Last week, I dispelled the notion of a “rookie wall” for elite rookie points guards, proving that most players of that distinction like Ja Morant only get better as the NBA season enters its latter stages. However, not every alleged theory or questionable presupposition is inaccurate in the NBA. In fact, one in particular is not only true in the NBA, but also in the world of sports as a whole.
Enter the Ewing Theory.
The Ewing Theory is a brainchild from the 1990s of current Ringer CEO and blogger/podcaster extraordinaire Bill Simmons and his friend Dave Cirilli. It originated from an alleged reality that Cirilli had come to notice in his favorite sports teams: They seemed to typically be just as good if not totally better without their star player(s), whether those star player(s) were not present due to injury, retirement, trade or otherwise. Essentially, it’s inexplicable addition-by-subtraction.
Of course, the theory seems patently absurd on the surface. After all, one would think that the teams with the best players will typically win, regardless of the circumstances. But there’s entirely too much supporting evidence over the last several decades of sports to dispel it.
Here are several examples in the world of sports, a few of which Simmons himself has noted in the past and a few that I’ve noticed myself.
- Peyton Manning, one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all time, failed to ever beat Florida or make it to the national championship. Yet the Tennessee Volunteers would win the national championship in 1998—the year after which Manning left to pursue his NFL career.
- The St. Louis Rams made the playoffs in 1998 with Trent Green as their quality starting quarterback. He would tear his ACL the following preseason, and everyone assumed that the Rams would be terrible. The Rams instead named future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner as their starting quarterback and won the Super Bowl that season.
- Kyrie Irving played his final game for the 2017-2018 Boston Celtics on March 11th of that year due to knee surgery, and everyone assumed that the Celtics were no longer a true contender in the East without him in the lineup. The Celtics proceeded to rally behind rookie Jayson Tatum and sophomore Jaylen Brown to come one game away from reaching the NBA Finals.
- The most infamous example is Patrick Ewing, for whom the theory is named, in the 1999 NBA playoffs. Ewing of course was one of the great big men of that era and had led many great New York Knicks teams. They had failed, however, to ever make it to the NBA Finals. Ewing tore his Achilles in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, which presumably meant that the Knicks were finished. And yet they somehow managed to win three of the next four games to advance to the NBA Finals (the sadly hilarious thing about this one is that this circumstance isn’t why the theory is named after Ewing. Cirilli was convinced that both Georgetown and the Knicks had been better off without Ewing even before that fateful series).
The Memphis Grizzlies themselves have dealt with the Ewing Theory in a more micro-sense several times over the last decade.
At the beginning of the Grit and Grind era near the start of the past decade, Zach Randolph was unquestionably the Grizzlies’ most overwhelming scorer and overall best player. Yet at the early stage of the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season, the Grizzlies struggled with him in the lineup, starting 1-3 before he suffered an MCL injury in a 40-point road loss to the Chicago Bulls on January 1st. It appeared that the Grizzlies’ chances to contend in the Western Conference had been greatly reduced. But the Grizzlies proceeded to go 23-13 in his absence and managed to still claim home court in the opening round of the playoffs.
For the 2016-2017 season, the Grizzlies were built entirely around Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, even as Zach Randolph and Tony Allen were there for what turned out to be one final season. Conley in particular truly came into his own as an elite point guard, posting career highs in points and his shooting percentages across the board as he was truly the Grizzlies’ best and most consistent player. So when he went down with a broken vertebra on November 21st against the Hornets that season, many thought it could spell doom for both the Grizzlies and his all-star chances. Yet since logic is invalid and the only absolutes in life are the Ewing Theory and the inevitable heat death of the universe, the Grizzlies went 6-1 in their first 7 games without him, with wins over playoff teams in the Pelicans, Trail Blazers, and even the fearsome Warriors during that time.
Here’s the even more curious thing about it: The Grizzlies got noticeably worse after Conley returned that year—in the short term anyway. They only won 5 of their first 12 games with him back in the lineup against mostly inferior competition to the teams that they faced during their hot streak without him.
And now the Ewing Theory seems to apply to the Grizzlies yet again in the extended absence of Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke and even Justise Winslow. They have won four of their last six games—including a momentous win over the Los Angeles Lakers, who had won seven in a row coming into that game and have now won 11 of their last 13—with 28 points as their average margin of victory in those wins.
With Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke in the lineup, the Grizzlies’ previous largest margin of victory this year was 26 in Los Angeles against the Clippers on January 4th. Without Jackson and Clarke in the lineup, the Grizzlies beat both the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets by 39 points each in back-to-back games.
Now of course, all of this is not to say that the Grizzlies are better without Jackson, Clarke and Winslow. But it does indicate that whether because of the mythic Ewing Theory or some other bizarre factors, the Grizzlies have been able to establish a successful identity without them in the lineup. An identity that is centered upon tenacious defense to compensate for a lack of shot-creation and perimeter scoring. Beating up on the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets helps with this theory’s confirmation as well. Context matters.
When they return (which will be soon; Jaren and Winslow should be back this week), the Grizzlies likely won’t become exponentially better in the short-term just because they’re drastically reducing the minutes of players like Anthony Tolliver and John Konchar.
An NBA team is not a chocolate cake that you can just keep adding delicious toppings to make the cake taste better and better. In reality, it’s more of a larger puzzle in which more pieces may may make the puzzle appear grander and more impressive, but if they struggle to fit together, then the puzzle itself will struggle to come together.
To put it simply, it may take several games for the Grizzlies to maximize the impact of Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow and finally Brandon Clarke when they return. The Grizzlies shouldn’t necessarily be expected to immediately thrive just because they are re-inserting superior players to those currently playing their roles in the rotation. Chemistry and flow can arguably be just as important in the short-term of an NBA season as a team’s overall talent, and adding them back into the mix could certainly alter the rhythm the Grizzlies have found in their absence, especially as they enter a 10-game stretch of all playoff opponents on their schedule.
However, the Grizzlies will inevitably become their best version of themselves for the entire season once everyone is again acclimated. With Jaren Jackson Jr., already one of the great shooting big men in NBA history that was also playing like an All-Defense team member before he went down, Brandon Clarke, one of the most efficient rookies in NBA history, and Justise Winslow, who will immediately compete with Dillon Brooks to be the team’s best overall wing, the Grizzlies will be simply too talented not to do so.
Too talented for even the Ewing Theory to be relevant.