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Monday, April 05, 2010

Basketball Hall of Fame Welcomes 10 New Members, Including Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen and Two U.S. Olympic Teams

The 2010 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class includes Jerry Buss, Cynthia Cooper, Bob Hurley, Sr., Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, the 1960 USA Men's Olympic team, the 1992 USA Basketball "Dream Team" plus three players who are being honored posthumously: Dennis Johnson, Gus Johnson and international star Maciel "Ubiratan" Pereira. This is the largest Basketball Hall of Fame class since 1961--the third year of the institution's existence--when there were 17 honorees (16 individuals plus one team, the Buffalo Germans). The size of this year's Hall of Fame class reaffirms what Basketball Hall of Fame Chairman Jerry Colangelo said at the Hall of Fame press conference during the 2010 NBA All-Star Weekend: contrary to popular belief, there is "no limit to the number of people who can be inducted" in a given year. Colangelo also pledged that under his watch the Hall of Fame will take steps to make sure that worthy candidates who have "slipped through the cracks" over the years will now receive the recognition that they deserve--and in that regard it is great that Dennis Johnson and Gus Johnson are members of this year's class; two years ago I chronicled Dennis Johnson's great career and four years ago I wrote about Gus Johnson's legendary battles with Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere. Gus Johnson also played a small yet vital role for the Indiana Pacers in their great rivalry with the Kentucky Colonels. The Hall of Fame is enriched by the addition of both of these fine players but it is sad that neither one lived long enough to enjoy this great honor.

All of this year's Hall of Famers are worthy--though I must confess that I did not know much about Pereira prior to when he became a Hall of Fame Finalist--so I do not want to take any shine away from any of them but it is disappointing that Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter did not receive the nod and it is an outrage that Artis Gilmore was not even a Finalist this year; Gilmore is, without question, the greatest eligible player who has not been inducted in the Hall of Fame.

Some people think that the Hall of Fame is too political and restrictive, while others believe that it has lowered its standards and become too watered down; the reality is that basketball has been played for more than 100 years and the Hall of Fame has inducted a total of 303 coaches, players, referees, contributors and teams (including this year's 10 honorees). Considering the literally millions of people who have been involved with basketball at some level worldwide, it is a very special honor to be one of just 303 Hall of Fame members; I disagree with the idea that only the 10 or 15 greatest players should be inducted--how could such a determination even be made and does anyone seriously support kicking out older honorees in favor of newer ones? A writer actually did once suggest that the Baseball Hall of Fame should be limited to just 25 players and that no one should be added without removing someone; perhaps there is some limited appeal to restricting Hall of Fame membership to "elite" candidates but I think that the idea of inducting someone into the Hall of Fame and then later kicking him out is just asinine. Hopefully, the overdue inductions of Dennis Johnson and Gus Johnson are a sign that Colangelo will succeed in taking some of the politics and pettiness out of the voting so that in the next few years Gilmore, Roger Brown and other unsung ABA heroes like Mel Daniels will finally be welcomed with open arms by the Hall of Fame.

Scottie Pippen Completes Journey from Hamburg, Arkansas to Springfield, Massachusetts

Even though Scottie Pippen has been recognized as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players and is now a first ballot Hall of Famer I still think that he is underrated; fans--and even some media members--sometimes incorrectly assert that Pippen merely "rode Michael Jordan's coattails" but anyone who understands basketball realizes how idiotic that sentiment is. The vast majority of championship teams had at least two Hall of Fame players leading the charge (two notable exceptions are the Julius Erving-led New York Nets and the Rick Barry-led Golden State Warriors). Jordan won exactly one playoff game--not one playoff series, one playoff game--in his first three NBA seasons; the rise of the Chicago Bulls coincided exactly with Scottie Pippen's arrival and Pippen's quick emergence as a multi-dimensional player; the addition of other good players to the Chicago mix also helped but it is no coincidence that the three common denominators for the six Chicago championship teams were Jordan, Pippen and Coach Phil Jackson: the rebounding, spot shooting and other roles could be capably filled by various players but the two great players and one great coach were indispensable.

It could be argued that when Pippen was at his peak he was at least equal to Jordan in every major skill set area--defense, rebounding, passing, ballhandling--other than shooting. Jordan's special, unique gift was the ability to score against any defense in any kind of situation but a big part of Coach Jackson's brilliance is that he put Jordan in position to dominate games late by lessening the burden on Jordan early--and a major aspect of that process involved Pippen, who became the team's point forward, defensive stopper and second best rebounder. Pippen's ability to push the ball up the court enabled Jordan to sprint ahead of the action and get into prime scoring position because Jordan could be confident that Pippen would deliver the ball on time and on target.

Pippen also often played with four bench players as an anchor, enabling Jordan to rest and thus be fresh for the stretch run; the quintessential example of this is game six of the 1992 NBA Finals, when the Bulls seemed to be dead in the water (down 75-58 to Portland late in the third quarter) before Pippen and four reserves led a rally to put the Bulls right back in contention: a rested Jordan then reentered the fray and teamed with Pippen to finish the job and deliver the second of three consecutive NBA titles (Jordan finished that game with 33 points, four rebounds and four assists, while Pippen had 26 points, five rebounds and four assists).

Pippen is one of the greatest defensive players in pro basketball history, an eight-time member of the All-Defensive First Team who could check point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and even some centers (Pippen would sometimes nominally guard a power forward or center while serving primarily as a roving help defender but in that role he still had to be able to box out his assigned man, who often was much taller and heavier). Pippen's defense against Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA Finals played a major role in Chicago's first championship; later, Pippen completely disrupted Indiana's offense in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals by harassing point guard Mark Jackson from baseline to baseline and during other playoff runs Pippen at times guarded players ranging in size and skill set from quick guards Mark Price and John Stockton to top flight scoring small forwards Mark Aguirre, Glen Rice and Dominique Wilkins. Pippen thrived as both a lock down one on one defender and as a help defender. Pippen, Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd are the only three players I have ever seen who could dominate a game without scoring a point or even taking a shot.

Although Pippen was not a pure shooter, he developed into a very capable scorer, averaging at least 20 ppg in four different regular seasons, topping the 19 ppg mark two other times and finishing his career with a 16.1 ppg average--a figure deflated by his final, injury-marred seasons. Pippen averaged at least 17.8 ppg every season from 1990-91 through 1997-98. Pippen is also one of the few players who increased his scoring during the playoffs; he averaged 17.5 ppg during his playoff career and he scored at least 16.8 ppg in each playoff season from 1989-90 through 1998-99, including six postseasons in which he averaged at least 19.2 ppg. Pippen had a knack for delivering clutch three point shots in the postseason: he hit key long range daggers late in playoff games versus the Cavs and Knicks early in his career, he still shares the NBA Finals single game record for most three pointers made (seven), he ranks fifth in NBA Finals history for three pointers made and he is fifth in NBA playoff history for three pointers made.

Pippen's accomplishments during Jordan's first retirement have never been fully recognized. Jordan did not announce his retirement until right before the 1993-94 season started, so the Bulls had no opportunity to even try to trade for or draft a top level shooting guard. Pete Myers, formerly a practice player for the team, became the starting shooting guard and yet Pippen led the Bulls to a 55-27 record, just two wins fewer than they had during their 1992-93 championship season. After Jordan's sudden departure, many people made two incorrect assumptions: they thought that Pippen would try to fill Jordan's shoes by averaging 30 ppg and that the Bulls would miss the playoffs. Pippen understood that he did not possess Jordan's shooting/scoring skills, so even with Jordan out of the mix Pippen only increased his shot attempts by 1.4 per game--but he used his playmaking, leadership and defensive skills to help his teammates at both ends of the court, enabling Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong to earn their first (and only) All-Star selections. Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (22.0 ppg), assists (5.6 apg) and steals (2.9 spg) while ranking second in rebounds (8.7 rpg) and blocked shots (.8 bpg). He finished third in MVP voting and fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting but I think that he deserved to win both honors; during that season, no one in the NBA displayed a more complete all-around game or was more disruptive as both a lock down defender and as a help defender than Pippen was. Pippen carried the Bulls from being an afterthought to being serious championship contenders and they may very well have won the title without Jordan if not for one of the worst calls by a referee in NBA playoff history, the infamous foul whistled by Hue Hollins against Pippen at the end of game five of the Eastern Conference semifinals; I generally do not focus on officiating when I write about the NBA but that call was so egregiously bad that Darell Garretson--who worked that game with Hollins and later became the league's officiating supervisor--publicly said that it was a "horrible" mistake by Hollins, a powerful statement considering that league employees rarely make public comments about such matters (Garretson defended Hollins right after the game but just a few months later he admitted that the call was wrong).

Even people who acknowledge just how well Pippen played in 1993-94 sometimes say that Pippen "failed" to match that performance the next season but this is not true; in 1994-95, Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (21.4 ppg), rebounding (8.1 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), steals (a league-high 2.9 spg) and blocked shots (1.1 bpg); the only other players to lead their teams in all five of those categories are Julius Erving (1976 Nets), Dave Cowens (1978 Celtics), Tracy McGrady (2003 Magic) and Kevin Garnett (2003 Timberwolves). Horace Grant's departure and injuries to several players (including Toni Kukoc and starting center Luc Longley) left the Bulls shorthanded but with Pippen leading the way the Bulls stayed competitive and late in the season once they got healthy they began to make a run, winning three games in a row, six of their previous seven and eight out of 10 prior to Jordan's celebrated return (a game that the Bulls lost in overtime as a rusty Jordan shot just 7-28 from the field while Pippen had a game-high 31 points on 11-20 shooting). Pippen finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting but slipped to seventh in MVP voting. The Bulls did not advance any further in the 1995 playoffs with Jordan but sans Grant than they did in the 1994 playoffs with Grant but without Jordan; it was clear that the Bulls needed to add a legit power forward to the roster, a void that they promptly filled by signing Dennis Rodman. The rest is history: Jordan and Pippen powered the Bulls to a record-setting 72-10 regular season record in 1995-96 and the first of three straight titles. That season, Pippen finished fifth in MVP voting while making both the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team. He again placed second in Defensive Player of the Year voting.

During the 1998 NBA Finals, Pippen seemed to be on course to win his first ever Finals MVP before he ruptured two disks in his back. Although he played in game six of the NBA Finals despite excruciating pain, he needed offseason surgery to repair the damage. Pippen's career lasted for six more seasons but he left a lot of his explosiveness on the operating table and that is why it is so unfair for people to compare the Pippen of 1999-2004 to Jordan, the younger Pippen or any other superstar in his prime. A 33-38 year old Pippen with a surgically repaired back was no longer an MVP level player but he still was a deft playmaker, tenacious defender and valuable all-around contributor. Pippen helped to lead the 1999-2000 Portland Trailblazers to the brink of the Western Conference title before ultimately bowing to a Shaquille-O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers team that was about to win the first of three straight championships. During Pippen's final seasons he was still a very good player but the true measure of his greatness is what he achieved during his prime years, including his MVP-caliber play during Jordan's first retirement.

I suspect that most casual fans do not realize that Pippen made a significant impact statistically in addition to his "intangible" contributions as a defender and ballhandler. Pippen has more regular season assists (6135) than any non-guard in pro basketball history and he ranks 26th on the overall list. Pippen ranks sixth all-time in regular season steals (2307). Pippen is one of just nine ABA/NBA players to post at least three seasons with 200 or more steals. Pippen, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only players who ever had at least 200 steals and 100 blocked shots in the same season. Pippen ranks among the all-time ABA/NBA playoff leaders in steals (first), assists (fourth), scoring (13th) and rebounds (15th).

When I asked Magic Johnson--who surely would make any list of the 10 greatest basketball players ever--if Scottie Pippen is underrated, Johnson enthusiastically began to reply almost before I could even utter the question:

"Oh, of course, of course. Of course he's underrated. When you have a super, super, super star like Michael (Jordan) that overshadows you, you are going to be underrated." Then Johnson chuckled, looked right at me and concluded, "But us basketball players, we know how great Scottie Pippen was and how great he played every single night."

Pippen's life and career are truly remarkable; the youngest of 12 kids, he honed his ballhandling skills as a skinny high school point guard and he began his collegiate career as a walk on at Central Arkansas. A late growth spurt turned him into a 6-8 forward who possessed guard-like skills and his tireless work ethic enabled him to continue to fine tune his game until he became an all-time great.

I interviewed Pippen near the end of his career and this is what he told me when I asked him how he would like to be remembered:

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:18 PM

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At Tuesday, April 06, 2010 2:50:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Great article re Pippen. I've always been curious about the one season (1999) when Houston signed free-agent Pippen to replace the retired Clyde Drexler. The trio of Olajuwon, Barkley, and Pippen had a lot of promise, even if those guys were on the downside of their careers. They went 31-19 in the lockout season of '99. But Pippen demanded a trade after one season. Do you have any insight into what really happened there?

 
At Sunday, August 01, 2010 4:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

The article that you linked to explains everything. Pippen did not demand a trade but he made it very clear that he did not enjoy playing with Barkley because Barkley was not as sufficiently committed to being a professional and trying to win a championship.

 

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