A Gamble They Had to Take

By Kevin Pelton
For Hoopsworld.com
Feb. 10, 2004

Someday, I'll be able to tell my kids I watched Rasheed Wallace's last game with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Okay, it's highly doubtful that if I have kids, they'll care about a guy who's been picked to only one more All-Star Game than Zydrunas Ilgauskas, but I did see the game, against my beloved Seattle SuperSonics, and I found it very revealing.

While the Blazers came up with the victory, their sixth in seven games, they didn't exactly impress me. Portland nearly blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead to a team whose two leading scorers were both banged up, particularly noticeable in the case of Rashard Lewis. Coming off four straight 20-point games, Lewis shot 4-for-15 from the field.

The Blazers continued to make their usual litany of bad decisions, with Damon Stoudamire launching perimeter jumpers like some kind of go-to player and Zach Randolph shooting from outside despite his massive size advantage against overwhelmed Sonics big men. To close the first half, Derek Anderson was unable to even get off a shot, a play so bad Maurice Cheeks seemed near more tears as he walked to the locker room -- and his team was leading. The Rose Garden was so lifeless during the fourth quarter that my brother and I wondered aloud whether ESPN had forgotten to place crowd mikes.

In the wake of the recent hot streak, there was a movement to suggest the Blazers had turned the corner, voiced in this morning's Seattle Times by former Blazers beat writer Steve Kelley. Kelley is a smart guy, but I think he's guilty of being overly optimistic here. There is no doubt Portland has been a better team, in large part because the retreat from their big lineup with Wallace at the three helped patch up a horrendously awful defense. But the bigger problems were still there -- the gaping wound at the point guard position with Stoudamire backed up by Omar Cook, who shot 35.1% in the NBDL; Wallace's questionable effort; the uneven play at the small forward position.

It defies belief that people can be so optimistic as to believe dealing Jeff McInnis for Darius Miles could completely change the Blazers' nature. Then again, people seem to think Miles is a hot prospect again, as if a trade, not hours of hard work during the summer, were enough to provide him a perimeter game.

I'd like to believe that the trade is evidence Blazers GM John Nash and President Steve Patterson agreed with me, saw that there was more work on the rebuilding project to be done, six wins in seven games be damned.

So just how good of a player is Wallace?

There is a budding school of thought (put not intended) that Wallace's poor relationship with the Portland writers and his extracurricular activities have caused people to overlook his outstanding ability. There's no question Wallace has the talent, but his performance has left much to be desired.

I took some heat for putting Wallace on my list of most overrated power forwards this summer (as well as not ranking him in the top ten), and the arguments made by readers were persuasive ones indeed. I had to concede that I had underestimated Wallace's offensive efficiency, as well as his defensive prowess. However, Wallace has given a lot of those gains back this season. Not only is his 44.2% shooting too low, but his per-game averages of 17.0 points and 6.6 rebounds hardly justify the regard in which Wallace is held.

The fact is, just as much as Wallace's off- and on-court antics hurt him in some circles -- notably NBA front offices -- they keep him in the public's eye more than similar players who don't make headlines. Ironically, not talking to the media may be Wallace's best promotional strategy -- not that I'm suggesting anyone I need to interview use the same tactic.

Wallace was much better before this season, but even then he's never posted huge numbers. His teammate, Randolph, is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in this, his third pro season. Do you know how many times Wallace has achieved either of those marks?


Of course, the relevant comparison to Wallace at this point is not Randolph or anyone else you can think of, but instead Shareef Abdur-Rahim, another player who has fought the label of underachiever his entire career. Though there were three other players involved in yesterday's deal, it basically boils down to Wallace versus Abdur-Rahim, likely one of the only trades in NBA history of two African-American players with Islamic names.

I did rank Abdur-Rahim amongst my top ten power forwards, and that was even before he put together what may be his finest NBA season. For all the media has gotten bent out of shape over the "snubs" of so many All-Stars, I haven't heard a word about Abdur-Rahim, who has statistics similar to Randolph's and plays in a conference less bloated with deserving big men.

I'm going to delve deep at this point to compare Abdur-Rahim and Wallace based on this season's statistics, at least on offense and in terms of rebounding.

I feel comfortable with my ability to evaluate offense in a manner much more reflective of reality than the superficial results provided by any linear weights formula, including my own.

Players help their teams score points in two primary ways -- scoring themselves, and assisting others. Prior to last night's games, Abdur-Rahim had scored 1,038 points this season and handed out 124 assists. Wallace had scored 766 points and recorded 114 assists. I assign a value of 2/3 points to an assist, and I wish I could give you some kind of justification for that, but I can't. It's just what seems to work best.

We must also consider how much the players have been assisted themselves and take away points accordingly. Per 82games.com, Abdur-Rahim has been assisted on 54% of his baskets (approximately 202), Wallace 71% of his (approximately 210).

Adding it up, Abdur-Rahim has created 1038 + .67*124 - .67*202 = 986 points, Wallace 766 + .67*114 - .67*210 = 702.

Points are half of the basic offensive equation; the other half is possessions used.

Abdur-Rahim has attempted 771 field goals, 323 free throws, and 128 turnovers. Wallace has attempted 669 shots and 155 free throws and committed 87 turnovers. We also must consider how the assists and assisted field goals affect possessions. I use 1/3 possessions (half of the 2/3 points) so that assists can have the desired effect on the final equation.

Putting it together, Abdur-Rahim has used 771 + .44*323 + 128 + .33*124 - .33*202 = 1,015 possessions. Wallace has used 669 + .44*155 + 87 + ..33*114 - .33*210 = 792 possessions.

Now we use these figures to find individual points per possession. Abdur-Rahim has averaged 97.1 points per 100 possessions (the way I express these numbers), Wallace just 88.6.

The final step is taking these to a team context, because players' value is determined by both their efficiency and production. For example, a player like Steve Kerr would always have a high points per possession rating, but his offensive value was limited because he used only a few possessions. It is also true that low-possession players put more pressure on their teammates to score, while high-possession players allow their teammates to take only good shots. (This is a way that players do, in fact, "make their teammates better", by allowing them to be more selective.)

To account for this fact, I adjust the league's average offensive rating by the amount of possessions used. For each 1% difference from 20%, the average for five players, I alter the league rating by 0.25 points. Abdur-Rahim has used 24.5% of Atlanta's possessions, Wallace 22.1% of Portland's. As a result, the imaginary rating for Abdur-Rahim's "teammates" is 89.7 points per 100 possessions, Wallace's "teammates" 89.1.

Concluding this exercise, the imaginary rating for a team of Abdur-Rahim and four average teammates is .245*97.1 + .755*89.7 = 91.5 points per 100 possessions. Wallace's team rating is .221*88.6 + .779*89.1 = 89.0.

2.5 points per 100 possessions may not seem like much, but it would be enough to take an NBA team from league average to the Los Angeles Lakers on offense this season. Abdur-Rahim has been both more efficient and a bigger part of his team's offense. While this might seem unfair to Wallace, since his teammates are better on offense, the point is -- at least in theory -- these superior teammates, like Randolph, are helping Wallace get easier shots than Abdur-Rahim. In a different offense, we'd expect Wallace would have greater output but lower efficiency.

Rebounding is much easier to evaluate. The Hawks have averaged 1.76 rebound opportunities per minute, the Blazers 1.68. Based on those rates, Abdur-Rahim has grabbed 14.4% of available rebounds, Wallace just 10.6%.

This is a good time to point out something. Abdur-Rahim and Wallace had similar rebound rates last season, but have gone opposite directions this year. A lot of the declines Wallace has seen this year can be attributed to his playing out of position at small forward. Previously, Wallace was close enough to Abdur-Rahim in terms of offense and rebounding that his defense made him a more valuable player. At the same time, Wallace has been going downhill since peaking during the 2000-01 season, when he hit 50.1% from the field.

How permanent is Wallace's downturn? Tough to say. He'll probably pick up his play somewhat in Atlanta, particularly on the boards, but his work ethic and attitude don't exactly convince me he'll be changing his game any time soon.

Abdur-Rahim, meanwhile, is 27 and in the middle of what should be a lengthy prime. His biggest shortcoming is the fact that he isn't good enough to make a bad team good, the reason he has yet to make a playoff appearance. That Abdur-Rahim doesn't deserve a great deal of the blame for Atlanta's problems this season is evident from the fact that the team's plus-minus, again per 82games.com, is -3.6 points per 48 minutes with him on the court, a horrendous -10.8 per 48 minutes when he's on the bench.

Playing alongside Randolph, Abdur-Rahim won't be pressured to be the guy, which should be a role he's better suited for. I've also felt for some time that he would be more effective as a small forward than a power forward, the opposite of Wallace. Abdur-Rahim entered the league as a three and, at 6-9, 245, is not particularly big to endure the pounding he takes in the post night after night. It does remain to be seen whether Abdur-Rahim can develop the perimeter or midrange game necessary to complement Randolph, unquestionably the Blazers' key player for many years to come.

I should also mention Ratliff. I have to admit that I haven't given him enough credit as a defensive presence. It was always my opinion that -- post-hip injury, at least -- Ratliff was a guy whose shot-blocking dramatically overstated his defensive impact. Ratliff is very small for a center, and has a reputation for being overpowered in the post enough to offset his shot-blocking.

The numbers, however, do not bear this out. According to John Hollinger's Pro Basketball Prospectus calculations, the Hawks were the seventh-best team defending starting centers last season. In addition, 82games.com's data shows Ratliff's presence on the court as a huge plus for the Hawks defensively. Last season, Ratliff improved the Hawks' defense by a full 7.6 points per 48 minutes. This season, it's about six points per 48 minutes, as well as causing opponents to shoot 3% worse.

In my opinion, the Blazers' big lineup failed defensively in large part because their center, Dale Davis, was not a shot-blocker. If you're going to go big, you have to be able to block shots. Now the Blazers can.

As opposed to continuing to bet their future on an inconsistent player with many distractions on and off the court, the Blazers have bet on an extremely consistent one who is a class act away from the game. They certainly didn't lose much in terms of production on the court, and an argument can be (and has been) made that they made a substantial upgrade. The financial cost, particularly the two years left on Ratliff's contract, is high, but this is a gamble the Blazers had to take.

Kevin Pelton is an intern for the Seattle SuperSonics and is responsible for original content on Supersonics.com. He writes "Page 23" for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached via e-mail at kpelton@sonicscentral.com.