Posted by Neil Paine on July 31, 2009
Having covered the moves made by the Lakers, Magic, and Cavaliers this offseason, we now turn our attention to the Boston Celtics, whose bid to repeat as champions in 2009 was derailed by a number of late-season injuries, including the especially catastrophic loss of Kevin Garnett for the entire playoffs. In the wake of that injury and the subsequent loss of Leon Powe, Boston was reduced to starting Glen Davis and giving significant minutes to Brian Scalabrine (!!) off the bench in their series loss to Orlando -- a series which they managed to extend to 7 games despite the patchwork frontcourt. So when Boston opted not to bring the injured Powe back (and they may not re-sign Davis, either, depending on the offer he draws from another team), it was clear they needed to revamp their big-man situation before the window permanently closed on the mighty triumvirate of Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.
Enter Rasheed Wallace...
Contrary to a lot of people's perceptions, 'Sheed didn't have a horribly bad year last season -- yes, he suffered multiple leg injuries, his conventional numbers were down (14.2 points/36 min. on .419 shooting isn't exactly the greatest thing to put on your free-agent resume) and his efficiency stats dropped across the board (worse ORtg, worse DRtg, lower %Poss), but he was still a good defender by both box-score metrics and on/off-court data, and he still managed to post essentially an average PER even in a down season. If that's an off year, then it speaks pretty well about your abilities as a player, right?
And then there's the matter of adjusted plus/minus, which loves the guy. I mean, it really loves him. As you can see above, his estimated +/- from the box score stats has always been high (high enough, in fact, to rank him just outside the top 10 PFs of all-time by the metric), but even that seems to understate Wallace's apparent effect on his team's point differential when he's in the game. In 2002-03 & '03-04 combined (with '04 weighing double), 'Sheed was the 11th-best player in the NBA by APM, and when you combine 2004-05 & '05-06, you find that Wallace was the most effective player in all of basketball over that span! Additionally, in 2007 he was 21st overall, in 2008 he was 20th, and even in his "down year" of '09 he was the 9th most effective player in the league by APM. Adjusted plus/minus is a funny metric sometimes with a lot of year-to-year inconsistencies, but this kind of run can't be a mere coincidence. Wallace is obviously doing things on the court that make his teams better at both ends, and he's doing it year in and year out.
What is he doing, though? For starters, he's versatile, and versatile players always have nice plus/minus ratings. On offense he doesn't really venture into the paint much, but he spaces the floor well and draws opposing bigs away from the paint because of his shooting range. Plus, he never turns the ball over and he always produces a decent number of points per shot. He picks his spots, but he still can take about 20% of the shots when he's on the floor and give you solid efficiency. And defense is where Wallace really makes his impact -- he's constantly among the NBA leaders in defensive rating and defensive Win Shares because he blocks shots, hits the defensive glass hard, and snatches a surprising number of steals as well. Plus, he has a high basketball I.Q. (except when it comes to dealing with the refs, obviously), he reads plays well, and he can defend multiple positions. The APM numbers may overstate his value at times, but by the same token I think the raw box score stats understate 'Sheed's ability.
So needless to say, I think this was a good signing for the MLE, the kind of move that vet-laden teams like the Celtics can make attractive for older players like Wallace because of their championship-ready core. The only concerns are 'Sheed's penchant for on-court blow-ups (nothing new, and nothing that seems to impact team chemistry), the fact that Wallace didn't always seem to give 100% at all times these past few years (can we assume KG will break him of that habit rather quickly?) and, of course, Wallace's age (35). But unlike a smaller player who relied on quickness or a player of, say, Shaq's bulk, 'Sheed shares a body type with guys that age gracefully with the right care. If he's not plagued by injuries again (he missed just 4 games per season on average from 2005-08), the Wallace deal could pan out well for the Celtics this year.