It is Wrong to Call LeBron James "LePippen"In less than two weeks, Scottie Pippen--the point forward for six Chicago Bulls' championship teams and arguably the greatest wing defender in pro basketball history--will be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame both as an individual player and as a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team (the "Dream Team"). Pippen literally came out of nowhere--no offense, University of Central Arkansas--to earn recognition as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players.
Those who competed with or against Pippen--including Magic Johnson, who I spoke with about Pippen during All-Star Weekend--understand that even though Pippen has received many accolades he still is underrated. Pippen is often referred to as Michael Jordan's "sidekick" but that label really sells Pippen short. Pippen made the All-NBA First Team three times and he twice finished in the top five in MVP voting, so he was an elite level player in his own right. It actually says a lot about Pippen's unselfishness that he did not chafe at the "sidekick" role but rather embraced the opportunity to showcase his all-around game while Jordan annually led the league in scoring and received much of the glory. Chicago Bulls' Coach Phil Jackson wisely used Pippen as a point forward, which enabled Jordan to sprint up the court and obtain good post position before the defense could get set. Pippen's ballhandling skills and deft passing kept the Triangle Offense flowing; after Jordan retired in 1993 to play baseball, Pippen did not try to dominate the ball as a scorer to the extent that Jordan did--though Pippen did lead the Bulls in scoring that season--but Pippen helped the Bulls remain a championship contender with his great defensive play and his tremendous understanding of how to run the Triangle. B.J. Armstrong and Horace Grant each earned their first and only All-Star selections that season. I do not like the cliched phrase "making your teammates better" but the way Pippen played throughout his career--and particularly during that special 1993-94 season--is a great example of how great players create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well.
LeBron James already has obtained some individual accomplishments that Pippen did not, including two regular season MVPs (2009, 2010) and one scoring title (2008). For most of his career, James has clearly been the best player on his team but when he made his already infamous "Decision" to leave Cleveland for "South Beach" many people mocked James by saying that he took the easy way out, that he will be Dwyane Wade's "sidekick" on the Miami Heat and that therefore James should never be compared to Michael Jordan but is simply "LePippen." I have made it quite clear that I think that James handled the entire free agency process poorly and that he should have either stayed in Cleveland or else found a more graceful way to leave--but regardless of what anyone thinks of James' actions his basketball skills should still be evaluated objectively. LeBron James is a better basketball player than Dwyane Wade: James is bigger, stronger and at least as quick, he can defend more positions, he is a more creative and effective passer and he is a better shooter. It remains to be seen what roles James and Wade will play for the Heat next season but unless something fundamentally changes James will still be a better player than Wade regardless of who the media decides to designate as "Batman" and "Robin."
It is well documented that James quit during game five of this year's playoffs versus Boston but it is odd that people seem to have completely forgotten how poorly Wade played in the 2008 season as the Heat completed a two year collapse that is unprecedented for a championship team that was not dismantled. Wade received some criticism at that time but his performance in the 2008 Olympics and in the next two NBA seasons muted complaints about his tendency to get hurt and his sometimes erratic playing style. Kobe Bryant was a whipping boy for the media for a while but after adding two championships and two Finals MVPs to his resume he is a "made man" (to borrow Cris Carter's description of the much criticized Eli Manning after Manning led the New York Giants to a Super Bowl title). Take away all the spin that has been said about Bryant, James and Wade and the reality is that, when healthy, Kobe Bryant is the best all-around player in the NBA but for the past couple regular seasons LeBron James has been more productive and consistent than Bryant. Wade is a remarkably athletic and explosive player but he is several inches shorter than James and Bryant and there is no getting around the truth that height does indeed matter in the NBA.
The fact that Wade was in Miami first does not make James a "sidekick" any more than Moses Malone was Julius Erving's sidekick for the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers; Erving won the 1981 MVP as a 76er, Malone won the 1982 MVP as a Rocket and Malone won the 1983 MVP (while joining Erving on the All-NBA First Team) as the Sixers rolled to the championship.
It not only is silly to call James a "sidekick"--at least until we actually see what roles James and Wade fill for the Heat--but it makes no sense to supposedly denigrate James by comparing him to Pippen. Scottie Pippen did not elect to leave a team in his prime years to join a team with an established star who was his own age (the "crime" that the "LePippen" chanters are charging James with committing); in fact, as mentioned above, Pippen embraced the challenge of being the lead guy after Jordan retired. Teammates and opponents alike laud Pippen's versatility and unselfishness. Regardless of how many awards James wins and how much money he accrues he should hope and pray that when his career ends he will be as well respected by his peers as Scottie Pippen is.
LeBron James is a more explosive scorer than Scottie Pippen but he still has a long way to go to match Pippen as a champion, a leader and a player who will do whatever it takes--including play an NBA Finals game with two ruptured disks in his back--to help his team win an NBA title.
If someone wants to denigrate James by calling him a "clever" name then "LeQuit" or "Quitness" fit the bill but leave Scottie Pippen's name out of the LeBron James conversation, at least until James is an All-NBA performer for one championship team, let alone six.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:53 PM