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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Basketball and Ballet

Basketball is often compared with ballet and for good reason: the best practitioners of both arts display a combination of grace and power that most mere mortals watch with admiration and envy. Here is a short story I wrote on March 17, 1988 exploring this theme:

Basketball and Ballet

The curtain rises and Julius Erving begins his dance. He's just warming up now, stretching his mind and body and preparing himself (and the audience) for the spectacle to come. Suddenly, he emerges from the restraints of the planned choreography and launches himself into an extraordinary improvisational routine. He soars and floats, spins and pirouettes, always moving quickly and yet always in control. He is expressionless but the audience has been on its feet for several moments, applauding every move.

Jump ball and yet another Philadelphia 76ers-Boston Celtics contest has begun. The Sixers control the ball and clear out the right side for Mikhail Baryshnikov to go one-on-one with Larry Bird. Baryshnikov gives Bird a quick head fake and explodes to the basket. Robert Parish slides over to contest the shot but Baryshnikov is airborne by now and nothing is going to stop him. Slam dunk, two points and pandemonium has erupted off the court as 18,000 fans at the Spectrum (standing room only) lift their voices into one tremendous cheer.

Erving's first performance was incredible but now, after a brief intermission, he has changed costumes and is unveiling moves never before seen on stage. For several minutes he does not rest, always moving at top speed. There is no slow segment in the program. The music is very upbeat, fast tempo, but Julius seems to move to his own music, blending with whatever is played to accompany his spellbinding performance and yet extending it as well. Now it is over, too soon for the Carnegie Hall patrons. As they show Erving their appreciation with a standing ovation, a New York dance critic is composing in his head his review of Erving's masterful show: "For years people have said that Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Philadelphia 76ers' stellar forward, could have been a first rate dancer, that his basketball performances are really dances choreographed to his own inner music. And they are probably right. But after seeing Julius Erving's sold out performance at Carnegie Hall last night, I feel compelled to add something to that statement: Julius Erving could have been a first rate basketball player."

Meanwhile, despite Baryshnikov's Ervingesque flights of fancy (28 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, five blocked shots, three steals and a few pirouettes of his own), Philly is losing to Boston 112-111 with 10 seconds to go in the game. The Sixers have the ball and everyone in the building knows what is coming up. Larry Bird (21 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a half dozen open jawed gapes at Baryshnikov's moves) tries to stay with Mikhail but Baryshnikov dances around a Moses Malone screen and receives the pass from Andrew Toney. Kevin McHale has swung over to block Baryshnikov's shot, but with breathtaking quickness Mikhail skies into the air and finger rolls the ball over the rim as the buzzer sounds. After the game, Sixers Coach Billy Cunningham is interviewed for the six o'clock news. Asked if he thinks Baryshnikov could have been a great dancer, a thoughtful look comes over his face and he replies: "With his great desire and, of course, that superb body control, I'm sure he could have been another Julius Erving." Cunningham pauses a minute, then says with a smile, "But who can imagine basketball history without Mikhail Baryshnikov?"

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:32 AM

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Cavs Use Balanced Attack to Tame Raptors

Seven players scored in double figures--including all five starters--as the Cleveland Cavaliers improved to a league-best 61-17 record with a 113-101 win over the Toronto Raptors. Antawn Jamison scored a team-high 20 points and LeBron James added 19 points, 13 assists and six rebounds. James helped the Cavs set a season-high in assists (38) and six of his dimes resulted in layups or dunks as the Cavs outscored the Raptors 62-38 in the paint. Former Raptor Anthony Parker authored his best game of the season, setting a season high in points (18) and matching his season-highs in rebounds (eight) and assists (six). Parker also led the Cavs with three steals. Mo Williams dropped in eight first quarter points as the Cavs took a 35-26 lead after the first 12 minutes and he finished with 14 points and a season-high 12 assists. The Raptors had serious problems matching up with Williams one on one and when they trapped him he made excellent feeds to his teammates for wide open shots (on one first quarter possession, Andrea Bargnani went to double Williams on the left baseline and Williams slipped a pass right by Bargnani to a cutting Jamison for an easy layup). J.J. Hickson contributed 10 points and seven rebounds as the starting center, while Jawad Williams (13 points) and Anderson Varejao (10 points) made nice contributions off of the bench. Varejao looked very good in his return to action after missing four games due to a hamstring injury. The Cavs are so deep and versatile it is easy to forget that they were without the services of starting center Shaquille O'Neal and key reserve Delonte West, who missed the game due to back spasms; West's absence was purely a precautionary measure and indications are that he could have played if absolutely necessary. Daniel Gibson--who ranks second in the league in three point field goal percentage--was officially listed as DNP-CD (Did Not Play--Coach's Decision) only because the Cavs already had the maximum of three players on the inactive list (O'Neal, West and Sebastian Telfair) but in fact he was scratched due to a foot injury; after the game, Coach Mike Brown noted that Gibson was dressed in his warmup gear--not a uniform--and thus was not available (some media members asked Brown why Gibson did not enter the game even in the last minute with the Cavs up by double figures, a question that either indicates keen concern about Gibson or a tendency to nitpick Brown's decision making even as he guides his team to the best record in the NBA).

Jarrett Jack led the Raptors with 23 points and six assists. The Raptors suffered a major setback when Jamison inadvertently elbowed All-Star Chris Bosh in the face a little over two minutes into the game. Bosh crumpled to the floor, bleeding profusely, and he had to be helped off of the court; he was later taken to the Cleveland Clinic, where it was determined that he has a broken nose and a facial fracture. Watching the game in person, I did not see what happened live because I was following the ball on that particular play but as soon as I saw the replay I said that Bosh probably has a broken nose and may very well have a concussion as well (we later found out that he was given a CT scan at the Clinic). The Raptors hung tough even without Bosh but then in the third quarter starting small forward Antoine Wright left the game with an ankle injury and the Cavs led by double digits for most of the remainder of the contest. Amir Johnson had a strong game off of the bench (16 points on 7-8 shooting, 10 rebounds) but the Raptors could not overcome their poor defense and lack of size.

For a stretch of a little over two minutes in the second quarter the Cavs used an interesting "big" lineup consisting of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison, Jawad Williams and LeBron James: each of those players is at least 6-8 and none is traditionally considered a guard, though James was nominally the point guard and Williams was nominally the shooting guard. The lineup possibilities and potential mismatches that the Cavs can create are really amazing--and will only increase when O'Neal and West are available: not only can the Cavs use multiple effective "big" lineups but the Cavs can potentially go "small" with Hickson or Varejao at center surrounded by four perimeter players. After the game, Jack spoke about how difficult it is to try to defend LeBron James while also keeping an eye on the other Cavs: "We changed up our coverages a little bit in the second half. I thought we contained him as best you could do. They still have other guys who are capable players. You can't sleep on those guys. Mo Williams is obviously an All-Star and Anthony Parker has shown he is a very capable perimeter scorer. We've got to guard them with the same intensity and respect as we do LeBron or anybody else. You've go to kind of pick your poison when you're playing against the Cavs. If you're going to stop LeBron, obviously that's going to leave some people open for some looks." James shot just 5-13 from the field, so it is true that the Raptors did about as well against him as is possible--but the other Cavs shot 42-71 (.592); in the 2008 NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics essentially swarmed Kobe Bryant and dared anyone else to beat them, a strategy that other teams are starting to use against the Lakers as well--but that approach toward James will not work against a Cleveland team that is stocked with productive big men, excellent slashers and deadly three point shooters. As Jack said, "pick your poison": in addition to the Cavs' huge points in the paint advantage they also shot 8-20 (.400) on three pointers--8-18 if you take out James' two long range misses. James' brilliance as a playmaker is threefold: he has impeccable court vision, he is strong enough to make passes from distances that would daunt most other players and his passes are uncannily catchable; the latter trait is an intangible that cannot be quantified but what I mean is that James is able to throw the ball hard enough to elude defenders yet soft enough that the recipient can catch the ball and accurately enough that it is possible to immediately shoot without having to "reload" or make any kind of adjustment. Rarely do you see James throw a pass that lands at someone's feet, takes someone off of his sweet spot or forces a cutter to slow down/change direction.

In his postgame standup, Coach Brown offered a concise and very accurate description of his team's play: "It was a good offensive game and just an OK defensive game. We did some good things defensively but we still have to continue to work on our weak side. Our weak side awareness is not great. They did a good job of exploiting us in pick and rolls to a certain degree. We have got to do a better job with that knowing that this team likes to spread you out and just play pick and roll after pick and roll after pick and roll." Both before and after the contest, Brown indicated that he has no specific, concrete plans in terms of resting his players prior to the playoffs but that he considers the season's final games to be "high-level practices." Basically, the Cavs want to find some way to keep their key players healthy while also maintaining sharpness at both ends of the court.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

During Coach Brown's pregame standup I asked him about various lineups that he could possibly use during the upcoming playoffs:

Friedman: "When Shaq returns you have the possibility of putting a lineup out there of five players who have made the All-Star team at various times in their careers: Shaq, Z, Jamison, LeBron and Mo Williams. Have you given that any thought and how likely is it that we could see a lineup like that in which everyone has made the All-Star team at some point in their career?"

Brown: "Who was the fifth one?"

Friedman: "Mo Williams."

Brown: "Mo, Shaq..."

Friedman: "Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a two-time All-Star, plus LeBron and Jamison; you have five players who have made the All-Star team and four of them made it within the past two years. You could theoretically put a lineup out there of five All-Stars (once Shaq returns). Have you given that any thought and how likely is it that we could see that particular combination of players on the court at the same time?"

Brown: "I haven't given it any thought. Could it happen? Yes but I haven't given it any thought at all."

It was a big deal when four Pistons made the All-Star team in 2006--matching the 1998 Lakers, the 1983 76ers, three Celtics teams (1953, 1962, 1975) and the 1962 Lakers--but if the possibility of putting four teammates on the court at the same time in the midseason classic is exciting then what can be said about the possibility of putting five All-Stars on the court at the same time in the playoffs or even the NBA Finals? Granted, Ilgauskas is not an All-Star caliber player right now but he is still a skillful 7-3 center who can rebound, pick and pop and post up, while the other four Cavs in question each made the All-Star team at least as recently as 2008. I understand that Coach Brown may be more concerned about individual matchups than the theoretical possibility of putting five All-Stars on the court at the same time but the fact that he has this lineup combination at his disposal speaks to just how deep the Cavs are. Offhand (I have not researched this completely), these are the only teams that I can only think of that not only had five All-Stars but had four players who had each made the All-Star team very recently: various incarnations of Bill Russell's Celtics in the 1960s, the 1982 and 1983 L.A. Lakers (other Laker squads from that era don't qualify because Norm Nixon--and then Jamaal Wilkes--departed prior to James Worthy becoming an All-Star) and the 1988 Celtics (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge each made the All-Star team at least once while they were Celtic teammates). It would be a stretch to include Boston's 1986 championship team, because Danny Ainge did not make the All-Star team until 1988, while Bill Walton had not been an All-Star since 1978 (an eight year span compared to Ilgauskas' five year span); Walton had not been a full-time starting center since 1984, while just last year Ilgauskas was the starting center for a Cleveland team that posted the best record in the NBA. Former All-Star Scott Wedman did play a big role for the 1986 Celtics, but he made his only All-Star appearance 10 years earlier, so he was much further removed from being an All-Star than any of the Cavs' All-Star veterans are.

Friedman: "You had to go about a month with a small lineup without Shaq and Z. Did it surprise you a little bit how well the team was able to rebound with an undersized lineup?"

Brown: "Yes it did. It's not only that, but even having J.J. (Hickson) playing the center position it is a little surprising that we would be able to be that effective (against bigger players). We kind of did it by committee; Anderson played some center, too. It was good to see guys step up and fill that void."

Friedman: "Do you think that kind of lineup can be successful in a playoff series or when two teams really lock in on each other in a playoff series do you think that another team might be able to better exploit you going small so that a small lineup would not be quite as successful in the playoffs?"

Brown: "It depends on which teams we play. If we are playing a smaller, quicker team then we could have some success (with a small lineup) but if our starting center is J.J. and he has to match up in a seven game series with Dwight (Howard) I don't know--not to say that he can't or he can."

In other words, even though some fans on message boards seem to think that the Cavs should go small all the time and just bench Ilgauskas--or even Shaq--the reality is that a small lineup is a nice change of pace option for Coach Brown to have in his back pocket but not something that can serve as the primary lineup option, particularly against teams that have dominant big men.

***

It is still unclear when exactly O'Neal will return; he has not yet been cleared for contact and Coach Brown said before the game that if O'Neal cannot come back soon then he sees little benefit in rushing O'Neal back just to play one regular season game for the sake of continuity; if the scenario plays out in that fashion it seems as though Coach Brown would prefer to just give O'Neal a little more rest and reinsert him in the lineup when the playoffs begin. It seems like the only things that could derail a championship run by Cleveland are more injuries and/or a lack of continuity created by bringing back O'Neal in the middle of the playoffs. Three of the Cavs' 17 losses this season came in the first six games when the team was still adjusting to the arrival of offseason additions O'Neal, Parker and Jamario Moon (plus the uncertain status of Delonte West); for various reasons, key rotation players did not play together during the preseason so the team had to figure things out on the fly once the season began. Similarly, the Cavs dropped three straight games after acquiring Jamison but rallied to go 18-3 since that time despite O'Neal, Ilgauskas, West and Varejao missing games during that run. Near the end of his pregame standup, I asked Coach Brown about the challenge of potentially bringing O'Neal back in the middle of the playoffs: "Obviously, you guys have not lost that many games this year but some of the losses have come in clumps--at the start of the year when you had to adjust because you had new players and then you lost some games right after acquiring Antawn Jamison. How concerned are you if Shaq is coming back in the middle of a playoff series or in the middle of the playoffs? Obviously, there is not really time in the playoffs to lose a game because of having to adjust. Are you a little bit concerned that this is the one thing that could be a problem for this team in the playoffs?"

Coach Brown replied, "Yes, I am concerned but we had a chance to play with Shaq and we kind of have a good feel for that. In the other two situations, in the first case early in the year we had not really had a chance to play with Shaq yet and in the second one late in the year we had not had a chance to play with Antawn. We had a feeling out process with two new players in new situations. Now at least we have had a chance to play with Shaq, so hopefully it is not as difficult a transition as the other two times were."

***

Cavs forward Jamario Moon received the fifth annual Austin Carr Good Guy Award, an honor bestowed by the Cleveland chapter of the Pro Basketball Writers Association to "recognize a Cavaliers player who is cooperative and understanding of the media, the community and the public."

Cleveland PBWA Chapter President Bob Finnan said of Moon, "Win or lose, Jamario remains the same. He's always accommodating and engaging in the locker room. Very seldom does he not have a big smile on his face. He's added to the Cavs' culture."

Austin Carr starred at Notre Dame before the Cavs made him the number one overall selection in the 1971 NBA Draft. Carr currently serves as a Cavs television analyst for FOX Sports Ohio and also works for the team as the Director of Community and Business Development.

***

The Cavs posted the best record in the NBA in 2008-09 (66-16) and they have already clinched the best record in the league this season as well. The last team to have the outright best record in the NBA in back to back seasons was the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls, who did so in 1995-96 and 1996-97. In 1997-98, the Bulls tied with the Utah Jazz for the best record and the following season--the lockout shortened 50 game 1999 campaign--the Jazz tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the best record. Since then, the L.A. Lakers (2000), the Spurs (2001, 2003 [tied with the Mavericks]), the Sacramento Kings (2002), the Dallas Mavericks (2003 [tied with the Spurs], 2007), the Indiana Pacers (2004), the Phoenix Suns (2005), the Detroit Pistons (2006) and the Boston Celtics (2008) posted the best single season records prior to Cleveland's recent two year dominance.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:14 AM

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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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