Patrick Ewing Didn’t Need A Ring To Prove His Greatness: The 90s

Part II of a Three-Part Series
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Catch up on Part I here.

In contrast to the slick Showtime Lakers squad, Riley’s 90s Knicks were pure physicality and effort. That team was all heart and hustle over talent or finesse. Most importantly, Riley brought much-needed stability and identity for the franchise, which swept through eight coaches in fourteen years before his arrival.

One of Riley's best maneuvers that season was a trade for All-Star Xavier McDaniel. Patrick Ewing, now in his seventh year, finally had a reliable second scoring option on the floor. The team willed themselves to the second-highest defensive rating in the league and finished second in the Atlantic Division with a record of 51-31. Their first trip beyond the second round of the playoffs since 1973 came that season, where they met the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinal.

Although the Knicks took Chicago to a game seven that series, the rosters were not well matched. Calling the Knicks the “underdogs” of the 90s doesn’t even begin to describe it. Chicago had two Hall of Famers in Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Horace Grant filled out the trio as the third scoring option and the team’s best rebounder. Patrick Ewing had, well, himself and the X-Man, who became known for his relentless play on Scottie Pippen in that series. The Chicago Bulls went on to win their second straight title, but the Knicks established themselves as the new powerhouse of the Eastern Conference.

Although the spirit seemed to be shifting for the Knicks under the guidance of Pat Riley, the front office continued to make questionable roster choices. The Knicks fell through on their verbal commitment to Xavier McDaniel about his contract renewal and let him walk to Boston that fall. There were questions about McDaniel’s health, but he put up valuable numbers in Boston and would have been a reasonable gamble to take considering the team’s next best second scoring option was John Starks.

The Knicks continued building the following season, finishing with the best defensive rating in the league. Rolando Blackman, Tony Campbell, and Herb Williams joined the squad, but there was still an underwhelming amount of offensive support for Patrick Ewing. Despite claiming the best defensive rating in the league, the 1992-93 team still had a bottom-five offense. Regardless, they eked out the top spot in the Atlantic Division and earned the number one seed in the playoffs but lost to Chicago again, this time in a six-game series.

It’s easy to see how stacked the Chicago team was in comparison to New York, but the real blunder to Patrick Ewing’s legacy is the 1994 NBA Finals, where he earned the reputation of being outplayed by Hakeem Olajuwon. Of course, the playing field was a little more even. Starks and Oakley had both been All-Stars that year — but that was in big part thanks to the tremendous play of Ewing.

Still, the argument that the teams were on an even playing field doesn't necessarily hold weight. Houston had a modern four-around-one offense that allowed Olajuwon to isolate in the low post while shooters spaced the floor. None of Houston’s players were particularly impressive statistically, but they were a deep roster with reliable scorers and defenders. Olajuwon’s team was structured similarly to Pitino’s Bomb Squad of the late 80s. Oddly enough, the Houston Rockets were the first team to launch over 1,100 threes since Pitino's Knicks, putting up 1,285 three-pointers in the regular season. Houston’s success is somewhat glaring evidence that Pitino's system was the best choice to complement a player like Patrick Ewing.

With Mark Jackson traded, the Knicks lacked a guard who could penetrate. The only assignment the Houston Rockets had was to shut down Patrick Ewing — and they did, on the offensive end, at least. Ewing’s reputation for being outplayed in that series is a little blown out of proportion since he dominated the defensive end by out-rebounding Olajuwon 12.4 to 9.1 and averaging 4.3 blocks to Hakeem’s 3.9. In game five, Ewing set a record for most blocks in an NBA Finals game with eight rejections. John Starks, despite his hustle and intensity on the defensive end, was a far cry from a reasonable second scoring option on a championship basketball team during this series.

The greatest regret of Riley's career came in game seven of the Houston series when he kept a cold Starks on the floor instead of subbing in Rolando Blackman. What followed was an unforgettable 2-18 performance from Starks that cemented into Knicks' history. Many labeled the loss as another spectacular failure from Patrick Ewing. On paper, the two teams seemed to match up well, but to scrutinize Patrick Ewing for the loss was unfair. Even Bill Russell needed six Hall-of-Famers to help him land his championships, but Patrick Ewing had to win a ring on his own to justify his greatness, and he was a blocked shot away from doing it.

New York cherished players like Oakley and Mason for their grit and attitude, but who was the best player to play alongside Patrick Ewing? Starks, Camby, and Houston are all in the conversation, but there was never a second star that stood out. For his fifteen years with the Knicks, his teammates made only three All-Star games. Although the players on those 90s rosters are glorified and celebrated for everything they brought to the franchise, Ewing taking the Houston Rockets to a game seven with that supporting cast is standalone evidence of his greatness.

The Knicks never committed to getting Ewing a second scorer until it was too late. He was constantly plagued by injuries, and although he always played through it, by the time Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell arrived in New York, it was just too little, too late from the front office for their star player. Still, the 1998-99 team made a memorable playoff run on the back of a heroic performance from Ewing on a shredded Achilles against Miami. It was a moment that encompassed everything he stood for throughout his career — fight, and heart.

Putting Patrick Ewing's accomplishments in context crystalizes how great he really was. Historically, stars at the center position lean on roster construction to succeed more than any other position. He carried New York to the playoffs for 13 years, with nine consecutive trips to the second round. He was an 11x All-Star and 10x All-NBA player in the era of elite two-way centers. Perhaps most importantly, he put New York basketball back in the conversation and made the Knicks relevant for over a decade. But all the achievements aside — Patrick Ewing did his best, and his best was enough.