December 4, 2013

With or Without You: Some teams suffer without their star players – others are better off without them

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.

Rewind back to the 1999 NBA Playoffs. Even on hobbled feet, Patrick Ewing is able to average 17 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game to be the best player of a mediocre New York Knicks team. The Knicks end the season 8th in the East, but once the playoffs begin, they surprise the world by winning the first two rounds to set up a Conference Finals matchup against the Indiana Pacers. Unfortunately, an Achilles tear to Ewing in Game 2 rules him out for the rest of the playoffs, and thus ends New York’s championship aspirations.

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’.

Nearly 12 years later, the Knicks would play a major part in a new example of the Ewing Theory. The Nuggets traded their All Star Carmelo Anthony to New York in return for role players. As it turned out, the Anthony-less Nuggets were suddenly happier without him, and without a ball-dominating scorer, they turned a team full of self-less no-names into big winners.

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.

The biggest example of that this season – and the last – have been the Indiana Pacers. For five consecutive years, Granger was the Pacers’ leading scorer, and in the process, he won recognition as an All Star and the league’s Most Improved Player. But patellar tendinosis limited Granger to only five games in the 2012-13 season. Instead of folding without him, the Pacers moved Paul George to his small forward position and gave the starting shooting guard slot to Lance Stephenson. Granger’s absence became George’s opportunity, as the youngster developed into a superstar talent and helped the Pacers to their best post-season performance in over a decade. Granger’s injury problems have carried into the new season, but his absence didn’t hurt the team at all: the Pacers started off as the hottest squad in the NBA and George developed into an early MVP candidate.

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.

For the surprising Philadelphia 76ers, it must feel like a heavy burden has been lifted. Although Andrew Bynum never played a single game in the 76ers uniform, he was a part of the team all of last year, and unfortunately, his injury and upcoming free agency proved to be more of a distraction than a positive force for his teammates. With Bynum bolting for Cleveland this offseason, Philly were able to get more focused about their future. No more were they tied down to planning around their big man. Instead a young, hungry group of stars – led by Michael Carter-Williams – have been able to give the squad a refreshing change of direction.

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.

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