20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Scottie Pippen's Place in Basketball History

In 1996 Scottie Pippen was selected as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players. Some dissenters at that time felt that Pippen rode Michael Jordan's coattails to that honor and their voices grew louder and bolder when Pippen did not lead Houston or Portland to an NBA title. Of course, Pippen was past his prime in those seasons and Jordan never advanced to the second round of the playoffs without Pippen by his side.

In the February 2002 issue of Basketball Digest, my "Digits" column titled "Pro Basketball's Five-Tool Players" looked at the only three players in NBA/ABA history who ever led their teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots in the same season--Julius Erving (1975-76 New York Nets), Dave Cowens (1977-78 Boston Celtics) and Scottie Pippen (1994-95 Chicago Bulls); Kevin Garnett joined this exclusive club in 2002-03. Here is an excerpt from that article:

"In recent seasons it has become chic in some quarters to suggest that Pippen is not that great of a player without Jordan. While Pippen's numbers in one season with the Houston Rockets and two-plus campaigns with the Portland Trail Blazers do not equal his statistics with the Bulls, this comparison fails to take into account Pippen's age (36) and several injuries (back, foot, elbow) that have curtailed his athleticism since the disbanding of the Bulls.

The Bulls were not considered to be contenders after Jordan's shocking retirement announcement before the start of the 1993-94 season. Their 4-7 record out of the gate seemed to confirm this notion, but Pippen missed several of those games due to the lingering affects of offseason ankle surgery. When Pippen returned to the lineup the Bulls immediately became one of the top teams in the league, finishing the year 55-27, only two games worse than the season before. Pippen won the All-Star Game MVP, finished third in regular season MVP balloting and fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting and made the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams. Foreshadowing his 'five-tool' effort in 1994-95, during the playoffs Pippen led the Bulls in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and three pointers made while finishing third on the team in blocked shots.

In 1994-95 Horace Grant left the Bulls for the Orlando Magic, John Paxson retired and Bill Cartwright signed with the Seattle SuperSonics. Starting center Luc Longley missed the first 22 games of the season with a stress fracture in his left leg, during which time the Bulls went 11-11.

While the Bulls did not immediately drop off the map after Jordan's retirement, they did slide toward mediocrity when the loss of Jordan was compounded by the absence of other players. When Jordan returned to the team toward the end of the 1994-95 season the Bulls were 34-31, although they had won eight of the previous 10 games as Longley rejoined the lineup.

With Jordan, the team finished 13-4 down the stretch and lost to the Magic in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (the same round of the playoffs that the Bulls had reached without Jordan the year before). Jordan fully returned to form by the following season and the addition of Dennis Rodman to replace Horace Grant paved the way for three more championships.

After the 1994-95 season, Pippen finished seventh in MVP voting, again made the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams and was selected 'Best All-Around Player' in the NBA in a poll of players, coaches, trainers and general managers conducted by USA Today.

Here is what I wrote about Pippen in "Overlooked and Underrated," my February 2004 Basketball Digest article about four forwards who deserve more recognition (Maurice Stokes, Roger Brown, Mark Aguirre and Pippen; Stokes, who was not in the Basketball Hall of Fame when I submitted the article, received his long overdue induction later that year):

"It is interesting and revealing that teammates, opponents and coaches consistently praise Pippen. Phil Jackson, his coach with the six-time champion Chicago Bulls, declares, 'Scottie was our team leader. He was the guy that directed our offense and he was the guy that took on a lot of big challenges defensively...the year that Michael retired, Scottie I think was the most valuable player in the league.' Former teammate and current Bulls coach Bill Cartwright flatly states that Pippen 'was as much a part of winning the championships as MJ. I don't think it would have gotten done without him.'

Last year, Sacramento Kings star Chris Webber declared, 'Pip is the most underrated player in the game.' Around the same time, Portland Trail Blazers' assistant Jim Lynam called Pippen 'an indescribably great player,' adding 'I knew the guy was good, but I had no idea how good.'

Memphis Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown breaks it down scientifically: 'He's 6-8 and he can see over the defense, which is a major advantage for a point guard. He also doesn't rush anything. You don't see Portland running back downcourt and forcing threes. You don't see them trying to get the ball in the paint and wasting so much time that two options of a play are already gone. He has a presence.'

The Oregonian selected the 37-year old Pippen as the midseason MVP of the resurgent 2002-03 Blazers: 'Statistics don't tell the whole story with Pippen, whose ability to guard anyone from Atlanta Hawks power forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim to San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker to Boston Celtics small forward Paul Pierce has given the Blazers incredible versatility.'"

The Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith covered Pippen's entire career with the Bulls. In his recent column about Pippen's place in basketball history, Smith wrote:

"Jordan always felt Pippen was something special," longtime Bulls assistant Tex Winter said. "Michael realized how easy it was to play with him and how he helped make his teammates better. It's often said Jordan needed Pippen and Pippen needed Jordan. I'm not sure Jordan didn't need Pippen more than Pippen needed Jordan."

posted by David Friedman @ 11:06 PM


Chicago Bulls Retire Scottie Pippen's Jersey

The Chicago Bulls retired Scottie Pippen's jersey tonight in honor of an outstanding career that has included six NBA titles and recognition as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players. Pippen made the All-NBA Team seven times, including three straight First Team selections (1994-96). He made the All-Defensive Team ten consecutive years--eight first team selections ('92-'99) bookended by appearances on the Second Team in 1991 and 2000. Prior to this season, the seven-time All-Star and 1994 All-Star Game MVP ranked fourth in career regular season steals (2307), first in career playoff steals (395), third in career playoff three pointers made (200), fourth in career playoff assists (1048) and tenth in career playoff points (3642; 17.5 ppg).

After spending the first 11 years of his career with Chicago, Pippen played one year for the Houston Rockets and then spent four seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers. Pippen injured his knee during his last campaign with the Trail Blazers and spent most of Game Five of the 2003 Western Conference first round series against Dallas riding an exercise bike to loosen up the troublesome joint. Then he took over the fourth quarter of the game to lead Portland to a 103-99 win. Columnist Brian Meehan declared, “Game five was ugly, but Pippen’s portrait of a champion was a beautiful thing.” Pippen returned to the Bulls for the 2004 season but injuries limited him to 23 games. I spoke with Pippen in Indiana after he watched in street clothes as the Bulls dropped a 101-77 decision to the Pacers on March 22, 2004. At the time he still harbored hopes of returning to the court but he had in fact already played his last NBA game. Here is the transcript of that previously unpublished interview:

Q: “I wrote a Basketball Digest article looking at four forwards who are ‘overlooked and underrated.’ What forwards do you feel were underrated? They could be either forwards that are playing today who don’t get enough respect or guys from the past.”

Pippen: “I probably would look more at guys from the past. Guys that come to mind right off the top are Dominique Wilkins, Alex English, Mark Aguirre, Adrian Dantley—guys that were known as big time scorers when I came into the league. Thurl Bailey, to some degree.”

Q: “Aguirre was one of the four forwards I mentioned in my article. You had a rivalry with him for a while. What are your memories of playing against him?”

Q: “He was very underrated. I think the fact that he did not win a championship as a Dallas Maverick took away a lot of his notoriety as a player. A lot of people saw him later in his career and didn’t really get a chance to see him as a Dallas Maverick. He was a very dominant player when he was with Dallas. Even when he came over to Detroit and won championships, Mark was still a very bona fide scorer.”

Q: “You had a tremendous on court chemistry with Michael Jordan. He would know where you were and you would know where he was, on offense and on defense. Is that something that developed just from playing with him during the games or is that something that developed more in practice?”

Pippen: “I think it just comes from playing together over time, but practice is definitely what brought it all together. Putting the time in on the practice court and competing, playing hard, getting an understanding of one another. That’s what got us over the hump.”

Q: “I previously interviewed Bulls’ assistant coach Johnny Bach and he described how when the Bulls practiced that you and Michael would generally be on opposite teams. What was that match-up like and how did that help you, particularly when you were a younger player?”

Pippen: “Well, it was just great because it taught us how to compete at all times. That was part of Phil’s practice philosophy—to get two guys out there who wanted to win all the time and put us on separate teams. Now, you've got two guys who have to get their own group together; they have to use their leadership, not just their ability to do what they can do on the court. Ultimately it’s whose team wins, gets the last laugh. That was one thing that made me and Michael the players we are today, the fact that we competed very hard in practice. It made the game very easy, because it was just a carryover (from the practice court to the games).”

Q: “Did that help with situations like when you made the comeback against Portland in the ’92 Finals and it was you on the court with four reserves—“

Pippen: “Exactly. I was used to seeing Michael Jordan on the other side (in practice). Not just giving myself credit, a lot of the guys who were on the court with me at that time (against Portland) were on the court with me during practice. We had a very good feeling, I guess a confidence at that time, that we could compete with anybody. I mean, if you compete against Michael Jordan every day and you are able to beat him some days, then you feel like you can win most of the games every day.”

Q: “People have expressed a lot of different opinions about your career. Not to say that your career is over, but from the standpoint of a historical legacy, how would you like to be remembered? If you were to give a scouting report of the essence of your game—how would you describe it?”

Pippen: “A gym rat. A guy who worked very hard to make sure that his game was complete in every area and wanted to be looked at as one of the best players in the league. Even though I probably never was (the best player), because I played with a great player, but that was my approach to basketball as a whole, being a guy who came from a small college. I wanted to be the best player in the game. Even though I played with the best player in the game, it was always in my mind that if I did a little bit more, if I became a little bit more complete, people would look at me as one of the best players in the game and not just look at the fact that I did not have the offensive skills that Michael had.”

Q: “Do you feel that you were the best player in the game in ’94 and ’95 when Jordan was retired, whether or not people felt that way? You were third in the MVP vote in ’94.”

Pippen: “I don’t exactly really want to look back on that. I came to play every night. That’s what it’s all about. Showing up and being professional and bringing it every night. But, since you asked me that, there are probably a lot of accolades that I feel I was deserving of and never achieved.”

Q: “When you were coming up you played a lot of point guard and then you grew and ended up playing in the frontcourt. Speak about the advantage of developing ball handling skills when you were 6-1, 6-2 and then all of a sudden you are 6-7 and can combine those skills with the size to play inside.”

Pippen: “I was blessed early on. I played a lot of point guard in grade school, junior high and high school and when I went to college it was pretty much a given that I would be handling the ball or have the opportunity to handle it at times. I just held on to those skills as I grew and it prepared me for the next level. I could carry those skills to the next level and be very effective.”

Q: “Who was the toughest match-up for you? What player gave you the most trouble?”

Pippen (laughing): “Michael Jordan in practice.”

Q: “How did your workout and fitness regimen evolve over time? You came into the league as a lean player. Later you developed some muscle mass. Also, how did your two back injuries alter your routine?”

Pippen: “I think that the best thing--not to say that I would go back in life and have it happen again—but probably the best thing that happened to me was that I hurt my back after my first year in the league, because it really put me in a position to focus on the physical aspect of how to survive in this game and how I would survive as a player with a bad back. It was a big challenge for me. I feel like I met that challenge, surviving 16 years of hard playing. Right now I am not as consistent as I would like to be, but those things that I dealt with early on in my career definitely prepared me for learning and getting better. I have to give credit to a lot of veteran players that I played with, too, that toughened me up early, like Charles Oakley. Having the opportunity to play with a guy like Sedale Threatt, who is the epitome of the gym rat. A lot of their habits rubbed off on me, even bad habits too, but you try to hold those down. Those were things that really helped develop me as a player.”

Q: “When you had the back problem in the ’98 Finals I was actually going through the exact same thing at that time in terms of a bulging L5-S1 disk and the radiculopathy, the pain going down the leg. That type of injury makes it so that you can barely move—“

Pippen: “It was something, I won’t say that it was career threatening, but it challenged me a lot. It challenged me to understand how to play with pain.”

Q: “Was that the worst pain you ever had?”

Pippen: “Oh, no question. I knew I didn’t want to go to a game seven. I knew that my team needed me. I didn’t think that they could win without me, maybe that’s just personal.”

Q: “You gutted it out in that game. If you look at the box score, it might not show everything you did, but you played the point guard—“

Pippen: “I was productive. I could have been more productive, could have done a lot more if I had been healthy.”

Q: “You were having a fantastic series before that point.”

Pippen: “Right. That injury really set me back.”

Q: “Do you feel that the back surgery you had in that off-season took away some of your athleticism?”

Pippen: “No question. I was 11 years in my career, had already had five or six surgeries at that point, two on my back, both ankles.”

Q: “Did they do a complete discectomy?”

Pippen: “No, no. They just took the herniated part away from the nerve to relieve the pressure.”

Q: “In ’98 it was two disks, right?”

Pippen: “Yeah, two disks.”

Q: “A lot of people don’t take things like that into account when they look at your time in Portland or try to assess what you have done without Michael.”

Pippen: “I was an older player by that time. You look at any player once they get over 10, 11 years in this league, especially a guy like me—I mean by the time I had 11 years in the league my body was probably facing 14 years because of the playoffs and the Olympics. So I had started to slow down a little bit, but I still had a pretty strong game. I understood the game well enough to be very effective. I could be effective in a game without scoring; I could affect a game that much.”

posted by David Friedman @ 10:08 PM


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Phoenix Rises in the West

The Phoenix Suns have the longest current winning streak in the NBA--six games--and have won eight of their last ten games to climb to second place in the Pacific Division. When Amare Stoudemire went under the knife for microfracture surgery many pundits assumed that Phoenix would plummet in the standings. ESPN's Tim Legler offered one of the more optimistic predictions, saying that he thought that Phoenix could hang around the .500 mark until Stoudemire came back. I discounted the doomsayers in my November 4 post, writing, "Even without the injured Amare Stoudemire, the Suns are a potent team...Phoenix is still one of the better teams in the league." Here is a link to that post:


It should be noted that Phoenix has played eight of its last ten games at home and that two of the Suns' recent wins are against doormats Atlanta and Toronto--but with All-Stars Shawn Marion (19.3 ppg) and Steve Nash (18.3 ppg) setting the pace and four other Suns averaging double figures in points, the Suns are a dangerous opponent for any team. Phoenix averages a league leading 103.3 ppg and, more importantly, the Suns rank fourth in point differential (5.7 ppg), trailing only Detroit, San Antonio and Memphis. The Suns are holding opponents to .429 shooting from the field while making their shots at a .462 clip. That .033 differential is virtually identical to their performance last year (.032). The Suns are getting outrebounded, as expected, but even last year with Stoudemire the Suns were outrebounded by their opponents, albeit by a smaller margin. Look for the Suns to continue to do more than just tread water while Stoudemire rehabilitates his knee.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:34 AM