The Heist: NBA Trades Edition

by February 20, 2013

With the trade deadline nearly upon us, we look back at one of the biggest deadline deals in recent history. While the Hawks didn’t know it at the time, trading Rasheed Wallace to the Pistons enabled Detroit to end the season 20-4 and take the 2004 Championship. “The Heist” reminds us that a single trade can completely transform the League’s landscape.—Ed.

by Rafael Canton / @RafelitoC7

If we’ve learned anything from the past history of trades, it’s not the “blockbuster trade” that can take a franchise to the Promised Land, it’s the moves made before and after the blockbuster that can take you to heights you’ve never seen before. It seems like trades are in a never-ending cycle and come with the phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Before the ’03-04 season, the Detroit Pistons made two important off-season deals. In late August of ‘03, Detroit acquired Bob Sura from Golden State, and Lindsey Hunter from Toronto and both trades fulfilled dueling purposes. Sura and Hunter were both talented guards coming off disappointing seasons that would be useful in bench roles, but more importantly, they were both on expiring contracts.

Sura was making $6.2 million in his last year and Hunter was making $3 million in the final year of his contract. Those contracts added with the two first round draft picks Detroit had for the ‘04 NBA Draft made Detroit a prime candidate to make a big mid-season move.

The Atlanta Hawks were in full rebuild mode after numerous failed attempts to build a Playoff team around a core of Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Jason Terry, Theo Ratliff and company. On February 9, 2004, the Portland Trail Blazers traded their star power forward Rasheed Wallace with guard Wesley Person to Atlanta for Abdur-Rahim, Ratliff and guard Dan Dickau.

Despite Wallace having an expiring contract, he would only play one game for Atlanta before being traded to the Detroit Pistons on February 19, 2004 in a trade involving the Boston Celtics as well.

The Celtics traded forward Chris Mills to the Atlanta Hawks, guard Mike James to the Pistons, while the Detroit Pistons traded center Zeljko Rebraca, Sura and an ‘04 first-round draft pick (Josh Smith) to the Atlanta Hawks. The Pistons also traded guards Chucky Atkins and Hunter and an ‘04 first-round draft pick (Tony Allen) to the Boston Celtics.

Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars said after the trade, “It gives us a real shot to compete at the highest level in the NBA right now. That fact that we didn’t have to break up our team and we were able to add the guy we did, it made it a no-brainer move for us. It created cap space and we didn’t mess with our core, so it was a great deal for us.”

Detroit went 20-6 after acquiring Wallace and ran off 20 wins in 24 games to end the regular season. In the Playoffs, Detroit’s gritty defense was too much for opponents and their execution and ability to control the pace was equally as amazing. During the ‘04 Playoffs, Detroit allowed 100 points once in 23 games—that one time coming in a triple-overtime game.

The Pistons went on to win the NBA Finals by defeating the Lakers 4-1 in what is widely considered an upset. Detroit went from a fringe contender lacking a true low-post offensive presence to an instant contender with the best starting lineup in the NBA.

Rasheed Wallace would become a free agent with Detroit, but re-signed in what was a foregone conclusion after Detroit won an NBA title and featured a core that was built to contend for years to come. The Pistons also had extra cap space leftover from the trade and used that room to sign Antonio McDyess after Mehmet Okur left in free agency.

Detroit would go on to have one of the more consistent stretches in recent memory making it back to the NBA Finals for the ‘04-05 season, and making the Eastern Conference Finals from ’06-08.

Looking back at the trade, Detroit absolutely fleeced the Atlanta Hawks. The Pistons sent a plate of expiring contracts to Atlanta with a non-lottery first round pick that would turn into Josh Smith while adding Boston to the deal since the Celtics were looking for a starting point guard (Chucky Atkins) and had a heavy expiring contract to unload (Chris Mills).

Even though Josh Smith has had a nice career with ATL and holds the title of “the current best player to never make an All-Star team,” the amount of success Detroit attained after acquiring Wallace overpowers any benefits either Boston or Atlanta received from this trade. Detroit was 289-147 in the regular season with Wallace on the roster.

Detroit became an instant contender in what seemed like an instantaneous moment, but they laid the foundation after years of savvy transactions that allowed them to transform from a 32-50 laughingstock during the ‘00-01 season, to an elite NBA franchise in three seasons.

Rafael Canton is a recent college graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is in the middle of his post-collegiate journey, and you can find some of his thoughts on the NBA and read his trade discussions on NBA Trades or on twitter @nba_trades.