The Ewing Theory

The recent massive trade between Los Angeles and Boston, in which Boston is dumping most of their high-paid stars to LA, has brought the Ewing Theory back into the lexicon. Here is Bill Simmons’ 10-year old explanation of the Ewing Theory. The Ewing Theory — better described as the Ewing Effect — is when a star player leaves a franchise, the media all assume this spells doom for the franchise and the team “inexplicably” (although usually quite explicably, if you look closely) wins anyway. It was first brought into light by Simmons, a writer I generally like, in the context of the Mariners’ surprising 2001 season.

The Ewing Theory has kicked around for a while and I’ve never liked it. I’ll get into the weeds below but the basic reason is that it exemplifies many of the worst things about sports media coverage and sports fandom. Sports writers and sports fans simple love to tell us how a great player isn’t really that great. They love to talk about how some player they don’t particularly like is really a loser who fails to elevate his team. When a team flops or stumbles or simply can’t win the championship — keeping in mind that winning a championship is a team effort and, by definition, only one team can do it every year — the media/fans will often pick out the best player and vent their frustration on him. And those who never liked him anyway will gloat about his lack of leadership. This tendency has become far worse in the last few decades as player have started to make more and more money.

But is it possible that a player can, on paper, be really excellent but drag his team down? Well, it’s possible. A great player could eat up so much salary that the team can’t sign other great players. A great player could be blocking an even better player. A team could center their strategy on the great player at the expense of even better components. The latter may especially be true in a sport like football, where there are a lot of moving parts on any team.

But the Ewing Theory seems to postulate something different: that the very absence of a star player can elevate the existing team to be better. And after looking at it, I’m convinced that this effect either doesn’t exist or is very small. The Ewing Theory keeps foundering on much more secular and concrete explanations.

Selectivity

Most franchises suffer when a star player is injured or leaves. The Pittsburgh Pirates completely collapsed after Barry Bonds left. The Indianapolis Colts imploded when Payton Manning was hurt (more on them later). Over and over again, we see that losing a star player is, generally speaking, a bad thing for a franchise. Not necessarily a disaster like the two I note, but usually bad to some degree.

However, a franchise’s decline is not etched in stone. Many teams — through luck, strategy or sound management, all of which I’ll get into below — manage to keep going despite losing a star player. What the Ewing Theory seems to consist of is combing through the dozens of examples of a star player getting hurt or leaving and finding those rare instances where the franchise survived anyway. You then claim that the franchise weathered the storm because they lost a star player. Worse, you claim that these rare examples tell you something about the player rather than the franchise.

And even some of these carefully selected examples don’t work. Simmons cites Don Mattingly as an example of the Ewing Theory because the Yankees started winning titles after he left. This ignore that the Yankees were the best team in the American League in 1994, made the playoffs in 1995 and were only denied a crack at the league title because of Edgar Martinez’s thrilling heroics. Mattingly presided over the rennaisance of the Yankee franchise but then got hurt before it could reach its apotheosis. That’s not the Ewing Theory: that’s just bad luck.

He also cites the 1997 Indians, who made the World Series, as an example of the Ewing Theory applied to Albert Belle. But this is the problem with basing a theory entirely on the post-season: the 1997 Indians weren’t a good team. They were a decent team that got hot in the post-season. With Belle, the Indians were in position for the wild card in 1994, had an all-time great season in 1995 and won 99 games in 1996. Without Belle, they won 86 games in 1997 but took a weak AL central anyway. Their dynasty was over by 2002.

But even the exceptions — a genuine improvement in a team that loses a star player — are not terribly revealing. They seem less like a case of the Ewing Theory and more like the result of three things: variance, good management and opportunity.

Variance

Imagine that the Yankees, at their peak, had lost Derek Jeter to injury. Jeter, at his best, was maybe an 8-win player. So the Yankees suddenly become a 92-win team instead of a 100-win team. Over the course of a season, that’s big (but hot huge). A 92-win team could still take the division (and in 2003, Jeter as hurt for 40 games and the Yankees still won 101 games). And a 92-win team could do anything in the playoffs. Imagine a series between the 100-win Yankees-with-Jeter and the 92-win Yankees-without. Could the Jeter-less Yankees still take a seven-game series? Of course, they could. It’s not likely but an upset of that magnitude wouldn’t even really be an upset.

Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes someone has a great game or a pitcher gets hot or your mediocre point guard can’t miss. This sort of variance is normal in sports: it’s why we like to watch.

Seen in this light, the Ewing Theory is mostly finding those less common instances where a team loses a star player and wins anyway and proclaiming them to be something profound rather than just the way sports sometimes plays out. (It also, I should note, comes from hugely overestimating the impact a single player can have). Post-season series are often defined by lucky breaks and hot streaks. You don’t need a Ewing Effect to explain why a team wins a game without their star play or loses one with him.

Good Management

The Ewing Theory becomes its most dubious when it crosses seasons. During the off-season, teams can retool and reload. Let’s take a supposed example of the Ewing Theory, the one Simmons was writing about. The 2001 Mariners had lost three of their star players over the previous few years but went on to win 116 games. Proof of the Ewing Theory? Well, maybe. But we don’t have to go there when we have more conventional explanations. The Mariners used the money and trades from dumping their future Hall of Famers to get another Hall of Famer (Ichiro) and several really good players (Cameron, Garcia, Sasaki). They then lucked into one player having the year of his life (Boone) and a 38-year-old having his first 20-win season (Moyer). That’s not the Ewing Theory: that’s a franchise making some smart moves and getting lucky. Of course, they lost in the playoffs. And the ‘losers’ they dumped have since won two titles to the Mariners’ zero.

But we’re being selective again: finding a team that combined luck with some smart decisions. Most franchises that shed three future Hall of Famers or even three stars in their primes collapse. The Royals traded away talent after talent (Dye, Beltran, etc.) over the last decade with nothing to show for it. The 2000′s Oakland A’s were an ideal candidate to test the Ewing Theory — they had lots of star players but couldn’t win in the playoffs. But once those players left, the franchise struggled.

Yes, you can lose a star player and succeed over an entire seasons or multiple seasons. But that’s not because the player was an example of the Ewing Theory. That’s because the franchise was smart, lucky or both. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of a smart franchise is knowing when to let great players go (e.g., the Red Sox and Mo Vaughn).

Opportunity Knocks

Sometimes losing a good player opens up the door for an unheralded player who was out of the limelight. To take one of Simmons’ examples: when Trent Green was hurt, Kurt Warner stepped up and won a title. But it bears noting that Warner was a great player and continued to be for a long time, bringing Arizona within seconds of a title. He was also surrounded by a great team featuring an amazing offensive line and a great player in Marshall Faulk. The team didn’t succeed because Green was hurt, it succeed because Kurt Warner was extremely talented. A similar fate might have befallen the Falcons 20 years ago if Chris Miller and Billy Joe Tolliver had gotten Pipped, letting Brett Favre take over the franchise.

Take another of Simmons’ examples: the 2000 Miami Dolphins. That’s a great example of the Ewing Theory: Dan Marino left and the Dolphins made the playoffs. But the Dolphin offense was actually mediocre that year. Fielder threw as many interceptions as he did touchdowns. They won because their previously neglected running game picked up some slack and their defense was exceptional: third best in the league. You can call that the Ewing Theory in action if you like. I prefer to call it talent filling an opportunity. I also note that, since Simmons wrote the article, the Dolphins haven’t had nearly the success without Marino as they had with him.

Here’s another example: the post-Manning Volunteers. Yes, they won the championship that had eluded Payton. But that was because they had building a great team for years, partly because of the respect that Manning brought to the school. Manning created the opportunity that the Volunteers eventually took advantage of.

But — and I hate to keep beating a dead horse here — we’re being selective. We remember these examples because they are the rare instance when a team sheds a star player and better players are able to step forward. But it’s far more often that the reverse happens: that losing a star player exposes weaknesses the team could carry because of the star. A prime example of this is the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. When they lost Payton Manning and the passing game, they had to rely on rushing. But their rushing offense, which had been adequate enough when Manning was throwing the ball, couldn’t carry the weight when it was the only weapon. Without any offense, they had to rely on their defense. Their defense has been OK when they were rolling up lots of points and maintaining possession. But having to bear the weight of the season on its own, it completely collapsed.

Sometimes losing a star player opens the door for another star. This has nothing to do with a Ewing effect or more to do with having extra talent on hand. But it’s rare for a team to have such a stockpile of talent and not already be succeeding. It’s much more common that they open the door and find a Zonk.

Predictability

My biggest problem with the Ewing Theory is that is applied post-facto. If a player leaves a team and they do well, then that prove the Ewing Theory. If he leaves and they do poorly — and most do — we ignore it. But there is no way to actually a priori predict who is going to show the Ewing Effect or not.

Don’t believe me? Here are the predictions Simmons made a decade ago for candidates for the Ewing Effect:

Drew Bledsoe: This might seem to prove the Ewing Theory. Bledsoe left and the Patriots became a dynasty. But it hardly prove the Ewing Theory when you replace one quarterback with a previously unheralded guy who is going to the Hall of Fame. The Patriots didn’t become a dynasty because they got rid of Drew Bledsoe’s evil spirits. They became a dynasty because Tom Brady is one of the great quarterbacks of all time.

Michael Vick: Simmons speculated Virginia Tech would be 12-0 without Vick. Virginia Tech lost 5 games the next season and has never returned to the success they had with Vick. Vick, for all his problems, turned Atlanta into a contender and then had a great season in Philadelphia. And Simmons’ claim that “they never won anything with Vick” is ridiculous. They went 22-2 in his seasons, won the conference twice and played in a national championship game that they would have won had Peter Warrick not gotten a special dispensation.

Chris Webber: He still had a couple of more good seasons in him. Since he left Sacramento, they had been a doormat and are now talking about moving to a new city.

Vince Carter: Carter went on to seven all-star games. The Raptors have done very little since he left.

Ken Griffey, Jr.: Maybe you could say this. But it’s worth nothing that, after their amazing 2001 season, the Mariners accomplished very little.

Kobe Byrant: Ahem.

Pete Sampras: Did he really think Wimbledon would be more popular without Sampras? Interest in the sport waned until Federer began to dominate.

Barry Bonds: Now this is silly. Bonds contradicts the Ewing Theory: Pittsburgh imploded after he left and San Francisco became a contender, getting to within nine outs of a title. They did, however, win a title after he left, so I might concede this one. But it again illustrates how the Ewing Theory is applied to players just because … well, because, that’s why! Why does it apply to Bonds and not Jeff Kent, whom the media often regarded as the better player?

Payton Manning: I’ll quote this in full because the hilarity of this prediction should be preserve for posterity:

You can feel the “Manning goes down and the Colts rally behind James & Harrison” moment coming in the next few years, can’t you?

After Simmons wrote those words, Payton Manning became one the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Indianapolis was 3-13 the year he was drafted. They would then make the playoffs in 11 of 12 years, make two superbowls and win one title … that one coming when they had the league’s worst defense. When Manning got hurt, did the Colts benefit from the Ewing Theory? I don’t think so.

Bullshit

Here’s the thing about the Ewing Theory: I’m not so sure it even applies to Patrick Ewing. Consider:

  • Patrick Ewing was at Georgetown from 1981 to 1985. Before he came, Georgetown had gone to the Elite Eight once since making the final in 1943. In the next four years, they would make the finals three times and win it once. Once he left, they would not return to the final four until 2007. Jesus Christ, how much better were they playing when he was in foul trouble?
  • Patrick Ewing joined the Knicks in 1985, when they were one of the worst teams in basketball. From 1987 on, they made the playoffs every single year. The year he left, the Knicks lost the playoffs in the first round. They made the playoffs in 2003 with a losing record. And … well that was it until 2010. If only he had blown more tendons.
  • The Ewing Theory postulates that the Knicks played better when he was on the bench. But that’s hard to test because Ewing was so durable. From 1987 through 1997 he played 76 games every single year and 36 minutes every game except for 1987. So if they were playing better when he was on the bench, it was an awfully small window of opportunity.
  • Simmons’ primary example is New York beating the Pacers in the 1999 Conference Finals after Ewing was hurt. I would submit that when your primary example is three out of four games for a 37-year-old center and relies on Rik Smits being a great player, you’re stretching credulity. With Ewing, the Knicks beat Miami, the top seed in the East. With Ewing, they swept the #4 seed Hawks. With Ewing, they split the first two games against Indy. At that point, they were the #8 seed and had gone 8-3 against higher seeded teams and outscored their opponents by almost six points per game. Without Ewing, they went 4-5 and were outscored by two points per game (they barely outscored Indiana by 1 ppg in what remained of the series). Simmons dismisses their loss to San Antonio saying no one was going to beat the Spurs that year. Maybe. But having Ewing’s seven-foot presence in the middle might have helped in a series dominated by the Spurs’ two big men.
  • In the end, the Ewing theory is based on how the Knicks “seemed” to play better without him. We don’t have the data available to see if this is actually true. But given Ewing’s record of durability and success, I find it dubious. When Simmons wrote that piece, New York was coming off one of the great runs in franchise history. But there was a lot of resentment against them and against Ewing specifically because they had failed to win a title. Well, the haters got their wish. Ewing left. And the franchise has never reached the heights he brought it to since.

    Just in case you’re wondering: I’m not a fan of Patrick Ewing. I grew up in Atlanta watching him beat my Hawks every time they were good. As a Southerner, I am programmed to cheer against any team from New York. Ewing drove me nuts. I loved it when he got into foul trouble. But I will give him the respect he earned. The idea that his teams played better without him is ridiculous. He turned Georgetown into a powerhouse. He turns the Knicks into a perennial contender. Those are the facts. I’ll leave the cockamamie pseudo-theories to someone else.

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