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Monday, May 11, 2020

Remember 25-8-6 About Scottie Pippen, Not 1.8

"The Last Dance" is a compelling and fascinating 10-part series. After it concludes, I will post a lengthy, detailed examination of the documentary, and of the Bulls' 1998 championship season.

This article will focus on Scottie Pippen. As some commentators have noted, Pippen has not said much--if anything--publicly since the debut of "The Last Dance." Pippen's former teammate Dennis Rodman believes that Pippen is not being portrayed fairly, and is not receiving enough credit for his indispensable role on six championship teams. Although Michael Jordan has complimented Pippen at times, the series has also focused more attention on certain negative aspects of Pippen's career than it has on his many accomplishments.

I have extensively documented Pippen's sustained greatness, so it is not necessary to recap his entire career, but it is worth placing the infamous "1.8" number in historical context.

In 1993-94, Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (22.0 ppg), assists (5.6 apg), and steals (2.9 spg) while ranking second in rebounding (8.7 rpg) and blocked shots (.8 bpg). He finished third in regular season MVP voting behind Hall of Fame centers Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. The defending champion Chicago Bulls, who replaced the retired Michael Jordan with Pete Myers, and who added raw but promising rookie Toni Kukoc, went 55-27, just two wins less than their total from the previous season with Jordan as the leader. The Bulls went 4-6 in games that Pippen missed after an early season injury, or else they would have likely surpassed their 1992-93 record. Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong each earned their first and only All-Star selections in 1994. Pippen was not a screamer like Jordan, nor was Pippen a fourth-quarter scoring machine like Jordan, but Pippen was a tremendous all-around player who led by example and who always kept his teammates involved in the offense.

During the 1994 playoffs, Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (22.8 ppg,), rebounding (8.3 rpg), assists (4.6 apg), and steals (2.4 spg) while ranking third in blocked shots (.7 bpg). "The Last Dance" recaps the final 1.8 seconds of game three of the Eastern Conference semifinals versus the New York Knicks when Pippen sat out the final play and Kukoc drained a game-winning jumper, but Pippen immediately apologized to his teammates and they accepted his apology. They knew that what Pippen had done was an aberration for him, and they liked and respected him as a leader and teammate.

I remember a media member asking Pippen where the Bulls would go after game three--as if the whole team would crumble--and Pippen, presaging a now-famous Bill Belichick retort, replied simply, "Game four." Pippen let his game do his talking in game four, leading the Bulls with 25 points, eight rebounds, and six assists as the Bulls won 95-83 to tie the series at 2-2. The way that Pippen redeemed himself and brought the Bulls back into the series speaks volumes about his character and leadership.

Simply put, 25-8-6 adds up to a lot more than 1.8.

The home team won every game in that tightly contested series--culminating with New York's game seven triumph--but a terrible Hue Hollins blown call in game five cost the Bulls a road win, and a chance to close out the series in game six at home.

"The Last Dance" gives the impression that the Bulls fell apart in 1994-95, but the reality is a bit more nuanced. The Bulls lost free agent Horace Grant to the Orlando Magic, and they lost veterans Bill Cartwright and John Paxson to retirement. While Cartwright and Paxson were not major statistical contributors in 1993-94, they provided depth and leadership. In 1994-95, Pippen led the Bulls in scoring (21.4 ppg), rebounding (8.1 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), steals (2.9 spg) and blocked shots (1.1 bpg), becoming just the third player to lead his team in all five of those statistical categories in the same season (Dave Cowens and Julius Erving were the first two players to accomplish this feat; Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James later joined this exclusive club). The Bulls overcame a slow start to the season to win eight of the 10 games they played before Jordan came back from retirement.

With Jordan, the Bulls lost in six games in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals, after reaching game seven in that round without him in 1994. Jordan dedicated himself to getting back in basketball shape during the summer of 1995, and he teamed up with Pippen to win three more titles. Jordan and Pippen are the only players who were members of all six Chicago Bulls championship teams.

An objective examination of the record shows that the Bulls would not have won a single title without Pippen. Michael Jordan won one playoff game--not one playoffs series, but one playoff game--without Pippen. Pippen was an MVP-level player for the 1994 Bulls team that lost in game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and he was the leader of the 2000 Trail Blazers team that lost in game seven of the Western Conference Finals. Pippen's defense against Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA Finals, and against Mark Jackson in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals played a major role in Chicago's victories in those series. Pippen was a rare player who could dominate a game without taking a shot.

During Jordan's first retirement, Pippen emerged as an All-NBA First Team/MVP-caliber player, and he remained an All-NBA First Team/MVP-caliber player for several years, until age and back surgery slowed him down in 1999. Pippen is without question one of the top 25 basketball players of all-time--not a Pantheon-level player, but securely in the next category of greatness.

Michael Jordan is an iconic historical figure whose impact transcended the NBA, and he is understandably the focus of "The Last Dance." His viewpoint dominates the narrative not only because he is the central figure, but also because the footage would have never been seen by the public without his approval. All of that being said and acknowledged, it must also be said and acknowledged that Pippen was not some minor character in this epic-length drama; Pippen was Jordan's co-star during those title runs, and the story would not exist--the Bulls would not have been a dynasty--without Pippen.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:20 AM