Commentary

Smoke and mirrors

Originally Published: April 7, 2010
By Bill Simmons | ESPN.com

Rasheed WallaceBrian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesHe seems harmless, but beneath the surface, Rasheed Wallace has killed the Celtics.

A few episodes ago on "Lost," something happened that made me think of Rasheed Wallace. Don't worry, I can explain it without violating the Spoiler Alert Treaty from the 2006 United Nations summit. Character A was explaining to Character B that they absolutely needed to kill Character X. And the reason was this: Although Character X was already dead, he had an infection inside him that, if left alone, would blossom and make Character X a potentially dangerous force.

You cannot heal this infection, Character A explained. You cannot treat it with medication. You can only kill Character X.

Character B disagreed. Character X was his friend. He couldn't kill him. He had to roll the dice and hope Character A was wrong.

I am not wrong, Character A said simply. We are endangering everyone's lives by letting Character X live.

And I was watching this thinking, "My God, Character X is Rasheed Wallace! We let him live, and now he's destroying everyone on the island! Why didn't we take him out in time? WHY DIDN'T WE TAKE HIM OUT IN TIME????????"

That may seem demented to you. After all, Character X ended up killing Character A by force. Wallace is only a 35-year-old bench player on a pseudocontender that will lose in Round 1 or 2 of the playoffs. But it's been a decidedly unhappy regular season for a 50-win team. Forget about Kevin Garnett's balky knee or Paul Pierce's aching body -- there were damaging trade rumors, young guns (Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo) rebelling against the old guard, legitimate alpha dog and chemistry issues, a coach who can't consistently motivate his team or settle on a rotation, ongoing rebounding woes and, worst of all, old legs. Only Rondo's individual brilliance made things tolerable. Everything else felt like the basketball version of that movie in which Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet scream at each other for two hours.

Did Wallace infect the team, or was the team already infected? Probably the latter. Probably. To be safe, let's figure it out. Everything you're about to read has nothing to do with Wallace's qualifications as a friend, husband, father or son. I am discussing him as a basketball player only. We will call that person "Sheed."

[+] EnlargeRasheed Wallace
Steve Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesSheed can't believe the plot of "Lost," either.

Sheed will finish the 2009-10 regular season next week as my least favorite Celtic ever, edging out Todd Day, Fred Roberts, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe and Vin Baker. At least Vinnie had an excuse: a drinking problem. Sheed has an apathy problem. His doughy, nonchalant shadow looms over every game.

Sheed roped the Celtics into giving him an $18.9 million, three-year deal, made a big stink about breaking MJ's 72-win record and then showed up for training camp wearing a fat suit.

Sheed caused my 62-year-old father to send me the following text recently: "Wallace can't rebound, blocks nobody out, gets outhustled on every rebound and plays matador defense. What an awful Celtic!!!!"

Sheed caused me to respond, "You forgot about all the 3s he misses."

Sheed is so out of shape that Reggie Miller started a sentence during the Cavs-Celtics game on TNT last month with "When Rasheed Wallace gets into game shape …"

Sheed has been healthy since the first day of training camp.

Sheed likes jogging at half-speed. He submits entire sequences -- two or three minutes at a time, six or seven trips up and down the court -- without ever passing either foul line. Sometimes I count to see how many consecutive possessions Sheed can pull off without crossing either charity stripe. His unofficial record is nine.

Sheed doesn't rebound as much as debound. "Lazy" isn't a strong enough word. He always seems to be standing in the wrong spot. He constantly forgets to box out. His hops are long gone, so balls routinely bounce over his head to opposing players. When matched against a hustler like Anderson Varejao, it's like watching a golden retriever fight off a Rottweiler. Advanced metrics prove that he's a catastrophic offensive rebounder and someone who subtly altered the identity of this season's Celtics team. (See sidebar.) So there's that.

Sheed's plus/minus is predictably bad: minus-4.6. I don't trust individual plus/minus as much as numbers for five-man lineups, so let's dig deeper. When Boston's three best perimeter players (Rondo, Pierce and Ray Allen) play with Garnett and Perkins, that unit is plus-280 for the season (plus-12.0 per 48 minutes). Swap Wallace for Perkins and it dips to minus-19 (-5.0 per 48 minutes). Swap Wallace for Garnett and it dips to minus-4 (minus-1.1 per 48 minutes).

Sheed makes me say the words, "Why won't we play Brian Scalabrine?"

Sheed lists himself as 6-foot-11, but he's probably two inches taller than that. Announcers love saying how "long" he is. Announcers love that he can play down low or shoot 3s … you know, on paper, because he does neither of these things successfully and hasn't for two solid years. But hey, it sounds great.

Sheed owns a beautiful baseline turnaround, but he keeps it in the garage like a covered Ferrari. It's a breathtaking shot. He catches a pass on the left block, whirls effortlessly toward the baseline, pushes off so he's going up (not sideways) and releases the ball well above his head. All in one motion. Nobody can block it.

Sheed shoots this turnaround once a game. Sometimes twice if we're lucky.

Sheed's coaches always wish he would "go in the block more often." They never demand it; if they do, they know they won't get it. So it's more of a suggestion. Like reminding your spouse, "Hey, we haven't had sex in a while." If broached the right way, Sheed might shift his focus the next game, with his head down low, and bank home a couple of turnarounds. As though he's acknowledging, "You're right, I could do this." Then he goes back to standing behind the 3-point line.

Sheed makes his coaches want to become TV analysts.

Sheed is so gifted that during a Clippers game in December, he pivoted Bill Walton-style, searched for a cutter, froze Brian Skinner, held the ball over his head for an extra second and then casually banked home a 15-footer … flat-footed. Boston's bench guys had an appropriate reaction: part glee, part disbelief, part have-you-ever-seen-that-before? I was sitting 10 feet away. Rondo even slapped palms with a teammate and exchanged "I'm glad we shared that together" looks.

Sheed loves moments like that. He's like an antisocial cat that suddenly jumps onto your lap to mess with your head. Hey, buddy! Where'd you come from? This is great! Can I pet you? And just like that, they jump off.

Sheed never wanted the responsibility of being consistently great. That's a different kind of pressure. That's bringing it every month, every week, every game, every quarter. That's working in the gym long after everyone else has left. That's dealing with a steady stream of opponents saying to themselves before every game, "I'm playing Sheed tonight, I gotta give him my best." That's dealing with fans who expect you to come through instead of being pleasantly surprised when you do.

[+] EnlargeRasheed Wallace
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty ImagesSheed rarely goes down low, settling instead for 3-point attempts.

Sheed likes leaving people pleasantly surprised.

Sheed has earned $150 million in salary since 1995. Most fans, media members and other players regard his career as a success. And maybe it was. That's a lot of money. Until you remember that he has never made an All-NBA team. Or an All-Defense team. Or that he has made the All-Star team only four times (once as an injury replacement). Then it's not so impressive.

Sheed reminds me of Randy Moss: good in great situations, destructive in bad ones. A front-runner. After the 2007-08 Pistons blew a playoff game to Boston, Sheed reportedly called coach Flip Saunders "the worst [bleeping] coward I've ever seen" in the locker room … in front of the entire team. He played his best basketball for Larry Brown, who challenged him and refused to let him coast. He played his worst basketball for Michael Curry, quitting on the Pistons so egregiously that free-agent suitors couldn't decipher whether Sheed was washed up. The Celtics rolled the dice and hoped Curry was the problem. They were wrong.

Sheed taught everyone that "He's not washed up, he just quit on his coach" should never be your justification for signing a free agent.

Sheed remains one of the NBA's smartest players. I watched him sitting on the bench during that Clips game for four quarters. Couldn't stop staring at him, actually. His wheels were turning the entire time. He's not a bad teammate, nor is he disruptive. He yells out instructions. Works the refs. Doesn't miss a trick. During crunch time, Sheed was sitting in the last bench seat with a gorgeous L.A. girl to his left. She tried to interact with him during dead spots. He ignored her. She bumped him happily after a couple of Boston baskets. He ignored her. Sheed was locked in. I was impressed. It almost made up for the fact that he played 24 minutes, missed 12 of 16 shots and bricked all seven of this 3s. Almost.

Sheed loves being on a winning team. Loves the camaraderie, loves needling opponents, loves riding the refs, loves barking encouragement after big plays. I would bet anything that this past summer, Sheed knew he was done and decided, "Instead of retiring, I'll just sign with a contender, pocket another $20 million, hang with the fellas, jack up some 3s, play myself into shape during the regular season, then go hard in May and June." You could execute a plan like that only if you didn't care what fans thought.

Sheed couldn't care less.

Sheed caused me to e-mail my buddy Hench in December just to ask whether he remembered seeing Sheed run harder than half-speed even once. Hench's response: "I've yet to see Sheed make a fast-twitch move that would have spilled a beverage if he was carrying one on the court."

Sheed's basketball IQ remains his most confounding quality. He makes one beautiful pass per game. He sees angles that other big men don't see. When motivated, he can swallow up any low-post move. He loves guarding Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. He can shut them down two or three times in a row by himself. And after he proves this to himself, he relaxes and gives up an easy basket. Whatever. He stopped them the other times.

Sheed's reputation as a great help defender at this point of his career might be the biggest Sheed-related myth of all. He's too slow to jump out on shooters. He's surprisingly inconsistent on rotations (only the bread and butter of Boston's defense these past three seasons). He leads the league in per-minute averages in two imaginary categories: "most times giving a soft foul when a hard one was required" and "most times avoiding contact entirely as a guy drives right at him for a layup or floater." LeBron sees Sheed and thinks to himself, "All I have to do is dribble right at him and he will either jump out of my way or love-tap me. … Either way, I am getting two points."

Sheed made the Celtics softer. You will never convince me otherwise.

Sheed loves jacking 3s despite mixed results throughout the years. He's a 33.7 percent career 3-point shooter. He's attempted 160-plus 3-pointers in 10 different seasons; never has he made more than 36 percent. During his two best Portland seasons (1999-2000 and 2000-01), Sheed averaged 18 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game and 51 percent field goal shooting, and attempted 10 times as many 2-pointers as 3-pointers. This season, through 74 games, he's attempted 329 2-pointers and 275 3-pointers … and grabbed 298 rebounds.

Sheed has a gray patch on the back of his head. I think it's there as a warning to everyone who hasn't coached him before.

Sheed jacked up 202 3s in the first 41 games of this season (nearly five per game), making just 61 of them (30 percent) … even though he was playing only 23 minutes per game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he was headed for the third-worst percentage of any player who ever played 40-plus games and averaged four-plus 3s per game in a season. Yes, ever. The good news: He takes fewer 3s now. The bad news: He also makes fewer of them. Since Feb. 1, Sheed has made 16 of 72 3-pointers (22.2 percent). His season average: 28.2 percent.

Sheed takes wide-open 3s. Every time. And still … 28.2 percent.

Sheed caused Hench to e-mail me after attending February's Celts-Lakers game, "Rasheed's 20 minutes tonight should be put in a time capsule and studied by future generations. 2-for-11 … clanked his only free throw … dunked on a few times … unforced turnover 40 feet from the basket … just one of the worst basketball players I've ever seen."

Sheed didn't even play his worst game of the season that night.

Sheed has earned an NBA-record 314 career technicals (and counting), peaking with 41 in 2000-01 (also a record). Referees treat him as if he's wearing a Tim Donaghy Halloween mask. At least in the old days, he was a good player -- something of a tortured genius -- so the refs put up with him. Now that he's washed up? They detest him. Even as a bench player, he leads the league with 18 techs this season, earning him an automatic suspension that unfortunately ended after only one game.

Sheed reacts with abject horror to every call against him. He flips out. He hops around in disbelief. He makes you think, "My God, why would they wrong him like this? What do they have against him? IT'S A CONSPIRACY!" Then you see the replay and … yup, he fouled him.

Sheed's tantrums have a habit of jump-starting runs for opponents. It usually unfolds like this: As the Celtics lead by double digits on the road, Sheed gets whistled for something dumb, Sheed overreacts, Sheed gets a technical, Sheed keeps pushing it, Sheed gets pulled away, Sheed keeps letting it fester and fester, and just like that, a completely dead crowd has been injected with life. In December, Boston blew an 11-point lead in Philly after Sheed got ejected. This will happen during the playoffs at least once. I promise you.

[+] EnlargeRasheed Wallace
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesSheed hasn't committed a foul since 1998.

Sheed's current coach, Doc Rivers, has been afraid to bench him, call him out publicly or tell his owner, "I can't play Sheed anymore, he's too much of a liability." On Sunday against Cleveland, after Sheed threw a tantrum and drew a technical, Rivers snapped and exchanged heated words with him. Sheed never returned. It would have been the perfect time for the coach to declare afterward, "Bench players can't turn officials against their team in big games. If Sheed can't accept this, I can't play him anymore. Period." The coach did not say this. Big mistake.

Sheed caused me to mail my father a rough draft of this column four weeks ago. Dad's take: "It is a little harsh, but I'm not sure how to make it less harsh. Maybe a couple of words here or there to make it seem like a little less of a personal attack. Otherwise, that's Sheed!"

Sheed caused me to struggle with Dad's request. But I did my best.

Sheed once made this Christmas video that I loved. It captures his sense of humor perfectly. Sheed is definitely funny … when he wants to be.

Sheed purchased championship belts for everyone on the 2004-05 Pistons. He even wore his belt to select big games. I had wanted a player to do that.

Sheed seemed like a fun teammate in the past. I remember attending a big Pistons-Celtics regular-season game in 2008; Boston's crowd was especially fired up because alpha dog status was on the line, so we booed Detroit's intros and went ballistic when the lights turned down for our video opening. In the pitch-black arena, you could barely make out the Pistons bunched in a circle, ignoring the moment, hopping up and down in unison. Sheed was directly in the middle, jumping higher than everyone and screaming toward the ceiling. Just a guy who loved showing up for big games. I remember thinking to myself, "Uh-oh, those guys are locked in." They were. The Celtics lost.

Sheed lived for those moments -- once upon a time.

Sheed played for two passionate fan bases, Portland and Detroit. Both couldn't wait to ditch him. Pistons fans loved him but thought he was done. (They had good reason: In Cleveland's first-round sweep of Detroit last season, Sheed notched 26 points and 25 rebounds … total.) Portland fans despised him because his "Jail Blazers" nearly murdered professional basketball there. Management only salvaged the situation by blowing up the roster and promising fans that nothing like the Sheed era would happen again.

Sheed's Portland career nearly earned its own "30 for 30" episode. He wore a "F*** WHAT YA HEARD" T-shirt to his introductory news conference. He was suspended two different times for whipping towels at a teammate and a referee. He drew a seven-game suspension because "he accosted a referee and threatened him." He threatened to punch a sports writer. He whipped a basketball at a teammate who was shooting practice jumpers with his back to him, then ran off giggling as the poor guy writhed in pain. He was arrested for marijuana possession while driving in a car with a teammate. He claimed the NBA exploited black players and said "I ain't no dumb-ass n----- out here" (and was admonished by NBA commissioner David Stern for being "hateful" and "ignorant"). Portland finally traded him a few weeks after he invented the phrase "cut the check," which Sheed defined like this: "As long as somebody 'CTC,' at the end of the day I'm with them. For all you that don't know what CTC means, that's 'Cut the Check.' I just go out there and play. Again, somebody just CTC."

Sheed is fortunate that everyone has forgotten those stories.

Sheed earned a big-game player reputation despite having a prominent role in the NBA's biggest Game 7 collapse ever (Lakers-Blazers, 2000 Western finals: Sheed went 0-for-6 down the stretch and bricked two huge free throws). He also made one of the biggest NBA brain farts ever (leaving a scorching-hot Robert Horry wide-open during Game 5 of the 2005 Finals, a play that single-handedly swung the title that season).

Sheed is fortunate that nobody seems to remember those two games.

Sheed has been lucky that nobody expects anything from him anymore. (When I texted my buddy Bug this week asking why he thought Boston fans hadn't turned on Sheed yet, he texted back, "Easy. Apathy.") When Sheed inexplicably caught fire against Oklahoma City last week, the crowd yelled "Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed!" after every make, almost as if everyone was trying to find out what the moment might feel like. He's been written off as anything of consequence. Expectations are zero. And maybe he likes it that way.

Sheed's Celtics are 25-24 since Christmas. The 2008 world champs killed themselves every night. A depleted 2008-09 Celtics team exhibited remarkable pride and heart. Now they're bored and sluggish? Now they're searching for ways to get fired up? Now they're blowing home games left and right? Now they're on pace to break the unofficial record for "most players-only meetings and clear-the-air dinners" by a contender in one season? A team led by three future Hall of Famers who ALWAYS tried in the past? It doesn't add up.

Sheed may not have infected the Celtics as Character X did, but he did compromise the one thing that made them special: intensity. They care only when it suits them. The seven words that defined Sheed's career. Both the team and Sheed think they have an on/off switch that can be flicked at any time. Not true. They are in denial. "Lost" has the Smoke Monster; the Celtics have the Smoke and Mirrors Monster. And it's the entire team.

Sheed keeps chugging along undaunted. Normally when a once-effective player loses his fastball, you empathize with him. Not this time. 2010 Sheed stubbornly carries himself like 2004 Sheed -- same shot selection, same swagger, same antagonistic relationship with officials, same hit-or-miss intensity, only with 35-year-old legs and love handles. You would think a basketball *genius* would adjust and keep thriving as a bench guy and teammate. You would think he felt guilty about repeatedly letting down the bosses who signed him, the peers who recruited him and the fans who pay to watch him. You would think he cared about winning a second title. You would think.

Sheed famously likes to say, "Ball don't lie." He's right. Ball says Sheed should get in shape or retire. I bet he'll do neither. Cut that check.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.