Ewing or Olajuwon: Who was Better?

Posted on September 5, 2008 by


As I noted this week, the 2008-09 incarnation of the Knicks is not going to excite the team’s fans.  In fact, this team might once again lose more than 50 games.  If this happens it will be the fourth time in the past eight years this team ranked among the elite losers in the league.

From 1988-89 to 1999-00 it was a different story in New York.  Across these years the Knicks reached the 50 win mark seven times.  Although the team never won a title, it was often a contender. 

This week – perhaps much to the relief of fans of this team – we are once again reminded of the contending Knicks.  The leader of this team – Patrick Ewing – is being inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.

Joining Ewing in the 2008 Hall of Fame class is Hakeem Olajuwon.  These two players played for the 1984 NCAA title, a game where Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas proved victorious.  Ten years later Ewing and Olajuwon met in the NBA Finals.  This time it was Hakeem’s Houston Rockets that won the title.

The competition for titles at the college and professional level has joined these two players in the mind of basketball fans.  But which player is “better”?

We could define “better” in a number of ways.  We could ask who was better paid.  According to Basketball-Reference, the “better” player if money is the metric of choice is Ewing.  Across his 17 year career, Ewing was paid approximately $124 million.  Olajuwon, in his 18 year career, was “only” paid about $99 million.  Of course, Ewing got to spend most of his career in the NBA’s largest market, so that might explain some of the difference in salaries earned.

Of course, salaries in the NBA are not always the best measure of performance.  What if we turn to the statistics? 

Before I get to the numbers I should note that before I looked I thought each player was roughly equal.   Certainly I would not have thought the differences were as great as they appear through the view of The Wages of Wins metrics.

The first metric we wish to consider is Win Score, or the simple Wages of Wins metric based on the standard box score statistics.

Table One: Comparing the Career Averages of Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon

As Table One indicates, there is a difference in the career averages of Ewing and Olajuwon.  If we look at shooting efficiency from the field, rebounds, steals, turnovers, assists, blocked shots, and personal fouls, Olajuwon posted better numbers.  In fact, Ewing only bested Olajuwon with respect to free throw percentage, free throw attempts, and points scored.  And the difference with respect to these three factors was quite small.

In looking at the individual stats we can see that Olajuwon was generally better.  But how did these differences translate into wins?  To answer that question I calculated Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] for each season of these player’s careers.

Table Two: Comparing the Career Performances of Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon

From Table Two we see that the differences in the individual stats translate into a substantial difference in Wins Produced.  Across his career, Olajuwon produced 272.1 wins and posted a 0.295 WP48.  Ewing’s career production with respect to wins was only 175.7.  In other words, Ewing produced nearly 100 fewer wins across his career.

Turning to WP48 we see that Ewing’s best mark was still less than what Olajuwon averaged across his career.  Furthermore, Ewing never even got to the level Olajuwon achieved in his rookie season.

When we look over each player’s career, we see the familiar arc.  Both players got better in the first few years of their career, and then declined as they got closer to retirement.  But for Ewing, the starting and ending points were both in the below average territory. Yes, when Ewing was named Rookie of the Year in 1985-86 he was actually a below average player. 

I would emphasize that although Ewing started as a below average performer, this quickly changed.  For his career Ewing was certainly much better than the average center.  He just wasn’t as good as Olajuwon. 

Let me close by noting that I don’t think the results of this comparison will surprise many.  Although Ewing did get paid more money, Olajuwon was more frequently named to the All-NBA First Team.   Also, of these two, Olajuwon was the only one to be named MVP of the league.   And finally, Olajuwon’s team won two NBA titles while Ewing’s Knicks never got to the top of the mountain. 

Of course, awards and championships are not always the best way to compare two players.  And in my next post, I am going to make another comparison where the story is somewhat different.

– DJ

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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.