Need to Win Games? Injure Your Center

Roger PAnalyst IMay 12, 2009

HOUSTON - MAY 10:  Center Dikembe Mutombo and Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets during Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center on May 10, 2009 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“As we saw earlier, decentralization has three general benefits:

(1) It encourages motivation and creativity; (2) it allows many minds to work simultaneously on the same problem; and (3) it accommodates flexibility and individualization.”

—“The Future of Work” by Thomas W. Malone, published by Harvard Business Press

It’s very likely that the rest of the team comes into the game with a stronger sense of urgency and responsibility to fill in for their wounded star.

It’s very likely that giving the opponent a new look on offense changes things up enough to cause problems.

And it’s also very likely that removing the center speeds up the game, removes bottlenecks, and allows the Aaron Brookses of the world to cut loose.

Whatever it is, it’s good to know that the Ewing Theory is alive and well.

The Ewing Theory, revealed to the masses by Bill Simmons, suggests that when a perpetual star, who has never won at all, is gone (because of injury or trade, or some such), his team will play better.

The name hearkens back to the '98-'99 Knicks who made it to the NBA Finals after losing their star—the unattractive yet effective Patrick Ewing—to injury in the conference finals.

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Ewing had been to a Finals before in '94, when Jordan was out of the league, but hadn't been able to pull the trigger on a championship.

In that fateful '98-'99 season, Ewing pushed through an Achilles injury to get his team most of the way there until the injury finally benched him. With him out, though, the Knicks flourished and polished off the Pacers.

It's on a smaller scale, but we've already seen the Ewing Theory come into play in these playoffs—twice.

Note the Magic's win during Dwight Howard's one-game suspension and the Rockets' obliteration of the Lakers after Yao Ming went out with a broken foot.

The Rockets' struggles in the playoffs are well known, and we get a double whammy with this one.

For one, they finally made it past the first round without Tracy McGrady—who has famously never gotten past the first round. Now, in the second round, they rumbled back to win big over the Lakers in Game Four with Yao indenting the bench because of a broken foot.

Both players are bona fide stars, for sure: McGrady is a seven time all-star, and the madman behind the 13-points-in-35-seconds-finish in a victory over the Spurs; Yao has been a force since he entered the league, hauling down a double-double every night (as far as I'm concerned—yes, every night. Offseason included.), and staring down like Mufasa at any weakling Simba that enters the lane.

If you include the aged Dikembe Mutombo, they've lost three big name players, including two centers. And yet, it wasn't until these players sat out—and they started 6'6" Chuck Hayes at center—that they went up 29 on the defending Western champion Lakers on Sunday.

Dwight Howard, somewhat similarly, is the new face of physically dominant centers.

He led the league in rebounds last year, he won Defensive Player of the Year this year, and he's still not old enough to rent a car.

He won the slam dunk contest. He's got a gold medal.

He's the new Superman.

But when he sat out one game against the Sixers in the first round, suddenly the Magic won by 25—closing out Philly with their biggest win of the six game series.

You could even make a case for the Lakers experiencing the Ewing Theory with Andrew Bynum (or, as he's known around here, Andrew Bystander).

It's not that the Lakers did better with him out—they went 37-6 with him in, followed by 25-7 with him out—but rather that they have played so poorly since he got back, lacking focus against the Jazz in the first round and dropping two (so far) to the Rockets in the second.

It's the reverse Ewing Theory.

The Theory doesn't, by definition, apply only to centers (or even only to basketball; cf. the New York Giants winning a ring the year after Tiki Barber left), which makes it even more uncanny this year that we've seen it again and again from our big men.

So, keep an eye out.

The Rockets are down two stars—maybe if they lose Artest they can win it all.