Just how effective 30-year-old forward Gerald Wallace will be for the Brooklyn Nets during the NBA playoffs next April will be the most determinative factor as to whether the Nets can emerge as an outside threat to make the 2013 NBA Finals.
Gerald Wallace in 2009-10: The Golden Year
Elite multi-position players are the rarest commodity in the NBA; even more so than 20 point per game scorers.
In 2009-10, Gerald Wallace was amongst this most select breed. He was a hybrid small/power forward that performed all facets of the game at a high level; a relentless and an unpredictable force that continually pressured opposing teams to make quick in-game adjustments on the floor.
That year, Wallace was voted onto the NBA All-Star team and received All-NBA First Defensive Team honors. The then 27-year-old dynamo was coming off his best season, averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game on 48 percent shooting.
Wallace defended both small and power forwards effectively, smothering them with a particularly ferocious tenacity predicated on a comparative advantage in speed, athleticism and footwork at either position.
His efforts led an otherwise lottery-bound Charlotte Bobcats team to a 44-38 record and the organization's first playoff appearance since its inception in 2004.
2010-2012: Gerald Wallace in Decline
Since his fine 2009-10 season, Wallace was the centerpiece of two trades in as many years, both of which were for draft picks and cash considerations in return.
He suffered a remarkable decline in offensive productivity as of the 2010-11 NBA season. Wallace's scoring output has dropped by three points in each of the last two years, and in 2011-12, he averaged a subpar 13.9 points a game.
Wallace's efforts on the defensive end have been respectable, but not nearly as remarkable as when he was younger. His rebounds per game has dropped by 30 percent since 2009-10, and he has not been voted to another All NBA Defensive team.
These are curious drop-offs for a player who should be in his prime.
Granted, Wallace had to play for two new teams (the Portland Trail Blazers and the then New Jersey Nets) in as many seasons; a considerable adjustment that may have effected his quality of play.
However, the bigger reason for the decline in Wallace's game is that his athleticism has begun to wane. Wallace's game is so dependent on high energy and physical play; and after 11 years in the league, his levels of explosiveness and tenacity just aren't what they once were.
If Gerald Wallace Can Return to 2009-10 Form, Can the Nets Win the Eastern Conference?
Without these dynamic qualities, Wallace hasn't been able to shoulder the burden of being both a top scoring option and an elite defender as he did earlier in his career.
The Wallace Plan for 2012-13
Even given an apparent decline in his play over the past two seasons, the Nets signed Wallace to a four-year, $40 million dollar contract in the 2012 NBA offseason.
A solid justification for this long-term deal is that Wallace will not have to exert as much energy as he did during his mid-20s.
Because the Nets offense will focus on Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, Wallace will have more opportunities to take a spell on that end of the floor than he has had the last several years.
Moreover, the Nets' depth at the forward position—which includes Mirza Teletovic and Andray Blatche—should reduce Wallace's minutes per night to the low 30s. This will represent a significant 10 percent drop-off from the 36 minutes per game he played last year.
These changed circumstances should give Wallace the energy to do what he did best in 2009-10: play athletic, smothering, man-on-man and weak-side defense, and crash the boards from along the baseline—particularly in long-rebound situations that can lead to fast-break opportunities.
As a Brooklyn Net, Wallace won't have to continually provide a high-energy, multi-faceted game as he did during his prime. Against a majority of NBA opponents, the Nets should have the offensive fire-power, adequate perimeter defense, and bench depth to defeat them without Gerald Wallace playing at his peak.
In fact, the Nets will be interested in conserving Gerald Wallace's energies on most nights, as they will need him in 2009-10 form when they play the Eastern Conference's elite squads.
Against those squads, Wallace should see a boost in minutes to contain LeBron James, take on a litany of physical Indiana Pacer forwards, or keep prolific scorer Carmelo Anthony from attacking the basket at will.
Because some of these opponents—such as the Heat and Celtics—have aggressive, limiting defenses at the top of the key and at the corners of the floor, the Nets won't be able to depend on Williams and Johnson as much on the offensive end of the floor.
Wallace's explosive baseline offense will then be utilized far more often in these situations, and he must have the spring in his step to effectively finish a high percentage of the time.
Which is to say that the Nets' allocation of Wallace's responsibilities in 2012-13 will be essential toward just how far they advance in the playoffs.
While Wallace will play hard every night, it will be up to coach Avery Johnson to ensure that his veteran small forward has the energy to be a deadly top-option come April of next year.