The Headcase Conundrum

Draymond Green and the Warriors can learn a lot by studying Rasheed Wallace’ tenure in Detroit

As an NBA fan, rooting for an unhinged superstar is equally parts gratifying and infuriating. There’s nothing more conflicting than having your team’s fate rest on the shoulders of a “headcase.” If your team’s identity embodies this player’s personality, then there’s no going back. You have to accept their unpredictability as part of what they take away from the table while bringing undisputed gifts to the table. For a championship team, you either live or die by the headcase.

Over the last three years, Draymond Green has become the heart and soul of Golden State. As Draymond goes, so go the Warriors. Like Rasheed’s Pistons, Golden State feeds off of Draymond’s passion, swagger, and outspoken disposition, on and off the court; Like Rasheed, Draymond’s energy can single-handedly shift the outcome of a game (i.e. Game One against Portland); Like Rasheed, Draymond’s mouth can bring unwanted attention; And like Rasheed, Draymond can be his own worst enemy.

While Rasheed’s lack of composure largely stemmed from his relationship with the referees, Draymond’s obsession with playing mental games with his opponents serves as his own and his team’s, undoing. This was on full display in last year’s NBA Finals, as LeBron goaded Draymond into retaliating with the swift kick that would lead to his Game Five suspension. In hindsight, it changed the series for good. In the moment, it was hard to watch Draymond’s unraveling without thinking of Rasheed’s inability to keep his emotions in check. Very quickly, it transported me back ten years — to the “Rasheed Wallace Experience.”

In 2003, the Detroit Pistons became the NBA’s darling — finishing the season with the Eastern Conference’s best-record, with a group of overachieving role players predicated on their shared defense-first mentality. Still, the Pistons proved they were still one star player away from true championship contention after getting swept out of the Eastern Conference Finals.

At the following season’s trade deadline, Pistons GM Joe Dumars threw his chips in the middle, acquiring two-time All-Star, Rasheed Wallace, while giving up a first round pick, a glorified back-up PG (Chucky Atkins), and a doormat disguised as a twelfth man (Bobby Sura). While the trade looked like a heist on paper, Rasheed’s infamous reputation proved otherwise.

In Portland, Rasheed contributed to the team’s nickname, “The JailBlazers.” Off-court behavior aside, his on-court antics — an NBA record for technical fouls in one season (41), and multiple fines for behavior, such as threatening a referee, throwing towels, and trying to get in the stands after a bench-clearing brawl — contradicted the Pistons’ reputation as a team that prided itself on self-less blue-collar behavior.

Even so, while the majority of the NBA believed the risk attached to Rasheed greatly outweighed the reward, Pistons’ fans welcomed him with open arms. If ever a knucklehead was going to blossom, wouldn’t it be in the city that represented the league’s most hated team, The Bad Boys?

That season, it was a match made in heaven. Following the trade, the Pistons went on a 20–5 run to end the year. For the first time, the team had an identity — one that embodied Rasheed’s unequivocal swagger. You could see the Pistons feeding off his brashness, as soft-spoken teammates — Ben, Chauncey, Rip, and Tayshaun — began carrying themselves differently.

After losing Game One of the ECF to the Pacers, Rasheed cemented his outspoken legacy before Game Two, guaranteeing a Pistons’ victory. When the Pistons answered the bell, Rasheed became “Guaransheed.” Ironically, while the moment is remembered as a fulfilled prophecy, Rasheed’s abysmal performance in Game Two is overlooked. After missing his first ten shots, he finished 4–19. If it wasn’t for Tayshaun’s game-saving block, the Pistons would’ve fell into a 0–2 hole in the series, most likely leading to another ECF loss, and possibly ending Rasheed’s tenure after half of a season, considering he was acquired in the last year of his contract.

Instead, the Pistons’ success kept the spotlight off of the unwarranted attention and bulletin board material brought forth by Rasheed’s reputation with the media. After helping the Pistons’ win the 2004 championship by upsetting the super-team Lakers, the relationship between Detroit and Rasheed entered its honey-moon phase. He quickly became the consensus fan-favorite, simply known as ‘Sheed, signing a five year contract in the offseason.

Before the 2005 season, ‘Sheed paid for replica WWE World Championship belts to be made for each of his teammates. Throughout the season, he carried the belt to the lockerroom before games and to post-game press conferences. While the Pistons stayed winning, ‘Sheed’s on-court antics were shrugged off as the price paid for the “Rasheed Wallace Experience.” Where he was once seen as the player threatening the integrity of the game, he quickly became celebrated for his authenticity.

Heading into the 2005 NBA Finals, ‘Sheed could do no wrong. And then, in the most pivotal moment of his career, Pistons’ fans experienced the double-edged sword that comes with rooting for Rasheed Wallace. In Game Five, the Pistons held a 95–93 lead with nine seconds left, on the cusp of taking a 3–2 lead in the series. In one of the biggest defensive mental lapses in NBA history, ‘Sheed went to double-team Ginobli, leaving Robert Horry — arguably the most-clutch shooter ever — wide-open for a game-winning three-pointer.

For the first time in his Detroit career, ‘Sheed’s reputation was brought into question. While his offensive talent and swagger pushed the Pistons over the hump in 2004, one brain fart prevented Detroit from winning back-to-back championships. In hindsight, the sequence serves as the moment he began to haunt the team.

The following year, Rasheed disappeared in the ECF — averaging 11 points and 5 rebounds in a six-game loss to the Heat. His performance, or lack thereof, made it harder for his biggest supporters to come to the rescue, as Sheed’s demons became the scapegoat for the team’s losing ways. Although his notoriety was already fractured, Rasheed’s antics would peak for the worse in the 2007 ECF. Facing elimination in Game 6, the Pistons trailed the Cavs by 12 with 8 minutes left. Despite the large deficit, the game was far from over. Then, ‘Sheed self-destructed.

After committing an offensive foul, ‘Sheed fouled LeBron on the other-end, followed by a tirade that culminated in back-to-back technical fouls and an ejection. The fifteen-second sequence serves as a microcosm of Rasheed’s career. As a Pistons’ fan, watching it unfold was surreal. In an instant, all of the memories that made him a fan-favorite in Detroit — “Ball Don’t Lie,” the “Gauransheed,” and the Belt — were forgotten in one fell swoop. At that moment, he was just another head case, self-com-busting as the Pistons came up short for the third-straight year.

And so goes the problem with strapping your championship hopes to a head case. In the best moments, their passion is viewed as unrivaled energy and swagger that helps steer their team to greater heights; in the worst moments, this same emotion is seen as a detriment to the team’s potential.

Still, it’d be irrational to ask Rasheed or Draymond to change how they play, because it would diminish the qualities that make them great. Imagine either player going out and trying to keep their passion in check. It would be counter-intuitive, in that while you may remove the risk of technical fouls, bulletin-board quotes, or lack of focus, so too would you completely hinder any chance of them affecting the game in the best way they know how.

Looking at Golden State over the last three years, for as much as their success is in large part due to Curry’s historic hot-streak in 2015–16; Klay’s heat-check last year; and Durant’s immense impact so far; it’s Draymond who steers the ship. There’s no 2015 title without Draymond forcing Curry and Klay to channel their inner villain. Further, considering Curry’s disappearing act in last year’s Finals, without Draymond’s consistency throughout the series, who’s to say the Cavs wouldn’t have won in five or six?

The same can be said for Rasheed. Years removed from the Pistons’ successful ‘00s run, I don’t regret his role on the team for a second. Without him, there is no 2004 title. Basketball talent aside, Rasheed brought a brashness that the Pistons needed. The team was a bunch of unwanted players with a chip on their shoulder — Ben Wallace, undrafted, traded twice; Chauncey Billups, six different teams; Rip Hamilton, traded on the lip of his prime; Rasheed Wallace, three teams in three days. ‘Sheed helped his teammates use that chip for extra motivation. Even better, he made them genuinely believe they were the best team in the NBA. As much as NBA fans outside of Detroit will argue otherwise, for one year they were.

Ball don’t lie…