The term two-way player only surfaced in NBA-related content in the post-Jordan era, and why is that? Perhaps by winning the Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season, Michael Jordan set the standard for how we define a superstar in this league. Bird and Magic were the faces of the league before Jordan took the reigns from them one sunny Barcelona afternoon, but despite being Jordan’s predecessors, the two were not nearly as good on defense as they were on offense.
The same goes for the likes of Bill Russel, Wilt Chamberlain, and the many superstars before Jordan’s time; they were significantly better on one side of the ball than the other. In the modern NBA, two-way superstars are automatically considered first-ballot Hall of Famers, but when your expertise lies on one side of the ball, the odds of making it to elite status seem to vary depending on which side of the spectrum you are.
For example, those talented on the offensive side of the ball are popularly known as pure scorers, and we have seen many of them make the hall. Players such as the likes of Ray Allen and Steve Nash are not pure scorers, but they’re offensive-minded players whose place in the Hall of Fame will never be questioned, and those who emulate their game in succeeding generations will likely earn the same honor when their time comes.
On the other hand, defensive-minded players are often referred to as role players or “three and D guys,” or with different titles that don’t hold the same water as the notion of a pure scorer. Seeing Ben Wallace make the Hall of Fame is validation that defensive-minded players had their value of the league, but somehow I get the feeling that if someone were to play like Ben Wallace in today’s NBA, no one would even give him a shot at entering the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Big Ben enters the hall with career averages of 5.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, and two blocks per game. The stats don’t jump out of the gym, but those who watched Ben and those Detroit Pistons teams know that Big Ben is worthy of a spot in the Hall of Fame. This begs the question, is Ben Wallace the last of his kind that will enter the NBA? More importantly, will defensive-minded have a place in the basketball history books of the future?
It is quite simple to determine the likelihood of eradicating defensive-minded players taking place. All we need to do is look for similar players in the annals of NBA history and their perceived odds of making it to the league. Let’s start by naming a few players of slightly varied ages that might resemble Ben Wallace’s game.
Tony is essentially the wing version of Ben Wallace. He is incredibly strong and gifted with a nose for the ball, and this allowed them to get up in players’ grills and make them uncomfortable right off the bat. Allen did not do much else on the court, and while he was a valuable asset on defense, he was just as big of a liability on the offensive end. Like Ben, Tony became a champion as a member of the Boston Celtics, playing a pivotal role in relieving James Posey of the assignment of guarding Kobe Bryant in pivotal stretches throughout the series.
Allen then went on to join the Memphis Grizzlies to build what we now know as the Grit and Grind culture of the franchise, and Tony was so instrumental in the process that he earned the nickname “The Grindfather” during his time in Memphis. In honor of his contributions to their defensive calling card, The Memphis Grizzlies will retire Allen’s jersey number 9 in a regular-season game in 2022. Allen finished with career averages of 8.4 points per game along with a steal and a block; his stats are similar to Wallace’s as they don’t jump out of the gym. Despite his impending jersey retirement, it is nearly impossible for Tony Allen to make it to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame via his contributions as a player.
The comparison with the center from New Zealand is a much closer one, starting with the fact that both Adams and Wallace played the center position during their best years in the NBA. Both players are also known for being freakishly strong; Ben Wallace used to guard prime Shaquille O’Neal in the post, single coverage. Big Ben also made the idea of wearing a headband on your bicep a cool one; it just never caught on as a trend because no one else but had arms big enough to pull it off.
Adams has also earned praise from his peers for his strength, and when you watch NBA games, you rarely see Steven Adams go down after a collision with a fellow player. Even Draymond Green’s famous kick to Adams’ midsection didn’t have its usual effect due to the latter’s strength and toughness. Adams has career averages of 9.6 points per game to go with 7.7 rebounds, and as far as defensive stats go, Steven averages a steal and a block per game for his career. Adams is also much better than Wallace on offense but is still known around the league as an enforcer whose role is to protect the paint with whichever means he deems necessary. Despite being a valuable player on some very good teams, Adams will never make the Hall of Fame even if he wins several rings from now until the end of his career.
Defensive-minded players are a rarity in today’s NBA, and even when present, the appreciation for their efforts by franchises and their fans is seldom present. Perhaps it is merely a sign of the times, where fans of the league would rather see players hit step-back-wrap-around threes than get a deflection and dive on the floor to complete the stop. Both plays are just as essential to winning basketball, but the offensive play and, in turn, offensive players are deemed more entertaining by the fans.
This isn’t to say that great defensive players are never going to make it to the Hall of Fame, as players like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are, without a doubt, going to be inducted when their careers are over. However, what about the guys who sacrifice their bodies to get the stops that help teams win titles? Are we just going to forget about guys like Ben Wallace and that defense still wins championships? The fans will like what they like, but the league somehow influences much of what we fans like, so maybe it’s time for the league to bring back some good old hard-nosed defense.