Monday, May 8, 2006
Detroit's Ben Wallace wins NBA's top defensive award
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Ben Wallace strengthened the argument that he's one of the best defenders in NBA history on Monday.
The Detroit Pistons center became the first player to win the Defensive Player of the Year award four times in a five-year span.
Wallace's path to defensive greatness started in White Hall, Ala., where he said his seven older brothers forced him to learn how to play basketball without shooting much.
"I was always told, 'You have to get loose balls and rebound or try to get a steal because we're not going to pass the ball," Wallace said.
Wallace - who won the award last year, in 2003 and 2002 - and Dikembe Mutombo are the only players in the league to be voted the top defensive player four times. Mutombo won it in 2001, 1998, 1997 and 1995 while playing for Philadelphia, Atlanta and Denver.
Hakeem Olajuwon is among the players selected twice for the honor since its inception in 1983.
Former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, who will present Wallace with the award Tuesday night before Detroit hosts Cleveland in Game 2, is widely regarded as the No. 1 defensive player in league history.
"I didn't get to see Russell or (Wilt) Chamberlain, but I can't remember a guy that wreaks so much havoc of the court like Ben does," Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars said. "Olajuwon and Mutombo were great defenders, but they only guarded centers. Ben can basically guard 1s (point guards) through 5s (centers), and the closest guy I saw do that was Dennis Rodman."
Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said Wallace is arguably the top off-the-ball defender.
"If he's not the best, he's got to be in the top three,' Brown said.
With 58 of 124 first-place votes, Wallace beat out San Antonio's Bruce Bowen and Utah's Andrei Kirilenko for his ability to defend players ranging from Shaquille O'Neal to LeBron James.
"There's never been a player in our era that can impact the game like Ben does defensively," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. "He can guard five guys on floor - and sometimes he does it on one play."
Wallace guarded James at times in Detroit's 113-86 win Sunday over the Cavs in the opener of their second-round series. James is not surprised Wallace won the top defender award again.
"He deserves it," James said. "You have to be aggressive when you go to the hole, because he's capable of blocking your shot or stripping you."
Though Wallace is listed as a 6-foot-9, 240-pound center, he said he's really 6-7, making his respectable matchups with O'Neal even more impressive because he gives up six inches and about 100 pounds.
This season, Wallace helped Detroit win an NBA-high and franchise-record 64 games while being selected an All-Star for the fourth straight 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 Olajuwon, Julius Erving, Sam Lacey and David Robinson.
Wallace scored 7.3 points a game this season and has not averaged double digits in any of his 10 years in the league. Since beginning in his career with the Washington Wizards, he has averaged 6.6 points and made 42 percent of his free throws.
"Everybody knows I'm not on the floor because I'm great scorer or free throw shooter," he said. "It's because I'm out there to defend and rebound."
Despite his lack of scoring, he's been key to the Pistons' success since he was acquired from Orlando along with Chucky Atkins in a sign-and-trade deal for Grant Hill before the 2000-01 season.
Wallace helped Detroit advance in the playoffs in 2002 - for the first time since 1991 - to the conference finals in 2003, win a title in 2004 and get to the finals last year.
"The success we've had started when he showed up here," Dumars said. "Make no mistake, this guy is the cornerstone of what we do."
And with a blue-collar game and his Afro or cornrows, his popularity in Detroit is rivaled only by Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, who might retire soon.
"I want to thank the fans for cheering for me and for growing their hair out," Wallace said with a grin.
Wallace will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but he and the Pistons don't plan to part ways during the offseason.
"That's obviously the No. 1 priority," Dumars said. "We look forward to many more years of watching him here. He's earned whatever he's due to get."