Tim Duncan and the Ewing Theory; Duncan as the anti-Ewing


“Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

When speeches invoke the famous words of Thomas Paine, normally it is meant to inspire men to take charge and lead. Or, at the very least, shame them into following. Rarely does one manage to accomplish the first by doing the last.

In last night’s loss to the Portland Trailblazers, LaMarcus Aldridge put up one hell of an audition to replace Tim Duncan in the upcoming All-Star game. Even for someone most describe as humble and unassuming, giving up a career-high 40 points and 11 rebounds in a loss has to sting the ego a bit in such context.

A lesser man in Duncan’s situation would have responded with a 20 to 30-point night himself, and that man would be wrong for doing so.

For all the talk of Duncan’s decline (and he has) the man could probably still average his usual 20 and 10 a night, but the Spurs would be worse off for it. The precedence for such reasoning is called the Ewing Theory, and there is a reason Duncan will never join the ranks of men who validate it.

Over a decade ago, in the midst of Duncan’s first NBA title run, the Spurs would-be opponents—the New York Knicks—struggled through most of lockout-shortened season. It was only after their franchise player, an aged Patrick Ewing, went down that the Knicks blossomed from an eighth seed in the Eastern Conference to its representative in the NBA Finals.

Ewing is no Duncan, but through that season the Knicks center was still productive (though not efficient) at 17 points and 10 rebounds a game in a little over 32 minutes. It maintained his relevance at a superficial level, but ultimately held back that team.

Those Knicks were best pushing the tempo, with the ball in the hands of its Allan Houston/Latrell Sprewell backcourt, much in the same way the Spurs operate with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili today.

The irony of course is that those Knicks really could have used Ewing (or any skilled size outside of Marcus Camby) to help against David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Only, those Knicks didn’t need Ewing to be Ewing, they needed him to be the player Duncan is today.

Duncan as a featured scorer could still post relatively good numbers at this age, but it would not make the team stronger than it is. In discussing Kobe Bryant v. Michael Jordan at advanced ages, ESPN’s Rich Bucher said something that could just as easily apply to Duncan:

It’s not a matter of how long he can keep up his scoring average. It’s the expense to the team of him keeping up that scoring average. When Jordan came back with the Wizards, he could still score at a high rate and everyone marveled at how he did it. One small problem: they weren’t winning numbers. He needed more touches and plays run and teams didn’t double because they could let him get his numbers and still win. And that’s where, when looking at an individual player’s averages and suggesting that “if only he had help” doesn’t always fly. Sometimes that player is getting his numbers at the expense, not benefit, of his team.

Duncan no longer draws consistent double teams. The erosion of his brakes has made finishing explosive moves with a soft touch difficult. And without the fear of that, the jab step that once created so much space or contact no longer does so.

Where once Duncan’s first option was a layup or dunk, his first option is now his old countermoves, and his countermoves now a simple pass. It’s a game that can still produce if force fed, but in doing so it fails to maximize the rest of the Spurs.

These Spurs are athletic, but not explosively so. They rely on scrambling defenses and open lanes because quite frankly there is no one on the team that can operate efficiently in tight spaces or rise over the top of the defense.

If Duncan cared at all about obtaining individual accolades, there would have been more of a response to Aldridge’s career night than a Gregg Popovich handshake. But the results likely would have been the same.

The truth is, Duncan probably could not care less about being excluded from the All-Star game. But both he and Popovich probably care when they do make it. It is, as Popovich put it, an honor. But not at the expense of winning.

This is why Duncan is Duncan, Ewing was Ewing, and any theory between the two will never overlap.

  • SpursfanSteve

    In general, I agree with this entire article, except for applying it last night. Duncan scored on several isolations in the post, and in truth with Oden/Camby out, the Blazers don’t really have anyone who could have stopped him. Aldridge is good, but not the best defender. Certainly not strong enough or smart enough to stop Duncan. If nothing else, running through Tim last night could have gotten Aldridge in foul trouble, which would have kept him from scoring.

  • DorieStreet

    “Ewing Theory” -Exhibit A: Wizard Jordan; Exhibit B: Allan Iverson, post 2000-01 season.

  • http://asubstituteforwar.wordpress.com MJ from A Substitute for War

    Good article. Really like how you tied in Jordan. No one wants to see Jordan for what he is: A guy who could not help but play like as volume scorer even if that was the last thing the team needed. His all-time great reputation is deserved, but had he been a little less talented his inflexibility would have caused serious problems for the Bulls. As it was, it took having a coach develop a very special scheme for Jordan to run an elite offense.

    Duncan’s just a guy who will do whatever he’s asked to do, and do it with intelligence and commitment. This season is giving us good reason to celebrate various aspects of the Spurs. To me Pop’s coaching adjustment is the biggest thing, but Duncan’s non-ego is right up there.

  • ibspursfan

    I view last nights game as Pop being Pop. Pop find out in the first quarter what he needed to stop Aldridge and let it go. Pop will never show his full bag of tricks before playoffs and will continue to test the new personnel for film sake. On to the Lakers.

  • AH

    Not a bad article except that the Ewing theory is junk. Even your explanation of the 1999 playoffs is incorrect when it comes to #33. Ewing was a very big part of the Knicks getting to the Finals (13.1 pts/8.7 rebounds, etc.) and their best post defender. What happened when they got to the Finals and went to their “best” up tempo game? They got killed inside, and lost 4-1. And after Ewing left? Never sniffed the Finals since. Let’s not confuse “best” with ‘most fun to watch’. They are two very different things.

  • Greyberger

    There is only this kind of distortion when you look to scoring averages to tell you how well a player is doing. People always say, “the numbers won’t show you this” – well, depends on what numbers you’re looking at.

  • Matt in OC

    Wow… The Ewing theory article by the 4 letter blew my mind… Just the prediction of the theory taking place in New England when Bledsoe leaves. Send shivers down my spine…

    Thanks for posting that link, and great article overall. I agree that Tim could average his career numbers, and has when the spurs needed it, but him assuming a new roll has sent shockwaves through the NBA this season, and it’s gonna add years to his career.

  • Daniel T

    So if Duncan had been a lesser man last night he would have responded by scoring 30 points resulting in the Spurs winning by 2?

    Last night with Manu going 6-18, Tony 3-11 and Neal 1-6; maybe Tim should have taken more than 9 shots (while making 6).

  • SpurredOn

    Good article. It likely goes without saying but, many of those points last night were not just at the expense of Duncan. The Spurs help defense was lacking, and they scrambled out to shooters, including LMA, as though they were playing one of the best 3-pt shooting teams of all time. They ran by players who needed to only make one fake. The entire defense broke down.

    What I like is that Pop did not adjust and show a counter-move. This could be our first round opponent, thus no need to show Aldridge different trap strategies. Also, the guys needed to be better in the base defense. May as well let them work out their own errors, which having the best record in the league allows.

  • Rowrbazzle

    I actually had the exact same thought when I read that quote from Bucher. Even sent in a comment, but he didn’t post it.

    Also, your opening paragraph reminds me of the beginning of Idiocracy. Funny movie, that.

  • rj

    kobe isn’t aging well. he plays like he has to prove to himself and everyone else that he can still “do it” at the expense of his team’s record. l.a. wins games when the entire team is envolved and they dominate the paint, and now kobe encourages gasol to be more aggressive? trying passing the ball first, mr bean….

  • Pingback: Spurs Nation » NBA.com staffers split on Boston or Spurs as the league’s best team()

  • Gomezd

    Great read, really enjoyed the article and I agree,duncan is the anti Ewing, there is no doubt that if TD goes down the spurs will see serious decline.

    However, last game more duncan would have been better, I think of we ran more of the offense trough Tim we would have had a better chance at winning this even with our forgetable defense.

  • TD = Best EVER

    Like many of you have said last night we ALL didn’t shoot poorly. We had 3 players(RJ, TD, Blair) combine for 16-29 and 39 points. SO when our others guards didn’t have it going they should have passed more and tried to milk the cows we had playing well. Maybe call a few plays directly for them and we could have pulled out an ugly W last night and not a horrible L.

  • Dre

    disrespectful to one of the better centers to play the game

  • Phoebus

    Artest wants out of LA. Try as you might but you’ll never convince me that even Bowen has the natural D instincts that Artest does. Barnes and Artest are natural acolytes of Popovich. And yeah, I know folks throw up b.s. trades here all the time, but doesn’t a

    Artest and Barnes for Dice and Splitter, well, kinda sorta make a lot of sense for us? Sure we’re giving up a lot of frontcourt depth but it’s not like Dice or Tiago was doing a much better job on the oppositions’ bigs than Artest would, is it?

  • spurholic in Mumbai

    Was a great article esp The Ewing theory, for the minority who follow cricket. Indian cricket team is facing its TET moment. Don’t want to bore you with the details.
    Versus Blazers, TD had 12 points by the third quarter, his and Coach Pop’s passivity was resposible for the understated challenge to LmA’s aggression esp in Q4.

    Hope Lakers game spurs both!

  • http://www.bpifanconnect.com Alix Babaie

    I think RC would rather pop his eyeballs out of their sockets than engineer a trade with the Lakers.

  • Kris S

    Good article but two things need to be mentioned:
    1. I first read about the Ewing theory from Bill Simmons; I’m surprised there’s no shout out to him about this.
    2. We need a new name for this theory, it comes off way to harsh on Patrick, who is one of the greatest centers and a player I remember as a good guy (on the court anyway, I can’t comment about his personal life). Plus, if the problem was how the knicks ran the offense through him the wrong way, I blame the coaching staff and the team as a whole for not being able to figure out the situation.

  • Olivier

    Agree with comment from AH, that “Ewing theory” seems kind of based on shaky assumptions. Just for kicks, I watched Game 5 against Miami yesterday and Ewing was the one keeping them in the game. No way they get past the Heat without him (playing with multiple injuries, so give credit where credit is due) Eventually the Knicks front office bought in to that theory, and I would say the past decade is sufficient proof that it wasn’t their wisest move.

  • Judd

    “there is no one on the team that can operate efficiently in tight spaces”

    actually, tony is pretty good at operating in tight spaces and manu is the master. i’m really confused by this statement. watch manu jab step and then split two defenders before finishing around a 3rd and sometimes 4th. it happens a lot. it’s amazingly efficient. i also agree with many of the comments that when our guards are shooting poorly it isn’t a bad thing for duncan to take more shots. esp. in a game where we end up getting killed.

  • Ed

    The Portland loss was all about going cold in the 2nd half. Last half of the 3rd and all the 4th qrtr they couldn’t hit a shot. Nobody. That’s all. The were shooting well over 50% at the half and up by 5. Slumps happen, even to the Spurs. The Spurs just are better than most at forgetting them. If they were missing in the 1st half they would come back in the 2nd and maybe win, unfortunately they started missing late and you can’t comeback from that.

  • Josh D.

    One of the main premises behind the Ewing Theory is that the team was never that successful with their “star” player. The Spurs have won 4 championships and have been the best team of the previous decade, so bringing up the Ewing Theory is entirely baseless.

  • Pingback: Spurs Stats | Advanced Scouting | Boston Celtics 3/31/11()