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Gerald Wallace’s Sad Career a Reminder That Timing is Everything

Gerald Wallace was waived by the 76ers on Saturday, putting a capper on one of the most precipitous declines in recent NBA history. Just four years ago, Wallace’s value was high enough to command a first-round pick. Now, even after clearing waivers, he’s an afterthought, someone who could find work for the minimum to provide wing depth and veteran leadership. What a sad fate for a 33-year-old former All-Star.

No one expected a guy nicknamed “Crash” to age gracefully, of course. The reckless abandon that characterized Wallace’s play and made him a cult hero early in his career is to blame for the decay of his body. Yet the real tragedy is not how short his prime was and how quickly he became irrelevant after it. What makes Wallace’s career so sad is that he never got to experience the success a player of his talent should have. Unfortunately for him, he was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Drafted by the Kings late in the first round in 2001 at just 19 years old, Wallace struggled to get playing time on a team with championship aspirations. He spent his first three years in the league trying to find a position after entering the NBA a tweener on a franchise that simply didn’t have the playing time to devote to a project. It wasn’t shocking when he wasn’t one of the players protected for the expansion draft of 2004 and nabbed by the Bobcats.

Crash went from playing a combined 1,338 minutes during his time with the Kings to 2,147 in his first year in Charlotte. He became one of the faces of the fledgling franchise, contributing solid minutes on dreadful teams that had no chance to make the playoffs in his first five seasons there.

At that point Wallace wasn’t a traditional star but had already become an extremely productive, if flawed, player. He toiled away in relative anonymity, a celebrity only among the most NBA-obsessed because of his unorthodox and energetic play. He flew around the court, getting weak-side blocks and transition dunks that sometimes sent him right to the floor and was loved for it.

The arrival of Larry Brown in 2008 brought with it a mandate to win now to a franchise that didn’t have that talent. Wallace, Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson all had to play well over 2,500 minutes to give the Bobcats their first playoff appearance followed by a predictably quick exit at the hands of the Magic in the first round.

That misguided attempt at relevance marked Wallace’s last full season in Charlotte. In his time there he played over 15,000 minutes despite missing a combined 87 games, averaging more minutes per game during that span than all but 21 players (min. 10,000 minutes). Wallace was the workhouse for a directionless franchise for most of his prime, punishing his body despite no real chance at glory. His next stop wouldn’t be much more auspicious.

The Bobcats traded Wallace to the Trail Blazers in 2010, just as the wheels were falling off Brandon Roy. The star shooting guard had knee surgery and was never the same, effectively killing any championship aspirations for Portland.

Wallace was solid enough in his time with the Trail Blazers to elicit the interest of another team with postseason aspirations. The New Jersey Nets convinced themselves he’d be the missing piece after striking out on a deal for Dwight Howard and traded for him in 2011. Most people remember how bad a move that was. The Nets couldn’t turn their season around and missed the playoffs. The pick they sent for Wallace became Damian Lillard.

Wallace re-signed with the Nets, but his shot completely abandoned him. After a miserable 2011-12 season in which he had the lowest averages in points, rebounds and field goal percentage since his last year with the Kings, he was traded to the rebuilding Celtics in a move that brought Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. He did well in a small role in his first year in Boston but never came close to his past level, and injuries plagued his second year as a Celtic. He was briefly on the Warriors before eventually being salary dumped to the 76ers.

So to recap, Wallace had the misfortune of being drafted by a team that didn’t need him. After that he landed on a franchise that hasn’t been properly run in its 11 years of existence. In seven seasons there he was asked to play more minutes than he should have because the team lacked talent, and his only reward was a first-round sweep and an All-Star berth. He arrived at a good team just as it was imploding and was traded to a delusional franchise just as his prime was ending. Then he spent the last couple of his productive years in rebuilding franchises.

That has to be one of the most depressing careers a legitimately good player could’ve had.

Some would say the story still has another chapter. Wallace is just 33 and for the first time in his career has the financial security to pick a team that suits him. He just needs to find the right place and catch some luck, health-wise. Unfortunately, only a hopeless optimist would see a career revival in his future. His reliance on athleticism combined with years of playing a physical brand of basketball and the injuries that resulted from it make it all but impossible. Someone will sign him, sure, but barring a miracle he’ll barely make an impact.

It’s still tempting to imagine what could’ve been. What if the Kings had protected him in the expansion draft? He might have helped start a youth movement while keeping them competitive. What if the Bobcats had landed the first overall pick in 2001 and with it Dwight Howard? Those Charlotte years wouldn’t have been pointless. What if Brandon Roy’s knees wouldn’t have cost him his career? Wallace would’ve spent his final productive years contending in Portland.

Alas, sometimes the Basketball Gods can be cruel. We’ll never know how good Wallace could’ve been as a do-it-all star on a true contender. The fact that he was immensely fun to watch on bad teams will have to be enough for his fans, at least until another fearless, underrated forward comes around to fill the void left when Wallace’s prime ended.

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