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Ball Don't Lie

Rasheed Wallace blames a guy who wasn’t even with the team for trading him away from Washington in 1996

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Rasheed Wallace during his rookie year (Getty Images)

New York Knicks big man Rasheed Wallace was once a Washington Bullet. Not a Washington Wizard, but a Washington Bullet – drafted by the team in 1995 two years before the squad changed its name to the “Wizards.” Wallace’s tenure in Washington only lasted for a season, and not for the reasons you’d guess. He had bone to pick with referees and sometimes frustrated with his perimeter leanings – this was obvious even before the days of League Pass, back when every NBA team was given one or more mandated nationally televised appearances – but because the Bullets had a stacked frontcourt even before grabbing Wallace.

In the years since he was dealt from the team in 1996, Wallace has often taken several sly digs at the franchise and former GM John Nash for dealing him to Portland for Rod Strickland and Harvey Grant. In retrospect, it appears like the classic big-for-small and young-for-old deal that Washington seems famous for, and Strickland is often thought of the guy wearing the backwards shorts while eating fast food before games.

It’s time to give Washington a break, though. But not before we give Wallace, who visited the city with his Knicks on Wednesday, one more shot at the franchise. From the Washington Post’s Michael Lee:

“Every time I’m back here, people say, ‘Man, why’d you leave?’ ” Wallace said, shaking his head, at Wednesday’s morning shootaround at Verizon Center. “It wasn’t up to me.”

[…]

“Man, I think about it a lot,” said Wallace, who averaged 10.1 points and 4.7 rebounds in his rookie season. “I understand it was all business and money, but we had a helluva squad here. I wish we could’ve stayed like two, three years together, just to be able to see what we could’ve done.”

It would have been nice. It would have been nice had the Wizards not made a panic trade involving Chris Webber two years later, and not handed Strickland and Mitch Richmond massive extensions to play into their mid to late 30s in the years after dealing for them.

The deal wasn’t about “business and money,” though that might seem cool to say and hear. Lee points out that Wallace “still blames” Nash for the deal, before Lee mentions the fact that John Nash wasn’t running the team at that point. Longtime Washington player, coach and executive Wes Unseld, not as easy a target as an executive type like John Nash for someone like Rasheed Wallace, was the one who put the deal together.

John Nash resigned from the Bullets just days after their season ended, two and a half months before Unseld dealt Wallace to Portland. Nash was anticipating acting as the NBA-level voice for the soon to be John Calipari-helmed New Jersey Nets, and ready to be frightened out of using his first draft pick with that team on a balking Kobe Bryant in the 1996 draft.

We’re not sure why Wallace keeps up the personal vendetta against Nash, the man who drafted him in spite of already having Juwan Howard and eventually Chris Webber on the roster, but it’s not going away.

And what also should go away is the shaming of Wes Unseld for making that deal.

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Rasheed Wallace giggles at the Wizards (Getty Images)

You can laugh all you want at some of the names, but center Gheorghe Mureșan was the NBA’s Most Improved Player during Wallace’s rookie season, averaging 14.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Though the Bullets couldn’t hang on to him, reserve center Jim McIlvaine (again, don’t laugh; he had a good year defensively) led the NBA in block percentage with a monstrous 9.9 percent – and for reference the active leader in career block percentage is Marcus Camby at 6.7, Dwight Howard is at 4.5, and Larry Sanders leads the NBA with nine percent this season.

Though he struggled with a shoulder separation that year, Chris Webber was far and away that team’s franchise player. Juwan Howard averaged over 22 points, eight rebounds and 4.4 assists per game – and was gifted back to Washington after the NBA disallowed the contract Miami signed Howard to, citing the then little-understood cap holds.

That’s a fantastic frontcourt, with Wallace. The backcourt was a different matter.

The team’s best point guard in 1995-96 was Brent Price, and he was lured to Houston that summer to run the point for the Hakeem Olajuwon/Charles Barkley/Clyde Drexler Houston Rockets. Then-Bullet guard Mark Price’s knees had given out and Robert Pack couldn’t stay healthy; and in spite of Webber and Howard’s combined 9.4 assists per game, the Bullets desperately needed a capable point guard to find teammates.

Portland’s Rod Strickland, in his prime at age 29, seemed to be the perfect option; especially as he clashed with P.J. Carlesimo in Portland the previous season. Never the most athletic guard, Strickland’s ability to finish would appear (and did) to sustain well into his 30s, and Unseld (now with four capable bigs including Wallace, with McIlvaine having moved on to Seattle) had to balance his roster out.

So he dealt for Strickland, and a player in Grant that could stretch the floor in the same way Wallace was doing back then – yet without the massive dunks and finishes. Strickland kept up the same levels of production over the next few years, and Washington made the playoffs the next season because of it.

It was all the other nonsense – Webber and Howard’s since-acquitted off-court worries, the swift end to Muresan’s career because of foot ailments, the lack of development from Calbert Cheaney – that doomed the team in 1997-98. In mid May of 1998, a time of year where nobody makes trades, Unseld dealt Webber to Sacramento. Howard’s production tailed off, and Richmond’s (admittedly, the most hoped-for prize at the 1998 trade deadline) scoring abilities and efficiency completely sunk like a stone.

Get on Unseld for that. Get on Michael Jordan’s moves, starting in January of 2000 for the three and a half years after that. Get on Ernie Grunfeld for just about whatever you want, even if two of his last three lottery picks are leading a revival in Washington of late.

This move, though, was understandable. And it’s not something that Washington fans should bemoan as the last active Washington Bullet walks around in sweats on New York’s injured reserve. It’s hard to “grow together” on a team entirely made up of hotshot power forwards and centers and scrub guards. Take it a little easier on Wes Unseld, please.

And Rasheed Wallace? Go easy on John Nash. The dude wasn’t even in the building, then.

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