The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 4 | Rasheed Wallace
Games Played with Blazers: Regular Season 544, Postseason 50
*PTS: 16.8 | REB: 7.0 | FG%: 49.7% | 3PT%: 33.5%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: July 1996, acquired from the Washington Bullets for Rod Strickland and Harvey Grant
Departed Club: February 2004, traded with Wesley Person to the Atlanta Hawks for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff, and Dan Dickau
Place in History: In the entire history of the Portland Trail Blazers, only a small handful of players have combined star power with a complete suite of skills: shooting, scoring, athleticism, defense, rebounding, and passing. Their names are legendary: Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Mychal Thompson, Terry Porter, Cliff Robinson, Scottie Pippen, and Rasheed Wallace.
We could debate all day about the relative merits of each. Truthfully, you can’t go wrong with any of them. But if you narrowed the search parameters from “complete, all-around players” to “complete players who also became their team’s first option while winning and achieving playoffs success”, only Wallace and Walton would remain.
That’s a lofty comparison for Wallace, of course. While he reigned, Bill Walton was the best of the best. Rasheed never achieved that level of individual success or production. He did inhabit much of Walton’s skill set in a slightly different way, however. He also displayed longevity that eluded Portland’s championship center.
If you factor in injuries and length of service with the team, there’s an argument to be made that Rasheed Wallace is the best example of a pure, all-around player the Blazers have ever fielded. Others have been more talented in certain areas. Plenty have put up better stats. Few players have ever put it all together like Wallace did in Portland.
The First Year
The Blazers didn’t know quite what they were getting when they traded for Rasheed in the Summer of 1996. They were still in talent-acquisition mode at that point, looking for great young players at cheap prices. Wallace fit the bill. He had been the 4th pick overall in the prior year’s draft, the prize acquisition of the Washington Bullets. He showed all kinds of athletic promise during his rookie season, but rumors about attitude and locker room tension swirled around him.
The Bullets weren’t set up to handle discontent. Far removed from their championship season back in 1978, they had struggled through 20-win seasons for the better part of a decade. They had no winning culture to absorb the impact of individual agendas. Distractions would swamp them. Wallace became the proverbial right player in the wrong place.
In July, 1996, Washington moved Wallace to Portland for Rod Strickland and Harvey Grant. At the time, Strickland was one of the best point guards in the league. Both he and Grant were seasoned veterans.
The Bullets would make the playoffs that year, so they got their wish.
The Blazers? Well, they got ‘Sheed.
The instant Wallace took the floor, you could tell he was long. He was listed at 6’10—maybe 6’11, depending on the day. Either way, his arms seemed to stretch to the rafters.
Besides that, Wallace could jump. Long before NASA and Space X joined forces, Rasheed was rocketing from hardwood to outer space in milliseconds. If the Hubble Telescope needed repair, young Wallace probably could have jumped up and grabbed it as easily as he snagged a ball caught between the rim and the backboard.
Portland’s roster had enough insulation to support Wallace’s abilities without pressuring him to carry the team. Wallace played alongside Cliff Robinson, Arvydas Sabonis, Chris Dudley, and Stacey Augmon. With the frontcourt filled out nicely around him, Wallace’s contributions were all to the positive. There weren’t any huge holes for him to fall into. It was a near-ideal situation.
Wallace got plenty of opportunities to make contributions that first season. He caught the eye of point guard Kenny Anderson, an excellent passer who understood how to score. Anderson was quick on his feet, able to shake defenders and draw attention. Wallace created chaos charging down the baseline while opponents were protecting against Kenny’s drives. The duo produced so many alley-oops together that the Rose Garden end line might as well have been christened the Rasheed Wallace Runway. Anderson became the equivalent of an NFL quarterback tossing bombs to Randy Moss. All he had to do was get it in the vicinity and Wallace’s long arms would find it, then deposit it through the rim with thundering authority.
Some of Rasheed’s early-career alley-oops defied credibility. He could rise out of nowhere, seemingly from a dead stop, grab the ball at the top of the backboard square, and throw it down, looking as effortless as putting at the 7th green on Sunday afternoon. Shaquille O’Neal was bigger and more devastating, but outside of Shaq, nobody used the move as effectively as Rasheed.
Confidence did wonders for Wallace’s development in his first year. So did his teammates. Robinson was a defensive wonder. Sabonis was smart as heck. Augmon knew how to use his body and arms to frustrate opponents, blocking shots and grabbing boards. Wallace seemed to absorb a little from each. He never became a big shot blocker, but his positioning and form were tight and he always looked good in the flow of the defense.
Wallace played 30.5 minutes per game in his first season in Portland, averaging 15.1 points and 6.8 rebounds on 55.8% shooting. It was quite a debut. His field goal percentage would never be so high again, probably because he’d never see so many dunks in his life.
In the Summer of 1997, the Blazers let Robinson walk in free agency. Wallace was their new forward and they were ready to start him full-time.
With opponents now prepared for his dunk-and-dash offense, Rasheed needed another move in his arsenal. He started going to a baseline turn-around jumper, taken anywhere between 10-16 feet. It was a style of offense that Maurice Lucas had used to great effect back in the team’s heyday. Catch the ball, survey the defense, spin one way for the drive, the other to take the shot.
Wallace wasn’t as powerful or experienced as Lucas, but he was taller and had a longer reach. As he got comfortable with the turn-around, the shot became all but unstoppable. He’d bump the defender with his hip, pivot, then release in one smooth motion. Nobody could get to the ball when those 80-foot arms extended.
It didn’t take too many repetitions before Portland crowds began to recognize the move as Wallace’s signature, echoing Kareem’s Sky Hook or Olajuwon’s Dream Shake. Fans didn’t even wait for the shot to go up. As soon as Wallace caught it with his back to the basket on the baseline, they started yelling, “Sheeeeeeeeeed!” Everybody knew what was coming, including the opponent. He always got the shot off anyway.
It went in, too. Though Wallace’s offense would continue to drift towards the perimeter as he aged, his shooting percentage stayed incredibly high for most of his Portland stay. He finished his Blazers career with a 49.7% aggregate, only dropping below 50% when he began to take three-point shots (which, by the way, he could also hit).
It didn’t take long for opposing coaches to draw the obvious conclusion that Rasheed Wallace should be double teamed. It was at this point that he showed the last trick in his bag. Having come up in the North Carolina system, Wallace knew basketball and its angles. He had already shown such on defense. Now he began demonstrating on the offensive end as well with the pass.
Wallace’s proficiency didn’t show up in the assist column, rather his field goal attempts. During his first five years in Portland, he played alongside talented veterans. When he became the obvious #1 option, he would have been well within his rights to demand the lion’s share of the shots. Instead, whenever his area of the floor got busy, Wallace simply flipped the ball to Sabonis, Pippen, J.R. Rider, or Steve Smith.
First possession of the game or last, Wallace never forced himself as the focal point of the offense. If anything, he got criticism the other direction. Pundits claimed he didn’t take enough shots. They may have had a point. Between 1996 and 2000, Wallace never averaged more than 13 attempts per game. By contrast, LaMarcus Aldridge would average 16 field goal attempts per game over his nine-year career in Portland, topping out at 20.6. Damian Lillard took 20 per game this season, CJ McCollum 19.5. Rasheed’s career high was 16. For him, that was outlandish.
Lack of shot attempts is not, in itself, a virtue. It indicates the kind of player Wallace was, though. He was never concerned about being the prototypical star or lead player. He functioned as part of a team. If he deemed a play correct, he would make it that way no matter the situation, no matter who else was on the floor.
Wallace could, and did, score in droves. He just wasn’t going to do it every night. He’d do it when he felt it was called for, not when you expected it.
Lots of Winning
This approach worked well the way the Blazers were set up in Wallace’s younger years. They won 60% of their games the year he came on board. Soon after they’d exceed 70%.
It soon became clear that Wallace was just as good in the playoffs as he was in the regular season, often better. He averaged 20 points per game against the Lakers in his debut postseason appearance. He’d score 15 per game on 51% shooting during Portland’s first run to the Western Conference Finals in 1999, 18 per game on 49% shooting during the same journey the season after.
People don’t like to admit it, but Wallace’s Blazers went farther than any team in franchise history except for Walton’s World Champions and Drexler’s Finals squads. Granted, those late-90’s teams were star-studded on paper, but scratch a little deeper and you’ll find the facade. They resembled their popular image the way Las Vegas landmarks resemble their real-life counterparts. The impression holds up from a distance, less so up close.
Pippen and Smith were still viable from 1999-2002, but they were nowhere near their old selves. Sabonis never was at his peak in Portland. All of them got exposed when the game depended solely on them.
Rasheed Wallace’s talent and all-around play became the glue keeping those teams together. You could not have inserted another player—a selfish scorer or non-defender—into that slot and have gotten the same results. Rasheed took pressure off of everybody. He’s not the sole reason they won, but he’s the reason they got as far as they did.
The Uncomfortable Star
Sadly, the Blazers did not remain set up well for Wallace as the years slipped by. Losing the 2000 Western Conference Finals to Shaq and the Lakers ripped the heart out of the franchise. They tossed away young, promising players to take big stabs at big names. Inevitably, those big names proved one, or two-dimensional. Dale Davis wasn’t a scorer. Shawn Kemp couldn’t defend or even move much.
With cracks developing in the roster, pressure mounted on Wallace to step up, making chicken soup out of chicken crap. That was neither his game nor his calling.
To his credit, Wallace tried. As the new millennium progressed, his shot attempts and scoring numbers began to rise. He scored 19 per game in 2000-01, repeated that in 2001-02. He began shooting more frequently, picking up the three-point shot as the next weapon in his arsenal. The league wasn’t ready for a 6’11 deep shooter yet. It’s not what Portland wanted. Nor could the symbolism be missed. Just when the Blazers were depending on Wallace to anchor the offense, he started drifting farther and farther away.
On the strength of his scoring, Wallace made the All-Star team in 2000 and 2001. Nationally, his profile had never been higher. That same bright spotlight left his flaws exposed.
For all his development and success, Wallace’s relationship with the people around him hadn’t gotten any easier. He was suspicious of stardom, refusing its trappings. He remained aloof, sometimes callous, towards media. He perceived them trying to shove him into a mold he didn’t fit.
On the court, Wallace felt the sting of referee whistles keenly. Seeing them as an arm of the system, he seemed determined to take on the entire NBA officiating corps all at once. In 2000-01, he set a record for technical fouls in a season with 41. If it felt like every other game Rasheed was getting into it with someone, that’s because he actually was.
Though his zeal went overboard, Wallace may have had a point. Blazers fans will remember Rasheed getting tossed by Ron Garretson in Game 1 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers...a series that ended up going down to the wire before the Lakers emerged victorious.
The video below shows the series of events that led up to the ejection: a foul, Wallace complaining about the call from the bench, Garretson teeing him up for the trouble. The key moment comes just after, when Garretson assesses Wallace the second technical for...
wait for it...
wait for it...
You’re going to be waiting a long time for it, because Wallace did nothing but stare. He wasn’t physically threatening or close. He did not say a word. ‘Sheed got tossed out of a playoff game for looking wrong.
Some might say that if staring was going to be an issue for the referee, Wallace shouldn’t have stared.
Keep in mind that this is the Western Conference Finals, with a chance to play for the championship on the line. Garretson felt no compunction about ejecting Portland’s best player. Imagine the wail of protest that would have arisen had a referee ejected Lakers center O’Neal under the same circumstances.
Let’s remember also that these were the years that Shaq routinely threw forearms into opposing centers in order to clear space to dunk, up to and including Sabonis in the same series.
Let’s also remember that this is the same series in which Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson was caught by television cameras in a timeout huddle counseling O’Neal, who had five fouls at the time, “Just go out and play your game. They’re never going to call the sixth one on you.”
Wallace should have had better control over himself and thought more about the bigger picture. That doesn’t make what he was seeing, or saying, entirely wrong.
Be that as it may, it didn’t take long for Wallace’s antagonism to drift past referees, towards teammates and coaches. He famously threw a towel in the face of Arvydas Sabonis during a timeout huddle in April of 2001. Sabonis had flailed back trying to draw a foul on Shaq and hit Wallace across the face. This incident became a prelude to reports that Wallace was, shall we say...”uncharitable” to younger teammates in practice and hard-working reporters in post-game locker rooms.
In the early years, Wallace got attention for success and strong play with a few antics mixed in. As the team disintegrated and wins became scarce, his strong play didn’t matter as much. Now ‘Sheed was known primarily for antics. Things were getting ugly.
The less said about the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, the better. Wallace continued to produce, scoring 18 and 17 per game in those years. The Blazers won 50 and made the playoffs in ‘02-’03. But issues were coming to a head.
Back in 2000, when the team was stocked, critics had claimed that Wallace wasn’t aggressive enough, passing up too many shots. They did it quietly, knowing the team was winning, unable to object to passes that landed in the hands of Pippen and Smith.
The cupboards were emptier, and Wallace’s teammates far less sacrosanct, in 2002. Now people were shouting that Rasheed should be taking over the team, even if that meant passing to nobody. Teammate Damon Stoudamire and Coach Maurice Cheeks eventually joined that chorus, begging Rasheed to carry the weight. Wallace was going to be Wallace anyway.
Give or take a few threes, Wallace’s game wasn’t that different than it always had been. It just wasn’t what the team needed, thus it looked much worse.
In November of 2002, Wallace and Stoudamire were pulled over on their way back from a game in Seattle, cited for a marijuana misdemeanor and speeding on I-5. Charges were dropped eventually, courtesy of plea deals. Seeing two of the biggest names in the franchise besmirch its reputation—even in a manner that seems fairly innocuous today—contributed to the growing sense of disease and disgust surrounding the Blazers.
The Bough Breaks
Things would get no better in 2003, the year that became the breaking point between Wallace and pretty much everybody.
On January 15th, Wallace confronted NBA Referee Tim Donaghy on a Rose Garden loading dock following a game with the Memphis Grizzlies. David Aldridge, writing for ESPN, picked up the story.
Here’s what we know, and it starts in the third quarter of Portland’s win over Memphis, when official Scott Wall called a foul on Wallace with 9:45 left in the period. Wallace then tossed the ball toward Wall, who had his back turned. But Donaghy saw it, thought Wallace was throwing the ball at Wall and gave Wallace a technical foul. Wallace was angry — “Ask him (Wall) if he thought I was throwing the ball at him!” Wallace allegedly said to Donaghy after the technical was called — but stayed in the game and finished with a season-best 38 points, with 10 boards.
For the most part, Rasheed Wallace, right, has stayed out of trouble this season.
Then, about an hour after the game, Wallace was speaking with Memphis guard Brevin Knight and signing autographs for an acquaintance of Knight’s when Wall, Donaghy and Steve Javie, the third ref, came walking past on the way to their car.
According to a source, Wallace shouted at Donaghy, “That was a bull---- call and technical, and I’m gonna get my money back,” referring to the fine players receive for getting T’d up.
Donaghy then, according to the source, shouted back, “Watch the tape.”
At this point, things get a little murky. Wallace then apparently took some steps toward Donaghy, and, a source says, said, “No, you watch the tape,” and cursed at Donaghy. What is also unclear — and very important, obviously — is whether Donaghy cursed back at Wallace, or merely repeated what he’d already said, or didn’t say anything. No one I spoke with disputes, though, that Wallace reacted by raising his arms — as if to throw a punch, the league believes; with no malice toward Donaghy intended or planned, Wallace’s people believe — and moving toward Donaghy, who moved toward Wallace. Another source contends that Wallace then yelled at Donaghy, “I’m gonna kick your ass, punk-ass mother-----,” and that the league viewed this as prima facie evidence of a threat against the official — the major reason for the seven-game suspension.
Not long after, Donaghy would become embroiled in a game-fixing, gambling scandal. Once again, Rasheed wasn’t entirely wrong. By that point, it was moot. Wallace’s seven-game suspension for the incident had long been served.
Around this time, Wallace also divorced himself from media interviews. Forced by the league to speak with reporters in post-game press conferences, Wallace responded to nearly every question with a four-word phrase: “Both teams played hard.” Sometimes he wouldn’t let the questioner finish before giving his stock answer. After a while, they stopped asking so much.
In this new light, Wallace’s familiar habits seemed far more objectionable to casual observers than they had been. Harmless quirks on Conference Finals teams became fatal flaws on a .500 squad. Yelling, “Ball don’t lie!” whenever opponents missed free throws morphed from a rallying cry against injustice to petulant “whining”. So, too, the technical fouls. Instead of screaming, “Sheeeeeed!” in anticipation of the jump shot, fans screamed, “SHEED!” when they saw him begin to ramp up to another “T”. Wallace’s lack of stardom and self-control became constant topics of conversation. He was typified as lazy, uncaring, or just not that good of a player.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, a day of reckoning was coming. Wallace’s contract was due to expire in the Summer of 2004. The Blazers wanted him back, but could not get him to sign an extension. Everybody knew 2003-04 was his “walk” season. The Big Question rang out early and often: did he have any interest in coming back?
Players far more media-friendly than Wallace routinely move to shut down that line of inquiry. There was no doubt ‘Sheed would too. The only question was how. Given media persistence and his antipathy, the situation was a recipe for disaster.
Wallace did not disappoint.
In the midst of the uncertainty, Oregonian columnist John Canzano asked Rasheed about a trade rumor sending him to the Dallas Mavericks. Wallace responded with a phrase that would cement the rift between him and Portland fans forever.
As long as somebody “CTC”, at the end of the day, I’m with them. For all you that don’t know what “CTC” means, that’s “Cut the Check”.
For Wallace, this was a declaration of independence and identity. He was not going to be a sucker for anybody, giving away anything he was owed out of a sense of loyalty that was not returned by the NBA, the media, the fans, or even his own team. He would play hard for whomever paid him, just like the contract said.
To fans, the statement stuck a dagger through the heart of everything they believed in. Every fan knows deep down they are trading money for warm feelings and a sense of belonging. Loyalty is routinely commercialized by sports franchises. Fans buy jerseys to show they’re part of the team, everybody in the organization applauds and assures them that they are. Everyone gets something; nobody complains.
Except Rasheed was not holding up his end of the bargain here. He exposed dearly-held loyalty as just another product, then affirmed his power to sell his to the highest bidder. The statement touched off fears and resentment that had been simmering ever since Clyde Drexler was traded back a decade earlier. The public lashed out hard. Wallace was termed a mercenary, faithless, persona non grata. Every perceived failure and flaw of his was lifted up; new ones were invented on the spot. Every media member that Wallace had slighted now found their complaints about him sown in fertile fields, an angry public more than ready to rehearse the list of grievances.
Wallace had broken the code because he didn’t care about the code. He cared about his job, providing for his family, and not letting anyone exploit him, including systems of NBA officiating and media coverage that he believed was designed to do just that. When fans hated him for that stance, it confirmed that his perceptions were accurate. He dug in his heels harder. The more he dug in, the more he was reviled. The team’s fans and its central star were locked into a spiral of antagonistic misery.
By this point, it was patently obvious that no reconciliation between Wallace and the Blazers was forthcoming. Knowing he’d leave in free agency at the end of the year anyway, the Blazers traded him to the Atlanta Hawks on February 9th, 2004. In return they got Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff, and Dan Dickau. Not a bad haul, considering the circumstances.
Abdur-Rahim had been a star-level scorer with the Vancouver Grizzlies and an All-Star in Atlanta. He might have made up for Wallace’s offense, had Zach Randolph not been ready to assume the starting power forward position.
Ratliff was the King of Blocked shots. He might have helped on defense had he been healthy.
As it was, splitting Wallace into two separate, less-well-rounded players did little for Portland. The Blazers’ chances of winning in that era departed with Wallace.
Rasheed played but a single game for the Hawks, scoring 20 points in the process. Ten days after acquiring him, Atlanta traded Wallace to the Detroit Pistons.
That year, Wallace and the Pistons won the NBA Championship. Rasheed did it playing the same way he always had, a style his critics claimed could never lead to a title. He earned his ring as part of a balanced team; no Detroit player averaged more than 18 points that season. In Game 3 of the Finals series against the Lakers, Wallace scored 3 points and the Pistons won by 20. In Game 4 he scored 26 and they won by 8. Nobody cared how much he scored, how many shots he took or didn’t. All that mattered is that they won.
Wallace would stick with the Pistons for five seasons after they captured the title. His production and minutes stayed about level with in his early Portland years. Detroit averaged 54 wins per season over that span.
After the Pistons broke down, Wallace moved to Boston for a season. He retired for a couple years, only to return in 2012-13 at the age of 38. He appeared in 21 games for the New York Knicks that season, suffered a broken foot, then called it a career.
For most people, Wallace’s theatrics (and the media maelstrom they engendered) overshadow his performance on the court. CTC is a lot easier to remember than PER.
Wallace wasn’t always right. Sometimes he wasn’t even defensible. Even while acknowledging that, three things stand out:
- Almost all of Wallace’s objections and perspectives had a grain of truth to them. History has softened the perspective on many of his stances. More people than just Rasheed Wallace have complained about the economics of the NBA, the way it views and treats the young athletes who form its core, and the systems it employs to keep them in place. Media and fan conduct have come under scrutiny in the last two decades as well. Those investigations have revealed behaviors not much prettier than Wallace’s.
- Wallace did plenty of decent things in the local community that did not get publicized to the same extent his controversial statements did.
- At the end of the day, Rasheed Wallace was a hell of a good player.
For the talent, for the playoffs runs, for making us all yell “Sheed” at the sight of an otherwise-pedestrian baseline jumper...
For the dunks, the defense and passing, the All-Star games and the Conference Finals...
For “Ball Don’t Lie” and “Both Teams Played Hard” and “CTC”, all of which are STILL instantly recognizable today...
For the unfiltered moments both local and national, for playing at the heart of a serious Finals contender AND the Jail Blazers...
For the championship run with the Pistons and the justification his Detroit career brought...
For being such a polarizing figure that even now, 16 years after he last suited up for the Blazers, people just CANNOT talk about him without spitting all over themselves in fervor (and occasionally furor)...
For being one of those rare people who can evoke all these things at the mere mention of his name... not even his full name, but the single syllable: Sheed...
For all these things, Rasheed Wallace gets the 4th slot in our Top 100 List of Trail Blazers players and influencers. Love him or hate him, the Blazers have never fielded anyone else like him.
There’s NSFW music in this first video highlight, but you’ve got to see the dunks. Keep in mind when he’s in a Detroit uniform, that’s semi-old ‘Sheed, a 30-year-old dunking like he’s 22.
Not the most exciting display, but good workaday Wallace material and a career high.
Check out the defense in this one:
Usually power forwards and centers have a hard time getting along when both of them can score. ‘Sheed and Sabas didn’t.
Feel free to hare your thoughts and memories of Rasheed Wallace below.
If you crave even more ‘Sheed, don’t forget he and Bonzi Wells currently have a podcast going, the aptly named “Let’s Get Technical” podcast.