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Volatile Fella Still Key Catalyst In Motown

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Charles Barkley's rhetoric about him is a bit strong.  Head screwed on correctly or not, it is a stretch to say that Rasheed Wallace would be or could have been the best player in basketball.

But when he is focused, he is a heckuva fine one.  As the last week has shown us, even at 34 years old, Wallace's wide-ranging skill set and high energy level still make him a focal point for the Pistons' operations on both ends of the floor.

Four and a half years ago, Joe Dumars brought Rasheed Wallace to Detroit at the trading deadline in hopes that he was the missing piece to a championship puzzle.  He was.  Wallace gave the 2004 Pistons a second big-time defensive presence in the post and a much-needed offensive threat on the front line in addition to a special brand of attitude and swagger.  The Pistons wiped out a Lakers team featuring four feature Hall of Famers en route to the 2004 title, and they fell one good quarter shy of topping the Spurs in the Finals the following June.

But by the summer of 2007, it seemed that Sheed had worn out his welcome in Detroit.  The Pistons melted down against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Wallace punctuated a frustrating postseason by getting himself tossed out of the deciding sixth game in Cleveland early in the fourth quarter, well before the outcome of the game was decided.  It was the classic Sheed implosion, only it came at just the wrong time, and after three and a half seasons of relatively incident-free behavior, it appeared that Wallace was about to become nothing more than a ticking bomb, liable to burn the Pistons at any time.

Didn't happen.  In fact, Sheed stayed well enough put together that by midseason I felt compelled to write an apology for alleging the previous summer that his blow-up  was imminent and the Pistons were done (he made All-Star, and they finished second in basketball with 59 wins).  Sure, they wound up falling in the Eastern Conference Finals once more, but it wasn't Wallace's antics that did them in that time around.

A season later, Wallace seems to be rounding into shape to take it to the doubters once more.  After the whispers began at the outset of the season that he was too old, too much of a nut, too slow and a host of other things, he turned in his two best performances of the young season in both ends of a West Coast back-to-back that the Pistons swept.

At just the right time for a Pistons team that had been struggling since the Chauncey Billups-Allen Iverson trade, Wallace popped up, seemingly to remind us that he can do a bit of everything.  He remains a top-notch defender inside, thanks to his length and quickness, and he was integral in giving the Lakers fits on the inside throughout Friday night's game.  That this team has several upper-echelon individual defenders was important in helping compensate for the loss of Ben Wallace in the summer of 2006, but no one has been more significant to the defense than 'Sheed.  He is the interior force who allows the likes of Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince to extend so far to the perimeter without fear of what will happen if they get beat, and it doesn't hurt that Wallace is still an intimidating one-on-one defender as well as a major contributor in weak-side help.

He is also even more of a monster than ever on the glass.  Though Wallace averages a shade less than seven rebounds per game for his career, he has flown out of the gates and on to the backboards to start this season, averaging 9.3 boards in his first nine games.  That includes five double-digit efforts o the glass already.  Earning second chances for one's team and preventing them for opponents make a big difference.

Offensively, Wallace's versatility allows the Pistons to throw a variety of looks at defenses around the league depending on match-ups on any given night.  Wallace can play in the low post, preferring to power into the lane for baby jumpers or to spin off his defender from the low block for his patented turn-around fadeaway down by the baseline.  His height and long arms make that shot terribly difficult to defend, and opponents are often left at the mercy of Wallace's shooting touch on a given day. 

But he doesn't have to clog up the lane.  A 34.1 percent three-point shooter for his career, Wallace has hit at least 100 treys in five of his last seven seasons, shooting better than 35 percent from deep in each of those five campaigns.  The 6-foot-11 forward can stretch the floor by bringing his man outside, and his knack for knocking down big shots keeps defenses honest.  This proved quite important yet again last week as Wallace drained consecutive threes to turn a two-point deficit into a four-point Pistons lead in the final minutes in Golden State.  He followed it up by going 4-for-9 from there on Friday, including a bank from the top of the circles that served as one more bit of deflation for the Lakers in a dominant performance by the Pistons.  In his last two games, Wallace has shot 8-for-15 twice (for 19 points and 11 boards and then 25 points and 13 boards), and the Pistons have come up big down the stretch.  In the first three games of AI's tenure, Wallace shot 3-for-9, 4-for-17 and 3-for-8 from the field.  It's no coincidence that the Pistons lost the first two and barely snuck by a Kings team without Kevin Martin in the third.

On top of all that, this guy is still the Pistons' emotional leader.  His teammates still say they love playing with him, and Wallace remains this team's leader in swagger and intensity.  This is a player who defends his position well and remains effective in anchoring his team's defense (although the Pistons are off to a slow start in that department).  He can stretch the floor or hunker down in the post offensively, and it doesn't hurt that he has fine passing vision as well.

Rasheed Wallace's most potent opponent has been and may always be himself.  This is a guy who is still a threat to lose his mind on the floor on any given night, potentially at the peril of his own team, and because of that, I'm still not sure how excited I would be to bring this guy into the fold on any team of mine.  But on the nights when his head is locked in on basketball, it's hard to deny that Sheed remains at the crux of success for one of the East's best teams.