Ben Wallace’s Departure from MoTown, Weakens Conference Power but Opens Up East

July 4 is Independence Day. It is the day that Americans celebrate that 1st step toward freedom away from the British Empire. It is somehow fitting that a dominant power of another kind was dealt a potentially fatal blow, giving birth to freedom and opportunity throughout the East.

On Monday, July 3, 4-time Defensive Player of the year center Ben Wallace said to his employer, the 4-time Conference Finalist, 2-time NBA Finalist, 1-time NBA Champion Detroit Pistons thanks but no thanks, he and his fro will be going elsewhere. He has decided to sign a 4-year, $60 Million contract with the Chicago Bulls, spurning Pistons GM Joe Dumars’ 4-year $48 million offer which would’ve made Wallace the highest paid player in the history of the franchise.

His departure essentially rips the heart out of Detroit, leaving them unsure and shaken. By many accounts, Wallace was the leader of the Pistons, the soul of their Bad Boy mystique. Wallace helped Detroit advance in the playoffs in 2002 – for the first time since 1991 – get to the conference finals in 2003, win a title in 2004 and reach the finals last year. The Pistons won an NBA-high and franchise-record 64 games last season, then lost to the eventual champion Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

During the regular season this past year, he ranked fourth in the NBA in rebounding (11.3), ninth in blocks (2.2) and 10th in steals (1.78) – the only player among the top 10 in all three categories. The undrafted free agent from Virginia Union became the fifth player in league history to have 100 blocks and 100 steals in six straight seasons, a list that includes Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving, Sam Lacey and David Robinson.

With him gone, and offensive-minded coach Flip Saunders still at the helm, there is a strong chance that the rough and rugged squad that terrorized the East the last few years will go away from their familiar approach. There is already talk of shifting forward Rasheed Wallace to center and moving 6th man forward Antonio McDyess into the starting lineup, signing bodies to bring off the bench for depth. This would create more offense for Detroit, but the defensive drop off from Wallace and Wallace to McDyess and Wallace would be severe. The Pistons entire defensive style was predicated on punishing on the perimeter and funnel the opponent into Big Ben’s lair. Now what?

Meanwhile, Chicago is rejoicing at getting their man in Free Agency. Already a tough-defensive minded group, the addition of Ben Wallace fits perfectly with the way they play on that end of the floor. However, Chicago’s problems were on offense, not defense. Wallace, a player whose great defensive talent is only surpassed by his lack of it offensively, will not help at all on that score. In fact, he might make things worse; With Wallace on the court, the Pistons were often forced to play 4-on-5, and they have more offensive talent then the Bulls.

But, Wallace’s signing could potentially permit Bulls GM John Paxson to trade Bulls center Tyson Chandler for a low-post scoring threat, although the strongest thread suggests Chandler will go to the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets for veteran forward PJ Brown and guard J.R. Smith, which would only help in the locker room and on defense, still leaving them short in scoring.

What does this all mean? Well, it means that the East is madly, truly wide open for the first time in awhile. Even though the Miami Heat won the title this year, there was always a feeling that Detroit would be back. Especially because the Heat had so many players that were giving that last big push for a Ring. There is already talk that key role-playing veterans Alonzo Mourning and/or Gary Payton may decide to leave while on top, retiring into the sunset. That would leave Miami Heat President/Head Coach Pat Riley scrambling to find replacements. Meanwhile, center Shaquille O’Neal would be another year older, forward Antoine Walker and guard Jason Williams could be less hungry and more greedy, less able to buy into the “15 Strong” concept that made Miami successful.

Meanwhile, Dumars, a former Executive of the Year, could make a quiet deal or two to bring in the bench help they so badly need and they’d be back, feeding off that growing chip on their collective shoulder. Now? Wallace’s departure is a triple wound. First, they lose an all-star and defending Defensive Player of the Year who anchored their defense and was the heart and soul of their team. Second, they lost him to the Chicago Bulls, a division rival, which means they get to see him at least 4 times a year, excluding the playoffs. Third, during the 2003 draft, when they could have had Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh or NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade, they chose a player they hoped would be Wallace’s heir apparent, Darko Milicic. After barely playing his first two and half seasons except during blowout wins (earning him the nickname of the Human Victory Cigar), Dumars shipped to the Orlando Magic with Carlos Arroyo for a future draft pick and some spare parts. One of the main reasons behind the trade was to clear space to resign Wallace. HmmâÂ?¦

Now, Detroit is staggering, the Heat are celebrating and the rest are hungry. Cleveland made a strong run in the playoffs; nearly knocking off the Pistons before succumbing in 7; they will be a year wiser and star forward Lebron James will be a year better. The Bulls gave Miami a scare in the playoffs without Wallace; they should be improved. New Jersey, with guard Jason Kidd leading the attack, is always a threat, although they need interior help. The Washington Wizards are inconsistent but dangerous; Boston is the same.

Milwaukee just traded their starting point guard TJ Ford for Toronto forward Charlie Villanueva, planning to play him next to former 1st overall pick center Andrew Bogut. Indiana was weakened by forward Peja Stojakovic’s signing with the Hornets for $64 Million over 4 years, but they have a possible replacement in 2nd year forward Danny Granger and rookie forward Shawne Williams, who was drafted 17th overall this year.

There are others on the bubble, like Philadelphia (if they properly surround Allen Iverson with the right talent) or Orlando (Adding a true sniper like Duke guard J.J Redick, picked 11th this year, to a guard Jameer Nelson-directed offense featuring forwards Dwight Howard and Milicic could have potential) or even Atlanta (who just signed Speedy Claxton to be the point guard they’ve needed to guide their vast collection of swingmen).

The Eastern Conference, once just a two-team race with a couple of sleeper picks, has now broken wide open. It is now the land of opportunity. And teams have from now until the opener to prepare to seize that opportunity and run with it.

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