The Ewing Theory

October 4, 2022

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What happens if your team’s best player goes down with an injury, leaves for another team or retires? Your team should be less successful, right? Well, as it turns out, this is not necessarily always true. Sometimes, a team can inexplicably flourish without their superstar. 

This phenomenon was given a fitting name by Dave Cirilli: The Ewing Theory. Cirilli observed that the New York Knicks often played better without their star player, Patrick Ewing, when he was either injured, suspended or in foul trouble. His theory gained steam after the Knicks lost Patrick Ewing after he injured his Achilles tendon in game two of the 1999 Eastern finals against the Indiana Pacers. Without Ewing, it seemed the Knicks were doomed without their star center, having nobody to guard center Rik Smits (2.24 meter / 7’4 feet tall). Against all odds, the Knicks won three of the next four games, advancing to the Finals.

Cirilli’s theory was later popularized by close friend and at the time ESPN analyst Bill Simmons. Since then, a couple of teams have ‘benefitted’ from the Ewing Theory. Some examples are when Everton sold Wayne Rooney in 2004 and in the subsequent season managed to finish fourth in the English Premier League, or when the Giants managed to win the Super Bowl in 2007 after their best player Tiki Barber retired after the 2006 season.

For now, let us stick to the Ewing Theory in basketball. A possible explanation to the Ewing Theory can possibly be found using Braess’s paradox. Braess’s paradox is the observation that explains why sometimes closing roads can lead to shorter travel times and why adding new routes may actually lead to increased travel times. We can think of basketball as a network problem: the ball must ‘travel’ from the beginning of the possession to a shot attempt, with almost unlimited ways to get from the beginning to the end. We can simplify this network by assuming that only two points are important: the beginning of the possession and the shot attempt.

Now, let us look at the 1999 New York Knicks team as such a network problem. The 99’ Knicks consisted of mostly role players and their superstar, Patrick Ewing. As Ewing is their best player, he is the team’s best offensive option. That does not mean however that he therefore should take every shot: the more shots Ewing takes, the more attention the defense will give him, leading to a lower field goal percentage. In order to maximize shot efficiency, Ewing’s teammates should also take enough shots so that the defense cannot only focus their attention on him. We can compare this again to the network problem: if Ewing takes too many shots, the road in the network becomes very busy, leading to a longer travel time, which in basketball means his field goal percentage will go down.

So what happens when a player of Ewing’s caliber must be replaced by another role player due to the circumstances? Since the team now consists of only role players, the team is forced to make harder, lower percentage plays and to share the ball more. When a team shares the ball better, the defense is kept more off balance and as a result the team can play better. In short: when a team loses their best player, the offense has to adjust their offensive play which sometimes leads to surprising new patterns of play that can make the team play better.

Although a lot is based on assumptions, the purpose was to show that removing a team’s best player can have a remarkable effect on a team. The gap left behind also gives opportunity for other players to potentially flourish in a bigger role. More often than not however, a team will still suffer more from losing its best player. But on the few occasions the Ewing Theory comes into action, it brings forward the best of what sports have to offer: when a team exceeds all expectations and the impossible becomes possible.

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