta and Boston get draft picks and cap room galore. Funny. Once upon a time, you rated sports trades by how much each player would help each team. Now, it’s all about intangibles, beating the cap, reducing financial commitment, shifting draft spots.
Ah, well, things change. The Pistons — who dumped coach Rick Carlisle last year partly because of his supposed antisocial behavior — now take on the frequently antisocial Wallace. They are no longer the quiet, blue-collar roster of the NBA.
Then again, Detroit fans have some experience in this area. Remember Bill Laimbeer? Not exactly America’s Guest. But we loved him. Why? Because he wore the Pistons uniform, that’s why. They won. We spun.
Time will tell how well the Pistons uniform fits Wallace. For now, he’s like puffing on an unlit cigarette. Pretty risk-free. But you want to be careful where it leads.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.