The Atlanta Hawks have never reached the NBA Finals — sorry, I am not giving Atlanta credit for Bob Pettit winning a title in St. Louis — but the franchise did have an immediate, landscape-altering impact on the Finals this decade.
This season’s NBA trade deadline marks the 15th anniversary of a moment worthy of a 30 for 30, and I’m not being ironic. Rasheed Wallace playing one game for the Atlanta Hawks in 2004 is perhaps the most fascinating trade deadline story of all-time, and certainly one of the most important.
Wallace’s one-game stint almost immediately became the premise for unfunny jokes and has been dubbed a forgotten stint, despite being one of the most infamous runs in NBA history. I hate the internet sometimes, but I digress.
The hot-potato game ultimately involving four organizations rejuvenated a career and derailed a dynasty.
Fifteen years after he was a member of three teams in just a few days’ time — Portland Trailblazers, Atlanta Hawks, and finally, the Detroit Pistons — Wallace is remembered as a brash and entertaining personality with a diverse skill set. In some ways, Wallace was a prototype for today’s NBA forwards: He shot the 3-pointer more willingly and effectively than was typical of a player his size, and his penchant for smack-talk would have made him an NBA Twitter favorite.
Referring to articles about Wallace’s movement in 2004 shows, however, he’s style wasn’t exactly embraced at the time. This was an era in which David Stern aggressively pursued a dress code because players like Allen Iverson donning the fashion that suited their tastes was a turnoff to the giveaway-t-shirt-over-a-button-down crowd sitting courtside. Middle-aged gasbags like Jay Mariotti dominated the national sports conversation. Teams were nicknamed things like “Thuggets” and “Jailblazers,” the latter in part because of Wallace’s presence.
In 2002, Wallace and Damon Stoudamire were arrested for marijuana possession after they were pulled over on a drive from Seattle to Portland. The incident gained a level of infamy, even being parodied on an episode of Chappelle’s Show. The skit depicts average Joes shouting out players’ names during unfortunate moments, including a brutal call-back to Paul Pierce’s stabbing in September 2000.
It’s funny in retrospect, given that both Washington and Oregon have since legalized marijuana. At the time, however, the hand-wringing was palpable. It contributed to the descriptions that followed his exit from Portland. The Associated Press led its wire report of his trade to Atlanta thusly: The Portland Trail Blazers traded volatile forward Rasheed Wallace…
Days later, after Rasheed scored 20 points in his Hawks debut/finale, the AP again outlined his negatives: the arrest with Stoudamire; his technical-foul record in 2000-01; his seven-game suspension for threatening a referee.
Oh, the ref Sheed threatened? Tim Donaghy, later ousted and disgraced for his gambling.
Regardless, Rasheed Wallace was viewed as a troublemaker at the time. The difference in going to Detroit marked the difference in a career remembered mostly fondly, vs. becoming his generation’s Derrick Coleman; talented, some impressive statistics, but ultimately too much hassle to build around.
Landing in Detroit was the impetus for turning the narrative around — and Detroit was the only place it could play out as ideally. Then-general manager Joe Dumars celebrated the acquisition, telling reporters “it gives us a real shot to compete at the highest level in the NBA right now.”
Dumars was someone who’d know, having won two NBA Finals as Pistons shooting guard 15 years earlier. And Detroit did so with a cast of characters, guys like Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer.
Detroit was perfect, but Wallace could not have reached the ideal destination without the Atlanta pit stop.
He arrived in the Motor City and instantly fit into a lineup with defensive bruiser Ben Wallace; young Swiss Army Knife Tayshaun Prince; slashing guard Rip Hamilton; and smooth-shooting Chauncey Billups. The rest of the roster was filled out with assorted journeyman, which Ben Wallace and Billups were at that point in their careers. Like Rasheed Wallace, both Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups revitalized their careers in Detroit. Ditto Hamilton, who Michael Jordan unceremoniously jettisoned from Washington to bring in Jerry Stackhouse just a few years prior.
It wasn’t exactly the most impressive roster at the time. But it did look sufficient for winning the Eastern Conference, which by then had already cultivated the reputation as lesser than its Western counterpart that persists today. The East sent decent but not great Nets teams to the Finals the previous two seasons, and a Sixers team that — despite Iverson playing the best ball of his career — was otherwise wildly unimpressive.
In the years immediately after Jordan’s push-off/walk-off, the 2000 Indiana Pacers were the only of the first four teams to win the Eastern Conference that felt anything comparable to championship contenders; and even they were markedly worse than the Los Angeles Lakers juggernaut.
After their three-year reign as champions ended in 2002-03, Lakers management got aggressive in restructuring. The franchise brought in legends Karl Malone and Gary Payton, both doing some unmistakable ring-chasing at the latter stage of their illustrious careers. Despite Minnesota earning home-court advantage during the regular season, the Lakers’ march to the Finals always felt inevitable.
So, when a team featuring four future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup met an opponent of longtime vagabonds, the outcome seemed equally inevitable. A sport oftentimes lacking in postseason drama delivered with an opening round of March Madness caliber upset in the Finals. Making that comparison, UMBC’s defeat of Virginia may be the closest parallel. Detroit’s win was just as stunning, but also as much of an ass-kicking.
Four of the Pistons’ wins came by double-figures, and all five of Detroit’s starters averaged in double-figures scoring. It’s still the most shocking Finals I’ve watched; more so, even, than 2016. Cleveland rallied from down 3-1 against Golden State with the greatest player maybe of all-time, and an elite All-Star in Kyrie Irving. The Pistons pummeled a legends team with team basketball, executed by role players and fringe All-Stars. It wouldn’t have been possible without Rasheed Wallace.
While there were other factors that ensured the Lakers dynasty would end in the 2004 offseason, there’s no doubt the Finals mollywhopping expedited the process. Los Angeles’ implosion made way for the San Antonio Spurs to win two more championships in the ensuing three seasons; Shaq’s trade to Miami netted the Heat a championship; and despite never reaching the Finals, the Phoenix Suns’ metamorphosis helped usher in a new style of play that’s become the norm through the league.
Detroit remained competitive for another few years, including taking the Spurs to a thrilling Game 7 in the next year’s Finals. Rasheed Wallace returned to the Finals in 2010 as an unlikely veteran spark plug for the Boston Celtics. And, to reference a movie released the week prior to Portland moving Sheed to Atlanta, it may have all been the Butterfly Effect results of Wallace being a Hawk for one game.