Bulls fans have good reason to think big

Updated: August 3, 2006, 2:34 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Undrafted out of little Virginia Union. Buried behind Chris Webber and Juwan Howard on the bench in Washington. Dealt to Detroit as a Grant Hill consolation prize.

You know Ben Wallace as the face (and hair) of the Pistons, but that only covers the last half-decade. For most of his basketball life, Big Ben was the antithesis of big-time.

That was the Chicago Bulls' big advantage.

Besides the 60 mil, of course.

Wallace will never forget how it feels to be an afterthought. It's a major slice of his identity, just like that famous 'fro.

The Bulls preyed upon those unhappy memories and Wallace's season-long moodiness by making the 31-year-old feel more wanted than he's ever felt before. They flew to Detroit to woo him on the first day of free agency and eventually pitched a four-year contract believed to be worth $60 million ... plus the chance to be the biggest hoops personality in Chi-town since the United Center housed a big-timer named Michael Jordan.

Add up the money and that opportunity, and even Wallace couldn't resist walking away from what was regarded as the NBA's best five-man, all-for-one ensemble, as well as a city that treasured him.

That city is now in mourning: Independence Day 2006 will be recorded in local history as the day Detroiters woke up to Wallace's free-agent defection and Stevie Yzerman's retirement.

Chicagoans, by contrast, are rightfully giddy.

This is the marquee acquisition they were promised by Jerry Krause in the summer of 2000, when a fistful of salary-cap space was spurned by Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Eddie Jones and Tim Thomas and netted Brad Miller and Ron Mercer. It's not a trade for Kevin Garnett, as Bulls fans have dreamed of, but this is way up there on the coup scale, given that Garnett isn't available.

Wallace basically plays only one end of the floor, true, and was a major disappointment in the Pistons' six-game ouster by Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. But he's joining a group that, unlike Detroit, has plenty of youth, energy and drive-and-kick specialists. He's what the Bulls need. They need the savvy of a title-tested veteran to add to their keepers (Kirk Hinrich, Andres Nocioni and draftee Tyrus Thomas) and have plenty of attractive young pieces -- Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and even Tyson Chandler, who's on the verge of being dealt -- to address their offensive deficiencies.

The Bulls have led the league in field-goal percentage defense for the past two seasons and played Miami closer than anyone else in the East playoffs, all of which happened before they selected the promising Thomas and secured a contract commitment from a four-time Defensive Player of the Year. Bulls general manager John Paxson has spoken often of his team's need for "size and athleticism" to have a real shot at returning to the NBA's elite, and adding Wallace, Thomas and P.J. Brown -- if Chicago indeed nabs Brown for Chandler, as expected -- would be a fine start.

Don't forget, furthermore, that the Bulls also have the right to swap first-round picks with the New York Knicks in the 2007 draft, as part of the Eddy Curry trade. With draft experts already billing the '07 crop as one of the deepest in years, Chicago could be looking at another potential nugget if the Knicks wind up in the lottery again.

Skeptics will inevitably question Wallace's ability to live up to the $60 million price tag in a league that's getting smaller and faster, his habit of clashing with coaches and how long he'll last before butting heads with gritty, gutty Scott Skiles.

Then again, if you think about it, Big Ben is exactly Skiles' kind of All-Star.

Wallace's exit also throws the rival Pistons into flux because A) they traded away Darko Milicic to make sure they'd have the financial flexibility to re-sign Wallace; B) he wouldn't consent to a sign-and-trade similar to the Hill trade with Orlando that made Wallace a Piston; and C) Detroit will have to concoct a sign-and-trade to overcome its lack of available cap space and bring in one of the two players it wants most as a replacement: Al Harrington or Bonzi Wells.

I'm not ready to hand them the Central Division, but the Bulls are bound to begin next season as the No. 2-ranked team in the East if Detroit can't rebound immediately with Harrington or Wells.

That's right. Ahead of the Pistons and LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers. Just behind the reigning champs from Miami.

You've heard that MJ is back in the game in Charlotte?

Well ...

Chicago is back, too, with Big Benny The Bull.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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