Was Ben Wallace the Best Defender in NBA History?

During the second golden age of Piston basketball in the mid-2000s, Detroit Piston center Ben Wallace became one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history.

At 6’ 9” 240 pounds, Wallace helped the Pistons crush the heavily favored Lakers lead by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant four games to one to win the 2004 World Championship. Although he never needed to be a high scoring player, in the clinching game Wallace outplayed O’Neal with 18 points and 22 rebounds compared to O’Neal’s 20 points and eight rebounds.

As the tenth of eleven children raised in Alabama, he was discovered by NBA great Charles Oakley, who became his mentor, at a high school summer basketball camp. Wallace played two years at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, before transferring to Virginia Union University.  One of the NBA’s greatest undrafted players was first cut by Boston after a tryout and signed as a free agent with Washington in 1996 following a one-month stint playing in Italy. After three seasons with the Bullets, he played one year in Orlando before being traded in August of 2000 with Chucky Atkins to the Pistons for Grant Hill.

“Big Ben” quickly became a fan favorite when in his first season in Detroit he became the first player in franchise history to lead the Pistons in rebounds, blocked shots, and steals. The following season he earned the first of a record four NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards (tied with Dikembe Mutombo) when he became just the third player in history to lead the league in rebounds and steals.

Before long, the fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills were sporting t shirts in support of Wallace that read, “Fear the ‘Fro’.

In my 2021 interview with Wallace for the Detroit Free Press he shared his thoughts on winning the world championship in 2004.

“Going into the Finals against Kobe and Shaq no one was giving us a chance and wrote us off. It was kind of funny, it was like, ‘for real’? I had some great teammates and brothers in Rasheed (Wallace) Chauncey (Billups) Rip (Hamilton) Lindsey (Hunter) and all the other guys. I think the way I played defense it rubbed off on them. We knew that the only way they could beat us was if we gave them open look, warm up shots. We knew Shaq and Kobe were going to be the focal points but they didn’t see focal points with us because we were a bona fide team. We just ran up and down the floor and wore them down man. We had the utmost confidence in each other and we had a great bench that played just as focused and just as hard. That was always our key. We came at you in waves. I’ll take our team any day, any time.”

The four time All Star (2003-2006) and five-time NBA All-Defensive First Team member (2002-2006) who led the league in rebounds in two consecutive seasons (’01—’02, ’02-’03) also explained to me the secret to his success as a relentless defender.

“I never felt the pressure of scoring,” Wallace said. “My offense was taking points off the board from the other team. If I wasn’t going to score 20 or 30 points a night you can bet your ass, I wasn’t going to let you score 20 or 30 on me. I knew I was undersized as a center but my advantage was my energy and quickness, and even though I wasn’t going to get offensive touches I still forced guys to guard me because I was going to get offensive rebounds. I got more satisfaction out of rebounding and blocking shots. You can’t just focus on your guy. You have to know what is going on all around you or you were going to get knocked on your ass. It was like a chess match. Positioning is everything. A lot of people think you have to have a 40 inch plus vertical to rebound, but it is all about boxing out. Once I get my guy off the board and I track the ball then I go get it.  I knew if I could get in the paint and get my nose in the front and middle of the rim, I could react whichever way the ball went. If you are to the side of the rim it limits you. Being in the middle you can react right, left, go forward, go back.”

Piston fans were upset when Wallace signed as a free agent with Chicago following the 2006 season where he played for two years before being traded to Cleveland. After two seasons with the Cavaliers, he signed with Detroit in 2009 where he played three more years before retiring.

On January 16, 2016 the Pistons retired his number 3 and in 2021 Wallace was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. That same year Wallace joined the Pistons’ front office as Basketball Operations and Team Engagement Advisor. He also owns Wallace Motor Sports,  a U.S. based distributor of remote-control model racing cars which he also races and lives in Metro Detroit with his wife Chanda along with their sons, Ben Jr. and Bryce, and daughter Bailey. One wonders if the Pistons will ever again have such an outstanding defensive player.

One reply on “Was Ben Wallace the Best Defender in NBA History?


    Dennis Rodman was the best. Wallace was best as a help defender. Rodman could guard 1 thru 5. In addition to being one of the best rebounders in history. I would take Rodman all day every day over Wallace.

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