Tim Duncan and the Ewing Theory; Duncan as the anti-Ewing
â€œLead, follow, or get out of the way.â€
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 nightâ€™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 Duncanâ€™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 Duncanâ€™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 Duncanâ€™s first NBA title run, the Spurs would-be opponentsâ€”the New York Knicksâ€”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 didnâ€™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, ESPNâ€™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 Duncanâ€™s first option was a layup or dunk, his first option is now his old countermoves, and his countermoves now a simple pass. Itâ€™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 Aldridgeâ€™s career night than a Gregg Popovich handshake. But the results likely would have been the same.
The truth is, DuncanÂ probably could notÂ care less aboutÂ being excluded from theÂ 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.