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Yao and Ewing

Chris Mannix writes:

Yao's development -- or lack thereof -- may prove to be the highlight of Van Gundy's tenure in Houston. Van Gundy is Yao's kind of coach, a slug-it-out game planner whose offense is designed to revolve around the center. He made a career riding Ewing, who for six years under Van Gundy was the focal point of the Knicks offense. If the Rockets run 75 offensive plays per game, Van Gundy would like Yao to touch the ball on 74 of them.

But Yao will never be that kind of player -- he doesn't have the heart for it. It's not his fault, it's just the way he was raised. It wasn't until Yao came to America when he was teenager that he started dunking in games. In China, dunking is considered taboo because it embarrasses your opponents. How do you think trash talking and hard fouls, two components that made Ewing the player he was, were viewed on the mainland? Yao has 20 years of teachings to erase and it will probably take him 20 more to do it.

Obviously, Yao is never going to be just like Patrick Ewing. He's taller and skinnier and more Chinese. That said, when Jeff Van Gundy was coaching him, Ewing was a grizzled veteran. Yao is 25. Ewing was 25 in the 1987-88 season when he averaged 20.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 1.5 assists. This year, Yao is averaging 19.4 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 1.4 assists. Ewing was only very marginally better. Already, Yao's worst free throw shooting season is better than Ewing's best. What's more, Yao's number show slow-but-real improvement in every season. Ewing, by contrast, was essentially flat for his first three seasons. Now Yao's numbers are considerably worse than Ewing's best seasons, but he is developing and is at about the same level Ewing was at given equal ages. So I don't see any particular reason to rule out the idea that he'll be as good.

The thing I would say is that the league has changed an awful lot. Running the offense through a big, stout center in the low post was a pretty common strategy when I grew up watching Ewing, and it's become very rare. Maybe it's become rare because there are fewer people around who can play that game. Or maybe it's become rare because it was proven to be a poor strategy. I tend to think the former, however. Ewing was, at best, the third-best center in the league at his prime and he was way more effective than the number three pure center from last season.

December 8, 2005 | Permalink

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Another point in Yao's favor: Yao will properly let McGrady take the last second shots. Ewing demanded the ball and the goated the shot. So while Yao may help his team slightly less in gross, he is also significantly less likely to kill any chance that the team has of winning a particular game out of sheer ego.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Dec 8, 2005 5:24:19 PM

A couple of things.

First, to say Ewing was the third-best center in the league during his prime is like saying Lou Gehrig was only the second-best Yankee during his prime. It's tough to compete with Olajawon and ... uhh ... and ... who's the second best center during Ewing's prime? Shaq?? Did they really have primes at the same time??

Second, yes, the league has changed; scoring is down (as are posessions in general), which I think favors 25-year old Yao over 25-year old Ewing.

The "problem" with Yao is that people said Yao was going to be the next Shaq only with better free throw, and everyone wants Yao to be the next Shaq only with better free throw shooting. 25-year old Shaq averaged 28.3 points, 11.4 rebounds 2.4 blocks and 2.4 assists, though in a higher scoring environment thant today. But he also played 36 minutes a game. Which, I think, is the big difference between Yao and other "big-game centers". Ewing didn't start playing 36-37 minutes a game until he was 26.

Whether Van Gundy or Yao is to blame for not getting him in the game 36 minutes a game is unclear.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Dec 8, 2005 5:25:46 PM

I had David Robinson in mind as the second-best during Ewing's prime. But, yes, we're in agreement. The point is that there's been a big decline in center quality. In 93-94, for example, you had Robinson (29.8/10.7), Hakeen (27.3/12), Shaq (29.3/13.2), Mourning (21.4/10.2), and Ewing (24.5/11.2) all having what were probably better seasons than the Shaq of 04-05.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Dec 8, 2005 5:40:01 PM

It's tough to compete with Olajawon and ... uhh ... and ... who's the second best center during Ewing's prime? Shaq?? Did they really have primes at the same time??

MY was referring to David Robinson, of course. Although I don't think it's that clear whom you would take between Ewing and Robinson in their respective primes (obviously Hakeem was the best of the era).

Posted by: Haggai | Dec 8, 2005 5:42:09 PM

Robinson won an MVP (and a title - although that's a result of Duncan more than Robinson); Ewing didn't. I think Robinson was better at his prime.

Look, there are centers now that are pretty darn good. Only they want to be called "forwards". Duncan is a center. Amare is a center. Bosh is a center. Brand is a center. For some reason, the term "center" is just out of favor today.

Posted by: Al | Dec 8, 2005 6:04:57 PM

"Yao is 25. Ewing was 25 in the 1987-88 season"

Big men usually take a long time to perfect their craft. Learning the intricate footwork and moves of the low post requires a lengthier education than learning a perimeter player's craft.

(The exceptions are young big men with overwhelming physical advantages like Shaquille and Amare. They can initially dominate without traditional post skills.)

"The thing I would say is that the league has changed an awful lot. Running the offense through a big, stout center in the low post was a pretty common strategy when I grew up watching Ewing, and it's become very rare."

But almost all the elite teams have a low post dominator. Shaquille and Timmy are the two best post threats in the league, and one of them in almost always in the Finals. (Detroit is, as always, the exception to the rule.)

It may be rare, but the teams that rule the low post rule the association.

(He's not a center, but Elton Brand low post domination makes the lowly Clippers a serious threat in the playoffs. The guy is entering the suburbs of a Karl Malone type zone.)

And I'm not sure whether or not there are fewer teams now running their offense through a big, stout center in the post or not. We remember Ewing, but who was the Knick center in the years before Ewing when the team was not so successful.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 8, 2005 6:17:04 PM

Brand? Really?!

I always thought of Elton as the second coming of Charles Barkley.

And Matt's right, the Yao hating is getting out of hand.

Posted by: WillieStyle | Dec 8, 2005 6:18:11 PM

I guess Petey's right, to some extent people who just would have been called "centers" in the nineties want to be "forwards" today. Amare genuinely doesn't have what I would call a traditional center's game, just like Kevin Garnett and Dirk despite their height. But some of the others?

What happened? In part, we're seeing the legacy of the coincidence that Tim Duncan was drafted by a team that already had David Robinson on it. So he played the four and to some extent just serves as a model. The other thing, maybe, was Shaq's unusually long period of hyper-dominance. Understandably, people with solid offensive talents (a) didn't want to guard him, and (b) didn't want to be compared to him, which I think pushed people to want to be classified as centers.

Ewing versus Robinson is a hard call based on the stat sheets. I gave the edge to Robinson because (a) I recall that as having been the consensus at the time, and (b) I'm sensitive to charges of overrating Ewing in light of my Knicks-fandom. At the time, obviously, in New York we considered Ewing the best player in the league, nevermind Hakeen.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Dec 8, 2005 6:39:23 PM

I always thought of Brand as the second coming of Wes Unseld or maybe Willis Reed. (Not that I really saw either of them play other than on ESPN Classic - but Wes Unseld was 6'7" fercrissakes.)

I'll add that I think Matthew's post is right on the mark. Give Yao a few more years - THEN we can see whether he will rank up there with Ewing et al.

Posted by: Al | Dec 8, 2005 6:40:08 PM

but who was the Knick center in the years before Ewing when the team was not so successful.


Bill Cartwright

Posted by: Al | Dec 8, 2005 6:42:15 PM

"I always thought of Elton as the second coming of Charles Barkley."

Barkley and Malone played very similar games with different bodies. I see more Malone in Brand, but you could group him with either.

-----

"Look, there are centers now that are pretty darn good. Only they want to be called "forwards". Duncan is a center. Amare is a center. Bosh is a center. Brand is a center."

Duncan and Amare, yes. Brand, no. Bosh, I'm not sure.

Of course, the weird ones are guys with center bodies like Garnett and Nowitzki, who play small forward.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 8, 2005 6:43:38 PM

Back to the subject of Yao, I think the way to think about it is this. For which teams would it be a bad idea to trade their starting center for Yao? There are very few candidates. Assuming Amare gets healthy again, Phoenix is on the list since Yao would fuck up D'Antoni's system. I think that's the only clear case. Arguably, Detroit is so successful with the team they have that it would be a mistake to shake things up. Then there's Miami. Shaq is clearly a more effective player, but there's still a case for trade since Yao plays more games-per-season, and Yao is significantly younger.

There aren't any other teams where I think it would make any sense to contemplate saying "no." Meanwhile, there are several teams (New Jersey, Washington, Philadelphia, come to mind) that would be transformed from bubble playoff teams into legit contenders if they could makethe center-swap with Yao.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Dec 8, 2005 6:44:47 PM

"What happened? In part, we're seeing the legacy of the coincidence that Tim Duncan was drafted by a team that already had David Robinson on it. So he played the four and to some extent just serves as a model."

And before that, Ralph Sampson played the four to Olajuwon's five on a team that got to the Finals. Two are usually better than one.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 8, 2005 6:47:11 PM

"There aren't any other teams where I think it would make any sense to contemplate saying "no."

If it were for this year only, eliminating age as a consideration, you could make a pretty solid case that Denver shouldn't swap Camby for Yao...

Posted by: Petey | Dec 8, 2005 6:55:16 PM

I think the phasing-out of the traditional center position/role has a lot to do with the fact that all the *other* players on the floor are a lot bigger, stronger, faster, quicker. Time was, the center would be the enforcer sitting in the low post, knocking down everyone who came his way, being able to easily muscle out anyone else on the court; now, there are 4s and 3s who are just as strong as a lot of centers; are only marginally smaller; are quicker, and can catch big slow centers moving their feet in the post.

So, yes, Duncan was able to pioneer a new kind of not-center-center position because Robinson was already there, but it's a position that makes a lot of sense for the most talented big men to play - big men who can also move with the ball now, and who can take on 4s and 3s on the floor.

All that being said - I agree entirely with Petey's sentiments RE: the maturation of centers. Some players are just natural centers, and it's a tricky position to play, because
a) you're enormous, and
b) you play with your back to the basket a lot of the time, along with
c-q) many, many other things.

Yao's been getting marginally better, and looks to continue to do so.

Posted by: jkd | Dec 8, 2005 7:07:33 PM

On Watching Centers through the Ages

I enjoy watching Shaquille operate down low. It has a similar appeal to watching the ballerina hippos in Fantansia.

But I'm not sure there has even been a center more fun to watch than Hakeem. The guy got better and better as he aged and perfected a baroque post footwork dance unlike anyone else.

My largely uninformed impression is that Kareem was like Duncan - pure efficiency and perfect fundamentals. It may be great for winning, but they're a relative yawn for watching. Until he proves his worth by team success, the fact that Yao tends toward that type of play may be one reason some fans are hard on him.

The guy I'd love to see play is Wilt in his first decade in the league. I can only imagine that he must have been a perfect blend of Shaquille and Amare - with an overwhelming size advantage and an overwhelming athletic advantage. The numbers he put up in his early years are just so out of spec with anyone else in the history of the league that's it's pretty bizarre.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 8, 2005 7:27:25 PM

Matt sez:
"Ewing was 25 in the 1987-88 season when he averaged 20.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 1.5 assists. This year, Yao is averaging 19.4 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 1.4 assists. Ewing was only very marginally better."

Actually, Yao is marginally better. Averaging 19 a game in 2005 is better than averaging 20 a game was in 1987, because the pace of the game is so different.

Also, David Robinson was much better than Ewing. Better defender, better scorer, better rebounder, better passer. Did I miss anything?

Posted by: Steve | Dec 8, 2005 7:34:32 PM

Robinson won an MVP (and a title - although that's a result of Duncan more than Robinson); Ewing didn't. I think Robinson was better at his prime.

Robinson - MVP, '94-95.
Duncan - drafted 1997.

To the extent there's an issue here, it's whether the Knicks would have been better served if they'd had Smits. Clearly not as good as Ewing, but at least he didn't have a kicker in his contract that required him to have one of the the three highest salaries in the league. Even under a later contract, Ewing killed the Knicks in terms of salary cap. The Knicks are the mess they are today thanks, in no small part, to Ewing and the team's idiot devotion to him.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Dec 8, 2005 7:38:15 PM

Tim: I think he was saying the title was due to Duncan, not the MVP award.

Posted by: Steve | Dec 8, 2005 7:53:18 PM

Ah, sorry. My fury at seeing Ewing over-praised misted my eyes, and I missed that.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Dec 8, 2005 8:36:33 PM

Al touched on a pet theory of mine that I'm too young to assess the accuracy of; that Shaq warped everyone's expectations of what even the average center was supposed to look like, much as the weight of NFL linemen has been steadily inching up due to the rare players who reach a new plateau of size without sacrificing speed. (The Bears are pretty successful this season by reversing that trend with a "small" defense.) If you check out the sizes of all-star centers from years gone by, not that many of them are even Ewing-sized (taking both height and weight into account). There's a class of players like Chris Webber who should've been playing center but didn't, because it seems like coaches/players thought they needed to get (almost always less talented) big bodies out there against O'Neal; a bunch of them are now starting to play more and more center, which I think of as a kind of correction (Jermaine O'Neal for one, and Duncan for another, although like Amare he still wants to be called a "power forward). Garnett and Bosh are a different case; tall but skinny, they're much more like McHale in body type than the classic centers. Incidentally, am I the only one who feels that Garnett (winning aside) hasn't lived up to potential? I'm not convinced that he's actually a better player than McHale was - far more athletic, better passer, able to play multiple positions, probably a better defender, but nowhere near the versatile scorer that McHale was.

Posted by: Quarterican | Dec 8, 2005 8:58:42 PM

If the only edge McHale has on Garnett is low-post scoring, and Garnett is much better at everything else, how does that make McHale better, or even Garnett's equal?

But let's stick with the scoring -- McHale had one season, 86-87, where he scored 26 a game. Other than that, he never scored more than 22 ppg. His career average was 18 ppg. Garnett's career average is 20, with a career high of 24 and 5 seasons above 22 ppg. Obviously, McHale played with Larry Bird, so he wasn't the No. 1 option. But on the other hand, there were way more points to go around in McHale's day. Also, Bird was such a great passer that McHale probably scored more with him than he would have without him.

Overall, they're probably equal in the scoring. Garnett can create his own shot better, and McHale was better in the post. Since Garnett is hands-down better at everything else -- the guy averages like 5 assists a game! he can guard freaking point guards! -- he's the better player. By far.

I really don't understand the Garnett-bashing. Yes, he hasn't won a title. But he's probably the 2nd-best player in the game. Trade him for Duncan, the Spurs don't get much worse, and probably still win it all. Trade him 1-on-1 for anybody else, and he makes that team much, much better.

Posted by: Steve | Dec 8, 2005 9:11:17 PM

Much of Ewing's pantheon status is a result of his truly spectacular Georgetown career right at the start of the ESPN era. My thought is that he was always slightly overrated as a pro. For me, Yao is an interesting case, as his numbers always look better than he does while getting them.

Posted by: Pooh | Dec 8, 2005 10:28:04 PM

SCMT: The fact that people, like me, who were Knicks fans in the 90s (really late 80s into 90s) really hated the Bulls is no reason for people, like you, who were Bulls fans in that time period to have negative feelings towards the Knicks. It was kind of a one sided matchup.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Dec 8, 2005 10:46:25 PM

As a Bulls fan and possibly the only David Robinson hater, I always considered Ewing to be the better player. I realize that this excuse is too widely used and completely irrelevant, but I still think that Ewing should be given some leeway as far as the title thing goes. No one took the Bulls to seven games in the finals. The Knicks took the Bulls to seven games in 1992 (Bulls won the championship). In 1993, Knicks took the Bulls to six (Bulls won the championship). In 1994, Knicks took the Rockets to seven games. I guess that I side with the Ewing crowd because Ewing was so damned good and that sideline jumper of his always had me thinking that the Bulls were going to lose.

Oh, and David Robinson was a punk. Does anyone else remember how he scored 71 points against the Clippers in a meaningless game (the last game of the year, playoff seeds already determined) in order to win the scoring title. I was so pissed that they gave him the MVP after that bull.

Posted by: a | Dec 8, 2005 10:56:44 PM

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