This feature was first published in the 120th edition (2013 - No. 23) of SLAM China magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.
And then, miracles happen. Without their dominant big man in the middle, the Knicks shift to small ball, and share the responsibilities of the one missing centerpiece amongst the rest of their contributors. Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, Marcus Camby, and the rest step up to defeat the heavily-favoured Pacers three times over the next four games. The Knicks become the first ever eighth-seed to make the Finals. The fairytale came to an end here though, because the Twin Towers of Duncan and Robinson prove to be too much for New York’s thin frontline to handle.
Still, the Knicks making an addition by subtraction – losing Ewing and then actually improving their team-play – made a lasting impression on a popular American sports journalist. And thus, Bill Simmons created the ‘Ewing Theory’.
The NBA is a superstar-driven league, and having a star player to lead the offense is almost always better than not having one. But every once in a while, the Ewing Theory comes into action, and teams are able to find chemistry and balance in the absence of a star more than they did in his presence.
After last season’s injury crisis – where Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Amar’e Stoudemire, Danny Granger, David Lee, Danilo Gallinari, Andrew Bynum, and many more missed valuable time – teams around the league had to reconfigure their systems to survive. This season, many players have made a return back to action, while there are some superstars still recovering on the sidelines. But faint remnants of the original Ewing Theory continue to this day, and many teams have found a way to be more than competitive in doing more with less.
Last season, Chicago’s former MVP Derrick Rose missed the entire year, leaving the Bulls without their most consistent scoring option. Without Rose, they weren’t able to match their achievement to finish with the league’s best record again like in the previous two seasons, but they weren’t any slouches, either. The core group of Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer kept the Bulls’ ship steady throughout the regular season. In the playoffs, Chicago were able to survive more injury troubles and rely on unexpected heroics from Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler to make it into the Second Round and impress basketball fans everywhere. Rose returned to Bulls this season, but the team struggled to find their cohesiveness with him in the starting lineup and both team and player suffered from a slow start. Rose suffered from early hiccups, and so the team did, too. Now, he's set to miss another season to a different injury.
The Warriors lost All Star David Lee at the beginning of the playoffs last season, but his absence provided Coach Mark Jackson to become smaller, moving Harrison Barnes to the power forward position, and help upset the higher-seeded Nuggets in the first round. Despite their Second Round loss, the team had done enough to show that their roster was deep enough to survive the loss of their big man and still remain strong. Lee has returned to the team this season, and in this case, they have found a way to seamlessly fit him back into their successful offensive plans.
Despite all the examples above, there is still no replacement in the league for a game-changing superstar to lift the fortunes of a franchise. The explosive comebacks of Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook have helped get the Timberwolves and the Thunder back on track. And there is no doubt that fans of the Lakers and the Celtics will be counting days until their All Star guards – Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo – can suit up to ignite their teams again.
Losing a superstar in the NBA can be brutal. And most teams would agree that it’s better to have found a superstar and lost him, than not to have found him at all. But ‘Ewing Theory’ suggests that there is some hope for every team: It takes a brilliant coach, a deep and motivated supporting cast of players, and a good dose of healthy team chemistry. And every once in a while, the absence of a star can equate to the presence of team success.