7 Reasons Why the Patrick Ewing Era Knicks Never Won an NBA Finals Title

John Schmeelk
May 18, 2020 - 12:53 pm
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Michael Jordan’s 10-part promotional series (sorry I can’t consider it a documentary when the main subject basically had editorial control over the whole thing), “The Last Dance,” is finally over. The series has been fun and has brought back a lot of good and bad memories for Knicks fans.

The Patrick Ewing Era might have fallen short of a championship but it was a 15-year period where the Knicks made the playoffs in all but Ewing’s first two seasons. The Knicks made it past the first round 11 times during that stretch, including all nine of Ewing’s final seasons with the team.

Why couldn’t the Knicks close the deal? The idiotic “Patrick Ewing Theory” has been bandied about by the likes of Bill Simmons, which basically claimed the Knicks always played better without Ewing. Given what has happened since Ewing departed the franchise (not to mention how the team played after he shattered his wrist) that theory should be dismissed out of hand.

Was Ewing as good as Michael Jordan? No. Was he as good has Hakeem Olajuwon? No. Is that part of the reason the Knicks never won? Yes. Is it at the top of the list? Not even close. Ewing was a great player. In 1997, he was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Twenty-three years later in a list ESPN put together, Ewing was ranked the 37th greatest player in league history. For some reason David Robinson was ranked 14 spots ahead of him (and ahead of Isiah Thomas) but that’s an argument for a different day.

What were the major reasons why the Knicks never won a championship with Ewing, other than the greatness of his opponents? For the youngsters out there that can’t remember the era, there were many.

1. The Franchise Wasted The First Six Years of His Career

In the first six years of Ewing’s career, the Knicks went through five different head coaches: Hubie Brown, Bob Hill, Rick Pitino, Stu Jackson, and John Macleod. The Knicks won 50 games only once during that stretch of seasons and advanced as far as the second round of the playoffs only twice. Ewing was still at his peak defensively, and his knees were far healthier than in later years.

The Knicks also went through a number of executives in those years: Dave DeBusschere, Gordon Stirling and Al Bianchi. During that six-year period the Knicks tried to supplement Ewing by adding aging veterans on decline like Maurice Cheeks and Kiki Vandeweghe. They traded Rod Strickland, who was unhappy playing behind Mark Jackson and didn’t have the best attitude -- but was a dynamic player, for Cheeks. It wasn’t until the Knicks hired Dave Checketts and Ernie Grunfeld that they began adding better players around Ewing.

Patrick Ewing speaks with then-Knicks head coach Rick Pitino.
Getty Images

2. Lack Of A Dominant Backcourt Scorer

The Knicks never found a top perimeter player to pair with Patrick Ewing until Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell arrived at the end of Ewing’s career and he was past his prime. Even after Dave Checketts and Ernie Grunfeld arrived, they attempted to fill the void with players like Doc Rivers, Rolando Blackman, John Starks and Derek Harper. They also added Charles Smith in a trade for Mark Jackson, but he was forced to play small forward next to Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing with a bad knee. Until Houston and Sprewell arrived, Knicks guards that played with Ewing made one All-Star Game: John Starks in 1994. It is difficult for a team to rely on a center to be their primary playmaker and scorer at the end of games due to the ease of double-teams and the way opponents can force the ball out of his hands. If opponents did that the Knicks had few answers.

3. Bernard King’s Knee Injury

I should have put this first, but since it applies to both No. 1 and No. 2 I put it third. King blew out his knee at the end of the regular season the year prior to Ewing being drafted. He averaged 32.9 points per game that season. He only played six games with the Knicks while Ewing was on the roster. The Knicks released him and he went on to average 17 or more points per game in four straight seasons with the Bullets. If he never gets hurt, the story of the early part of Ewing’s career could have been a lot different.

4. Poor Draft Picks

With the Knicks struggling early in Ewing’s career, they had the chance to select fifth overall in 1986 and wound up with an ultimately disappointing Kenny “Sky” Walker. There were no other obviously dominant player they passed on to take Walker. They would select higher than 17th only twice in Ewing’s career after that. In those seasons, they selected Greg Anthony 12th and Frederic Weis 15th (over Ron Artest). The Knicks most successful draft pick in the 1990’s was Charlie Ward. Anthony and Hubert Davis are the next two on the list.

In 1996, the Knicks had one more chance to reload their roster in the draft to win with Patrick Ewing. They did well in free agency, signing Chris Childs, Allan Houston, and trading for Larry Johnson. They also had three first-round picks and selected John Wallace, Walter McCarty and Dontae’ Jones 18th, 19th and 21st overall, respectively. None of the three turned out to be difference-making players, though McCarty had a long NBA career.

5. The Missed Finger Roll

After Ewing was outplayed by Olajuwon and the Knicks lost to the Rockets in the 1994 NBA Finals, they had a chance for a rematch against the Rockets in 1995, but lost to the Pacers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Ewing made a ridiculously athletic move for a seven footer to drive to the basket, but his finger roll (Ewing had small hands and struggled to palm the ball with one hand) attempt bounced off the rim and out as the clock ran out in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. Ewing shot 52% in the game (but just 5-9 from the free-throw line) and finished with 29 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks in the game. Everyone only remembers the finger roll. The Knicks lost three games in that series by a total of six points and actually outscored Indiana by a total of 10 points in the series.

6.  The Fight Against Miami

History tends to consider the Knicks two best teams from the 90’s as their 91-92 and 92-93 teams under Pat Riley. It makes sense given the Knicks took the Bulls to seven games in the 92 playoffs before taking a 2-0 lead over the Bulls the following season. They would then lose four straight, with the worst loss at home after Charles Smith failed to finish at the rim through a lot contact after missing approximately 1,000,000 attempts.

In my opinion, the Knicks team in 1996-97 was just as dangerous. Ewing was still in his prime, and the team had added the most talented supporting cast Ewing ever had with Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and Chris Childs joining Starks and Oakley. Jeff Van Gundy was the head coach for a full season. The Knicks won 57 games that season and beat the Bulls two of three games (and their loss was by only one point), including the final game of the regular season to keep the Bulls from getting to 70 wins.

Jordan was an unstoppable force, but the Knicks matched up well with the Bulls that year, with Larry Johnson giving Scottie Pippen a lot of trouble as a post-up small forward and Allan Houston forcing Jordan to defend an excellent shooter. When PJ Brown flipped Charlie Ward at end of Game 5 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and virtually half the Knicks roster was suspended for leaving the bench area, those hopes were dashed.

Ewing was suspended for Game 6 (for foolishly wandering near half court nowhere near the confrontation despite being told not to by Herb Williams) and did all he could to win Game 7. His 37 points (17-27 FG), 17 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks performance in the series' seventh game wasn’t enough to make up the for absence of Johnson and Starks. The Heat were easily disposed of by the Bulls that season.

7.  The Wrist Injury

The Knicks would have had a chance to run it back with that same team the following year until Andrew Lang shoved Ewing in mid-air on an alley-oop attempt on December 20 1997. The greatest player in Knicks history landed on his wrist and shattered it. He was never the same. He played in only 38 games in the strike-shortened 1999 season and eventually ruptured his achilles tendon in the Eastern Conference Finals after trying to play through a partial tear in the first three rounds.

He had enough in the tank to score 22 points and grab 11 rebounds while outplaying a much younger Alonzo Mourning in a decisive game five to move the eighth-seeded Knicks past the top-seeded Miami Heat. Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby were on this roster. Ewing never got to play with those level of supporting cast members when he was a much younger player. At 36 years old, with a bad wrist and one good leg, he couldn’t stay healthy long enough to help them challenge the Spurs in the NBA Finals.

It was ultimately a disappointing career for Ewing since he never found a title. He was, however, a great player and did all he could to get the Knicks to a championship. He never had enough help. It’s extremely difficult to win a title, especially in an era with a player like Michael Jordan. Just because Ewing failed to do that, he shouldn’t be remembered as anything less than one of the top three players in franchise history. In my opinion, he’s the best. The Knicks have not been the same since he left.

You can find John on Twitter for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports at @Schmeelk.