Backpicks GOAT: #27 Patrick Ewing

Key Stats and Trends

  • Key figure on some of the greatest defenses ever
  • Elite scoring peak, but lacked passing and creation

Scouting Report

Young Patrick Ewing was an athletic, towering presence. At the outset of his career, he was so eager on defense that he would needlessly foul guards away from the hoop or swat at obviously  descending shots, a vestige of his college goaltending days. Injuries derailed his first two seasons, but in 1988 his scoring arsenal blossomed as his defense rounded into shape. Ewing used his size and mobility on both sides of the ball, developing an outside jumper and a post game while hunting for blocks on the other end. The first half of this video captures his physical presence in those early years:

Ewing was never a good passer, capable of hitting strong-side cutters but otherwise lacking vision; he sometimes forced double-teamed shots in lieu of hitting open teammates. And occasionally, he would just make the wrong pass when doubled:

However, his scoring game was explosive at its apex, and in 1990 Ewing averaged 27.2 points per 75 (98th percentile since 1978) on +6.2 percent relative efficiency (rTS).1 Ewing could face and drive, catch and shoot from the midrange and toss hooks and fades with his back to the basket. This game highlights his entire repertoire (note the athletic alley-oop at the 1:20 mark):

While he scooped some offensive boards in that game, he was never strong in that department (outside of 1988). From ’88-97, Ewing typically fell between the 34th and 42nd percentile in offensive rebounding rate among bigs.2

He really earned his stripes on defense, where he was an excellent rim protector; in ’88 his shot-blocking exploded to 4.7 blocks per 100 possessions (98th percentile since 1978). Only six players in history produced more seasons with a 5 percent block rate than Ewing’s nine. He inhaled rebounds on defense too, consistently posting rates in the top decile during the ’90s. He was even fairly mobile during his prime, able to bump guards high and recover. His positioning was often sound, although his reactions were sometimes delayed:

New York loved to trap pick-and-rolls hard, and Ewing worked relentlessly in the early ’90s to bother perimeter players and recover to protect the goal. He wasn’t a cheetah out there, but he wasn’t a sloth either:

In the early ’90s, any loss in mobility was offset by smarter schemes and improved rebounding (from better defensive position). But by the mid-’90s, his feet were heavier and he lacked the agility of his 20-something days. And towards the end of the decade, his movement grew stiff and glacial. Notice his lumbering defense in the first clip below (1994) and then his slow-motion recovery in the second clip (1998):

Even when his positioning was sound, he couldn’t always contest well, more and more opting to take a charge:

As Ewing’s knees creaked, his mobility and explosiveness faded. In the early ’90s, he could still knock down midrange jumpers with proficiency, but his scoring trailed off, his moves were more deliberate and his transition baskets less frequent. By the latter half of the decade his feet were encased in cement, severely hampering his ability to provide elite rim protection. The loss of agility took longer to impact his offense, as he posted one of his best scoring seasons in 1998 before precipitously declining in the following two years.

Impact Evaluation

At Ewing’s peak, his scoring-rich attack was heavily featured on two above average offenses, but the preponderance of his value-signals come from defense, where he was the cornerstone of an historically stingy team for a number of years. His game-level plus-minus supports the notion that he was a major factor, falling just short of history’s megastars per such metrics.3

Ewing joined a dilapidated Knicks team in 1986 that was moving on from the Bernard King era. His first two seasons didn’t move the needle much, as the Knicks puttered along at similar win rates until Rick Pitino assumed coaching duties in 1988. New York’s ascension over the ensuing two seasons coincided with Ewing’s growth as a player. In ’88, the Knicks relative defensive efficiency (rDRtg) jumped 4.5 points under Pitino’s pressure-based system and in 1989, Ewing received his first Defensive Player of the Year votes as the Knicks played at a 52-win pace (3.6 SRS).4

Ewing’s ’89 and ’90 seasons — his two best offensive years statistically — were easily the two best offenses he played on. The ’89 Knicks posted a +3.3 rORtg, and the ’90 Knicks a +1.3 rORtg, two of only three above-average offenses that Ewing started on during his entire career. Some of the ’89 shift can be credited to Mark Jackson, who shouldered more of the load en route to the lone All-Star nod of his career.5 The ’90 Knicks ran more offense through Ewing, yet were barely above-average on that end. Here’s how Patrick’s offensive profile in the Big 3 box categories stacks up against other great big men:

Of that group, he turned the ball over less than anyone besides David Robinson. However, his offensive rebounding lagged behind all of them, particularly Moses Malone. Ewing’s profile is respectable, but it scales poorly; weak vision and isolationism don’t mix well with other stars, and his lack of offensive rebounding limited his off-ball value. Despite a few passable years as a floor-raising cog, Ewing’s not on this list because of his offense.

Instead, Patrick was the centerpiece of a record-setting defense: From 1970 to 2007, no other team laced together a better five-year stretch of efficiency than Ewing’s Knicks. Below is a plot of each team’s best five-year defensive stretches from 1966 to 2012:6

Only Tim Duncan’s Spurs and Kevin Garnett’s Celtics produced better five-year runs in the regular season, and only four post-merger teams have had a better postseason stretch than those Knicks.7

While Ewing was the most prominent figure on those defenses, attributing the lion’s share of credit to him is a reach. Coaching and scheme influence defensive synergy, and the best defenses exploit rules in their favor to create more than the sum of their parts. The Knicks’ defensive efficiencies rose 4.5 points (to 1.7 points ahead of the league) with Rick Pitino’s arrival, which is what happened to the Celtics when Pitino brought his full-court press to Boston in 1998.8

When Pat Riley arrived in 1992, he unleashed a bruising style that was so physical it was alleged to be dirty by some.9 The Knicks jumped 3.4 points on defense, as Riley replaced weaker defenders with rugged players like Xavier McDaniel, Anthony Mason and John Starks. Entering the lane against those Knicks was an invitation for violence, and in 1993 and ’94, New York authored two of the greatest single-season defenses in history. Those two campaigns rank as the third and fourth-best relative defensive efficiencies since 1970 and the best two-year defensive performance since the ’60s.

However, this ascension came as Ewing was in decline. He was a comparable defender to his pre-Riley years, his shot-blocking and rebounding still strong, but he wasn’t transcendent (per the scouting report), instead filling a key role in a defensive machine that pushed the boundaries of the rules. Riley eschewed offense for defensively-oriented players like Charles Smith, who at 6-foot-10, gave New York an enormous frontline alongside Charles Oakley and Ewing. When hand-checking was prohibited in 1995, the Knicks lost nearly 4 points in relative defensive efficiency with essentially the same roster.

Overall, Ewing had the look (and the team results) of an excellent stopper who fell short of the all-timers. Between Pitino and Riley, he anchored average defenses with a mixed bag of defenders: Bill Cartwright was shipped out for Oakley in ’89; Gerald Wilkins and Johnny Newman were athletic, but questionable defenders on the wing; and by ’91, Kiki Vandeweghe (not a reputable defender) and a long-toothed Maurice Cheeks were part of the rotation.

Ewing’s plus-minus footprint began in 1994, and AuPM gives him three seasons between the 81st and 89th percentile; good, but not great. He then posted four scaled adjusted plus-minus (APM) years between the 92nd and 97th percentile, primarily from defensive value. This suggests that his mid ’90s were slightly better than what AuPM portrays (from ’94-96), and I see these numbers as an indicator that Ewing’s peak was likely quite strong. He lost much of the 1998 season to injury, but the Knicks played scintillating defense in 30 games with him that year, improving 5.9 efficiency points on D to 7.8 points ahead of the league.

For my money, he strung together 10 consecutive All-Star seasons, with four weak-MVP years and a top-30 peak of all time. I don’t love his portability, nor that he failed to play on a really good offense. To scale well, Ewing would need to curtail his isolation frequency, and I have doubts that he could. I could also see devaluing his mid-’90s defense slightly more, which could push him as low as 30th. Nonetheless, he packaged strong scoring with a top-20 defensive peak, just enough to land him here.

  1. Since 1978, there have only been 36 seasons with better scoring efficiency at that volume.
  2. According to basketball-reference’s classification of forwards and centers.
  3. The highest-impact players from the WOWYR family of metrics grade out at about +8 or +9. A second tier of superstars comes in closer to +6. Ewing’s average value in those studies was +5.2, the same as Charles Barkley’s and Wilt Chamberlain’s.
  4. Ewing is currently 51st in career DPOY shares. Some of this is because they only awarded first-place votes until 2002, but it’s also a testament to some of the strangeness of DPOY voting, and how much reverence on-ball defense was given in the past. Allen Iverson has more DPOY shares than Patrick Ewing.
  5. Jackson led the Knicks with a 40.2 offensive load that year, well ahead of second-best Ewing at 32.1. However, most New York teams at that time were more Ewing-dominant.
  6. “Unique” stretches are the best five-year periods without any overlapping seasons. For instance, the best stretch for New York was from 1993-97, thus the 1992-96 stretch is excluded because it shares seasons with the ’93-97 period.
  7. From 1995-1999, the Knicks’ playoff defense peaked at 6.2 points better than opponents, trailing the ’99-03 Spurs and ’01-05 Pistons who were both slightly better.
  8. Without notable defensive personnel changes, the Celtics improved 4.4 points to just below league average on defense.
  9. Riley brought the same style to Miami, where the Heat improved by 5.6 rDRtg points in his first season in 1996. In that case, Riley also acquired a defensive stopper in Alonzo Mourning to join him.

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