On Friday, the Knicks will deservedly raise the jersey of Patrick Ewing to the Garden’s rafters. Ewing has been a lighting rod for criticism and praise over the years and a somewhat controversial figure in New York. It is a good time to review Patrick’s career and see what we come up with. So let’s address all the issues surrounding his career.
Why did Ewing have problems with fans and media in New York?
The easy answer would be to say that Ewing was surly and the New York media did not appreciate that. This is true on some level but the issue is more complex. Ewing was, apparently, a quiet guy all the way back to his days at Georgetown and people claimed that John Thompson shielded him too much from the media. Ewing was sensitive. He talked, a few times, about how he was hurt by racist taunts by the crowds at his high school games in Boston and later in the Big East. It was almost Deja Vu for Ewing in 1987 (his third year) when he happened to play a stinker game on “Patrick Ewing Poster Night” causing the Garden fans to return their fans to center court during the game by projectile form. The fans expected a lot from Ewing, he was dubbed the next Kareem or Wilt, and the Knicks thought his presence should have made the team an instant contender. It seemed like the poster fiasco reminded Ewing of the racist taunts he had been subjected to as a younger player. That may have not been the exactly case but Ewing was sensitive to the issue and the fans were sensitive to the fact that the team had sucked (with a few exceptions) since 1974. So, the seed for hostility on both sides was planted early.
Later in Ewing’s career, when the team did well, Ewing was showered in praise as a warrior but there was still an expectation that he should deliver a championship. For his part, Ewing seemed reluctant to emotionally embrace the fans, even during success he always aloof and keeping the fans at arms length. The result was a vicious circle where when the team fell off a little, Ewing received flack from some corners. A majority of fans in New York saw Ewing as an All Star and Hall of Famer but there was a significant enough portion of Knick fandom that was ready to jump ship when the waves got a little rocky, moreso than similar caliber players to Ewing should have to endure.
Did Ewing underachieve as a Knick?
No. He was a great player, a Hall of Fame player, but he was not better than Hakeem Olajuwon and he was not better than Jordan. The loss in the 1994 Finals underscored this point. Ewing was good in the Finals against Olajuwon, but Hakeem was better. Ewing came close but he could never beat Jordan either. This is no great shame. However, he was not as good as the unrealistic expectations placed on him while in college. Ewing was as good as you could be without being on the “dominant player” plateau but he was no Shaq.
As for Ewing’s actual accomplishments, he scored 21 ppg for his career and 9.8 rpg on .504% shooting. Ewing went to at least the second round of the playoffs for nine years in a row including the conference finals three times (plus one year where he was injured a portion of the playoffs). That’s impressive both personally and team-wise.
Why did Ewing leave the Knicks?
Ewing forced a trade after the 1999-00 season. Ewing’s contract was ending the next season and he wanted to re-negotiate with the Knicks. The problem was Ewing was being paid $18 million and he wanted a multi-year deal in that range. Ewing was 38, had missed 88 games the last three years, and was coming off the lowest scoring average of his career (15.0). Additionally, there was rumbling from both the media and the players (Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston) that the offense should not be run through Ewing anymore. Ewing was hurt both by the suggestions that his game was falling off and by the fact that the Knicks would not re-sign him after all he done for the team so he demanded a trade and the Knicks complied.
The postscript is that the trade was horrible for both sides. Ewing’s game fell even lower in Seattle, he became a part-time player during his free agent year and his free agent stock plummeted. He went to Orlando as a bit player in 2001-02 before retiring. Had he remained with the Knicks it’s possible that they would have given him a bigger role than Seattle, where they ran the ball and had no emotional tie to him, and his next free agent deal would have been more favorable.
For the Knicks part, they should have just let Ewing play out his walk year and use the cap room. Instead, they filled Ewing’s $18 million slot with a bunch of long term mediocre contracts like Glen Rice, Luc Longley, and Travis Knight, who continue to hamstring the Knick’s salary cap room to this day.
Was Ewing surrounded by inferior talent?
Ewing backers have always trumpeted the fact Ewing was never provided with the great teammates that Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, or Larry Bird had and that lack of support prevented him from succeeding in his quest for a title. This is true to some extent. There was no McHale or Dumars or Worthy to play with. Ewing never really had another All Star player with him. John Starks, Mark Jackson, and Charles Oakley all made the team once but those was more flukes than an indication of what kind of players they were. The best player Ewing ever played with was Latrell Sprewell who came after Ewing began to decline significantly. So, there is something to this argument that Ewing was short handed, however, his overall teams were pretty good most of the late 1980s and all of the 1990s. Here is a list of the best players season around Ewing during his career as a Knick (ordered by position):
How did the front office decisions affect Ewing?
The reviews of the Ewing’s GMs are decidedly mixed. Let’s take a look at the highlights and lowlights of the Knick GMs:
Worst moves during Ewing’s tenure:
1. Letting Bernard King walk to use the the salary cap room for Sidney Green.
2. Dealing the lottery pick that would end up being Scottie Pippen for Jawann Oldham.
3. Trading a young Rod Strickland for an old Maurice Cheeks.
4. The ugly Kenny Walker lottery pick.
Best moves during Ewing’s tenure:
1. Finding Mason and Starks in the CBA.
2. Trading Cartwright for Oakley.
3. Trading Starks, Chris Mills, and Terry Cummings for Latrell Sprewell.
4. Getting Derek Harper for nothing (Tony Campbell and a draft pick) from the Mavericks.
The bad seems to outweigh the good. Dave Checketts needed to pull the trigger on a deal for another scorer (Mitch Richmond or Clyde Drexler) but always missed out on the opportunity. Ewing could have really used a classic point guard like Strickland against the Bulls to counter that tough press they ran against the Bulls in the early 1990s.
Where does Ewing rank as an all-time Knick?
Most people agree there are only three people that should be mentioned in this conversation, Ewing, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed. Now the title of “Greatest Knick” is somewhat meaningless unless you define your terms. If you are asking who has done the most for the organization, Frazier may take the title because he helped lead the team to two titles and he was a healthier part than his teammate Reed. If the question is who was the best player, i.e. the one you would most want to build a team around, I think the answer has to be Ewing.
To assess this, you must first take into account level of competition of the NBA at each point. Otherwise, the relative worth of the player’s numbers is difficult to assess. I tend to believe that the level of play in the 1980s and 1990s is higher than in the 1960s and 1970s. However, let’s put that aside and assume that the level of play is equal. Even with this assumption, Reed, compared head-to-head with Ewing, comes up short. Reed was an All Star level player for six years while Ewing had 12 straight All Star level years. Additionally Reed played only 650 games as a Knick to Ewing’s 1,039. Despite the longer career (and the decline in numbers that Reed did not suffer because of his abbreviated career) Ewing still scored more and shot better. When you consider that Ewing was at least as good and played so much longer, you have to take Ewing. Indeed, Reed agrees as he called Ewing when the question was posed to him.
The Frazier-Ewing issue is more complex. Frazier had a great run, putting up 9 straight All Star level seasons. He was clearly the best point guard in the league most of that time too. Ewing was never really the best center in the NBA during his run but he was good longer than Frazier (1,039 games to Frazier’s 759 as a Knick). I think based on longevity and sustained excellence Ewing beats Frazier as the “Greatest Knick,” at least by the second definition of the term.
Where does Ewing rank as an all-time center?
Again, all the problems about definition arise. Let’s assume that “Greatest Center” is the best player, the one you would most want to build a team around. I will again assume that the level of play has not changed significantly over the years (we will except George Mikan from this conversation as the 1950s, by all accounts, were inferior in play level to all subsequent decades). I think to start a team, it is indisputable that a few guys are clearly ahead of Ewing: Hakeem, Shaq, Kareem, Wilt, Bill Russell. Moses Malone is slightly below these guys but ahead of Ewing as well. The only question is how Ewing matches up with some of the near-great and semi-great centers like David Robinson, Wes Unseld, Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier, Artis Gilmore, and Nate Thurmond (we discount Bill Walton because of injuries and Alonzo Mourning because Ewing was so clearly better head-to-head). Let’s look at career numbers:
|Unseld||984||10.8||14.1||3.9||0.6||0.509||* blocks only counted after 1972-73|
|Cowens||766||17.6||13.6||3.8||0.9||0.461||* blocks only counted after 1972-73|
|Lanier||959||20.1||10.1||3.1||0.5||0.514||* blocks only counted after 1972-73|
|Gilmore||909||17.1||10.1||2.1||1.9||0.599||* does not inlcude ABA stats|
|Thurmond||964||15.1||15.1||2.7||2.1||0.421||* blocks only counted after 1972-73|
David Robinson is a very similar player to Ewing. Robinson’s two years in the Navy take away from his career totals but his career numbers still look superior to Ewing’s (21.9 ppg and 10.8 rpg versus 21.0 ppg and 9.8 rpg). Of course, Ewing had a couple of decline years that Robinson has not suffered because he is younger. So, they are very close. This is a coin flip. I’ll go with Robinson by a hair based on his title (albeit as a secondary player) and his MVP.
As for the rest of this group, Unseld was a great player but it is clear that he was more complementary on offense and clearly not the same cornerstone player Ewing was. Cowens was also not as a great a scorer and his career was much shorter than any of the other centers not to mention Ewing who had, by far, the most longevity. Thurmond was also a great defender but his rebounds were inflated by playing in the rebound plentiful 60s and he shot a very poor percentage. That leaves Lanier and Gilmore as the only players who can be argued to be better than Ewing.
As good as Lanier was (and I think people tend to forget because he was often on bad teams), he was not as good as Ewing. Again, Ewing had a much longer career with similar numbers during times when rebounds and shooting percentage were shrinking. Ewing was also a much better defender (and a far superior shot blocker, 2.5 versus 0.5). Gilmore is a little more complicated. His ABA years were great (22.3 ppg and 17.1 rpg) and his NBA numbers look weak by comparison and not as good as Ewing’s. An argument can be made for Gilmore if you count ABA stats but most agree that those are weaker by some percentage to NBA stats. In terms of intangibles, Ewing was always regarded as a better player offensively (Gilmore made Ewing’s hop step move look smooth) and defensively.
So a conservative estimate of Ewing ranks him about the eighth best center of all time. That is nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s keep that in perspective with some of his critics. I remember when Ewing was traded to Seattle, David Halberstam wrote a retrospective of Ewing asking whether Ewing was truly a great player. Halberstam’s answer:
“Is [Ewing] a very good player? I guess so. The Knicks in the years of his prime were always going to be respectable, though they were never going to surprise anyone. In the end, I came to hate watching them play: It was all so heavy and slow and predictable. I find him the most puzzling of players, talented, hard-working and, in the end, limited. His ability leveled out very early in his career, and unlike most very good and great players, he lacked a sense of or feel for the game that often made the best of them seem like coaches on the court. I think one of the most important things that happened during his career was that the game of basketball changed and he did not — or could not. And as the game changed, it unveiled his weaknesses. He was better and more dominating in college, when he concentrated on defense and rebounding, than he was on the pros, when he seemed to think he was first and foremost a jump shooter.”
That kind of knee-jerk reaction to Ewing missed the point but encapsulated the view of the Ewing detractors. Yeah, Ewing was not a work of art. When you watched him play ball it did give you the ennobling feeling you might get from listening to Mozart. He did not glide like Jordan or run the passing offense of Red Holzman. However, he is one of the top ten centers of all time and a damn good player. To assess him for the possibilities you thought Ewing offered when he was in college and not by the reality of the player he was and the great things he accomplished misses that larger point.