If you follow the move to metrics taking shape in basketball today, you are aware that David Robinson’s historical stock has shot up faster than Amy Winehouse when she gets off an airplane. The Admiral has some of the best PER and WS seasons ever, and he’s a clear top 3 player of the ’90s with Jordan and Malone. The argument these numbers normally spawns is the Olajuwon versus Robinson debate, which basically goes something to the effect of, “If Robinson was so much better, how come Hakeem took him apart in a head to head 7 game series and won the Jordan-free mid-90s championship shakedown?” Basically it’s a litmus test to see if you’re a stathead or a fan who trusts his eyes over the numbers.
The center who doesn’t even make the argument anymore is Patrick Ewing. If you were there watching ball from 1990-94, you’d have probably said that it was pretty much a toss up between Robinson, Hakeem, and Ewing or at the worst that you’d be happy to have any of them. If you watched New York batter and bang their way deep into playoff competition against the Chicago Bulls in ’92 and ’93 while the Rockets and Spurs missed the playoffs, flamed out in the first round, or fell in the semi’s against teams far inferior to Mike’s Bulls, you might even have believed Ewing was the best of the three while the other two put up big number on mediocre teams. You would be wrong, but you’d be closer to the truth than everyone who writes Ewing off as an also-ran who got too much press because he played in New York.
First consider that Patrick Ewing had by far the hardest path to statistical stardom. Robinson came into the league a grown-ass man age 24 and joined a team with nothing up front. He was the whole show, and he was tremendous. Hakeem on the other hand joined a terrible team that had a 7′ 4″ small forward masquerading at center (Ralph Sampson if anyone younger than me ever reads this blog). Hakeem was ceded the center position, and Ralph used his athleticism and face up skills to complement his young partner. Patrick Ewing joined a team with an all-star center named Bill Cartwright who needed the ball down low and a lot of time in the post to excel.
Cartwright was actually a big stats on a losing team player, partly because he needed so long to get his own offense off that he didn’t make the game easier for his teammates while scoring in the low post and partly because he was immobile and didn’t add the defensive impact that a 7 foot all-star is expected to provide. Next to this established all-star, Ewing was forced to take turns in the post or step away and face up. Stat-heads may say that having another guy to share the usage should make Pat more efficient (lower usage = higher efficiency by definition right), but much like Artest giving up all his driving and post up opportunities to Bryant, Ewing was moved out of his position and his stats suffered.
But there was light at the end of the Cartwright tunnel. Jordan’s Bulls needed a center better than 103 year old Dave Corzine, and they had just drafted a power forward named Horace Grant the year before making their rebounding stud, Charles Oakley a major trading chip. Who won the trade? Well Chicago picked up 3 titles with Cartwright starting at center, but Cartwright was their 5th best player, generously, while Oakley became the second best player on Knicks team that would push both the champion Bulls and Rockets to their absolute limits. Winner? Ewing.
Now Pat got to play center full-time and, under Riley’s iron fist, he and Oakley would become one of the greatest defensive front court tandems in league history (by the numbers only Robinson / Duncan match them). Patrick flourished next to Oakley. His Win Shares jumped above 10 for the first time in ’89, the first year post-Cartwright, and in ’90 Pat would have his best statistical season. However, as much as Oakley helped, he may actually have taken something off the table. Off the backboard actually. Patrick’s rebounding was always good, but there are only so many to go around, and when Pat’s the last line of defense and the first option on offense, both backboards belonged to Oak first. That’s actually a good thing for the team, but strictly for Ewing picking up stats, it hurt. Don’t believe me. Take a look at what happened to Robinson’s rebounding rate when Rodman joined the team. Robinson’s rebound rate was always over 17% prior to Rodman joining. With Rodman? It dropped under 15% the first year, jumped back up to 16% the next year, and when Rodman left bounced up to 18 and stayed over 17 until he got old. Still don’t believe me? Think Rodman caused an aberration because he’s so rebound dominant? How dare you question me!?! Let’s look at Hakeem when Charles Barkley showed up in Houston and his rebounding rate fell below 15% for the only time in his career.
Did Pat peak at 27? Maybe. Jordan had his most efficiently dominant season at age 27 (1991 if you want to look it up), so did Barkley, so did Wade, so did Kobe. But it also hurt quite a bit that Pat Riley took over the next year, sucked the air out of the ball, and made them the most physical team of their generation who would never get out and grab an easy basket. When the plan is to do it the hard way (in order to make opponents do it the hard way too), great efficiency and high stats are pretty much precluded.
So statistically Ewing always had an obstacle, be it Cartwright holding him out of his proper position, Oakley helping him win while stealing rebounds, or Riley slowing the game and taking away opportunities to get easy scores, block shots, and grab extra boards. What? Riley’s flagrant foul brand of basketball may have limited scoring opportunities, but it must have been great for a shotblocker, right? Wrong. From ’88-’90 Ewing’s block rate was always up around 6% right in line with most of Hakeem and Robinson’s best blocked shot season (though they did peak a little higher). With Riley’s conservative defense, Oakley, Mason, or McDaniel would have shoulderblocked the penetrating guard to the court before he ever shot the ball IF Doc River’s handchecking perimeter D even let the offender get into the paint at all.
Now here’s the good news about Riley’s defense. Patrick Ewing twice led the in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and three times in Defensive Win Share (proportion of team defensive wins). Not only that but his ’93 & ’94 seasons rank 2nd and 3rd among all defensive seasons by a center. What does that mean? It means some of the sacrifice in personal offensive and defensive stats shows up right here in the team defensive statistics where Ewing is as good as they come.
Those are my excuses for Mr. Ewing. I also have some pure positives. Yes Hakeem and David were more physically gifted (not to mention Shaq or Howard), but even so Patrick is a top 5 center of the past 25 years which is pretty impressive in itself. He’s also the only one never to play with another hall of fame caliber player who nevertheless was three times within a game or two of winning a title (yeah, I’m being very generous with that statement, but if they’d beat the Bulls, nothing could have stopped them). Pat was a player who would have truly thrived with a great scoring wing. His ability to step away and hit jumpers, to pass from the high post (he kicked it with Barkley in the Olympics dropping big to big passes over the zone), and to patrol the paint would have complemented a Jordan type much the way that Gasol complements Bryant. Unfortunately for Pat, the closest he ever had was John Starks, and that was close but not enough to deliver a ring or help produce super-efficient stats, and it may be the factor that ultimately omits him from the best center of the ’90s debate.