Monday, November 16, 2009

The Transformation of Rasheed Wallace

When the Boston Celtics signed Rasheed Wallace to a three-year contract this offseason, many believed the team purchased an insurance plan for Kevin Garnett's freshly operated knee in the form of a 34-year old basketball player.  The unpredictability of Garnett's knee clouded Wallace's role with the Celtics entering this season but the Philadelphia-native is used to donning new hats on the court.  At UNC, he was a yelling highlight reel.  In Washington, he was Chris Webber's replacement.  In Portland, he was characterized as a productive yet selfish malcontent. In Detroit, he was still productive but characterized differently as a selfless champion.  In Boston, he's a tall three-point specialist off the bench.  Wait, what?

Yes, it's true, Rasheed Wallace almost exclusively shoots from downtown.  You rarely find many centers with zero post play but Wallace's migration to the perimeter finally reached completion in Boston.  No regular (defined as at least 20 minutes per game) in the NBA shoots more three pointers per minute than Wallace.  In fact, no regular has ever shot more threes per minute than 09-10 'Sheed.  It's early and Garnett's knee will inevitably shake up the Celtics offensive style at some point but in this role, the former post-player shoots threes at a historically frequent rate.

As any basketball fan knows, this transformation did not occur overnight.  His two point shot rate has declined steadily for about a decade but this year is the first time Wallace has launched more threes than twos.  Let's take a look at his career shots per 36 minute numbers courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

Wallace rarely shot the three in his first five seasons largely because he never had any success from downtown.  Entering his sixth season in the league, Wallace had a career .277 three point field goal percentage.  The three point shot never became a significant part of his game until Maurice Cheeks took over for Mike Dunleavy as Portland's head coach in the 2001-2002 season.  Under Cheeks' system, every Blazer with range saw upticks in their three point frequency and Wallace was no exception, nearly doubling his three point field goal attempts from the year before.  So if there were a coach responsible for whetting Sheed's appetite for threes, look no further than Mo Cheeks.

In Wallace's former life as a basketball player, he was an absolute beast in the paint which makes his current lack of post-game borderline inconceivable.  His crafty repertoire of post-moves coupled with his vertical leap and unorthodox high shot release meant he could score on command on any low-post defender.  So far this year, he has abandoned those post-moves entirely but his height and high release still allows him to get his shots off on the perimeter, like an older and less athletic Kevin Durant.

Looking deeper into his shot selection in the Hoop Data warehouse, we find that Wallace has tallied 94 total shots with 68 coming from three point and and only five from around the basket.  None of those five shots were dunks, according to  None!  Additionally, he's been assisted on 100 percent of his threes indicating a reliance on the set shot as opposed to creating his own.  So when it comes down to it, did the Celtics acquire another Eddie House?

Not really. Almost every time Wallace enters the game, he replaces Kendrick Perkins on the floor. Unless the opposing coach reacts with substitution of his own, Wallace's versatility and size will inevitably shake up the defensive match ups.  His dynamic skill set means he can guard in the post effectively but his height will also pull block defenders into unfamiliar territory on the perimeter.  Wallace alters the offensive makeup of Celtics by spreading the floor and opening up lanes for Garnett to work and Rondo to penetrate.  Eddie House's skills, on the other hand, may cause a few minor personnel adjustments but not nearly to the same degree as Wallace.

Tall perimeter players have certainly been in the league before but few have established a powerful post presence early in their career quite like Rasheed.  Thinking back, Clifford Robinson was the first player that came to mind. Like Rasheed, Cliff stands nearly 7 feet tall, never shot threes in college, but shot a ton of threes in his NBA career.  And like Rasheed, Robinson found his 3 point taste later in his career and rose to stardom as a Portland Trail Blazer to boot.  Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE projection system cites Robinson as one of Wallace's comparables and deservedly so.  Their 3-point shot rate arcs are strikingly similar, stagnant in their first five seasons and ascending in the sixth year.

Cliff Robinson retired as a 40-year-old after several seasons of replacement-level production in his late 30s. The Celtics have to hope Wallace performs at least as well considering the hefty contract they handed him.

It remains to be seen if opposing teams adjust to Rasheed's perimeter play by making some switches on the defensive end.  It's unlikely he'll break any 3-point shooting records this year but sooner or later teams will react accordingly. If that's the case, Wallace will have to redefine himself yet again as an offensive threat.  He's done it before.



Vic De Zen said...

Fantastic work. Hadn't heard of your site, or before. Good stuff.

Tom Haberstroh said...

Thanks VDZ, glad you enjoy it. Be sure to follow me @tomhaberstroh for more updates and it looks like I'm contributing to @HoopData now too.

Ross Kelly said...

Nice analysis as always. Do you think Sam Perkins compares favorably to Rasheed? Both were slender post threats at UNC, started dabbling with three-pointers mid-career, and were known predominantly as three-point shooters at the tail end. They even both had a 20 lb. weight gain during their NBA careers.

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