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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Scottie Pippen: All-Around Performer

Scottie Pippen may be the most underrated great player in pro basketball history. Yes, he was selected to both the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List and the Basketball Hall of Fame but there is still a perception among the misinformed that he was primarily Michael Jordan's sidekick when the reality is that Pippen was a franchise player in his own right. It is fashionable to describe certain players as versatile and unselfish but Pippen epitomized those traits; he did not seek personal glory or gaudy statistics but he did whatever it took to help his team win, from taking a charge to digging in to play aggressive one on one defense to using his passing skills to create open shots for his teammates to providing timely baskets in pressure situations. Pippen's defense against Magic Johnson was a key factor in the Chicago Bulls' 1991 NBA Finals victory over the L.A. Lakers and in Chicago's series-clinching game five win Pippen led the Bulls with 32 points and 13 rebounds (plus seven assists and five steals) while playing all 48 minutes. During the 2015 NBA Finals we heard a lot about fatigue but six players averaged at least 41.0 mpg during the 1991 NBA Finals (including Pippen, who logged 43.6 mpg) and none of them complained about being tired or not having enough talent around them.

After the Bulls won three straight championships from 1991-93, Jordan retired to play pro baseball and many people predicted that the Bulls would sink in the standings and that Pippen would try but fail to fill Jordan's shoes as a 30-ppg scorer. Instead, during the 1993-94 season Pippen led the Bulls in not just scoring (22.0 ppg) but also assists (5.6 apg) and steals (2.9 spg) while ranking second on the team in rebounding (8.7 rpg) and blocked shots (.8 bpg) as the Bulls went 55-27 (just two games worse than their record the previous season) and had a potential championship run derailed by a horrible Hue Hollins call in game five versus the eventual Eastern Conference champion New York Knicks. The next season, the Bulls overcame injuries and the departure of Horace Grant to remain in playoff contention as Pippen led the team in scoring (21.4 ppg), rebounding (8.1 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), steals (2.9 spg) and blocked shots (1.1 bpg). Dave Cowens, Julius Erving, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady are pro basketball's only other "five tool" players (players who led their teams in per game scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots during the same season). Jordan returned to the Bulls late in the 1994-95 season and, though the Bulls fell short in the playoffs that year, the Bulls promptly won three consecutive titles from 1996-98. It is not a coincidence that Jordan and Pippen are the only players who were members of all six Chicago championship teams.

During the Bulls' final championship run, Pippen led the team in playoff assists (5.2 apg), steals (2.1 spg) and blocked shots (1.0 bpg) and ranked second in playoff scoring (16.8 ppg) and rebounding (7.1 rpg). His overall numbers would have been even better if he had not been limited in the latter stages of the NBA Finals by ruptured disks in his back that ultimately required surgery that summer. Prior to the injury, he was playing as well as he had ever played in terms of showcasing his all-around skills and doing whatever it takes to win. In game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, Pippen scored four points on 1-9 field goal shooting but he controlled the game with his full court defense against Indiana point guard Mark Jackson, completely disrupting the Pacers' offense. LeBron James is sometimes compared to Scottie Pippen but it is paradoxical that Pippen could dominate a playoff game while only scoring four points, while James has a baffling propensity to sometimes put up huge boxscore numbers without actually controlling the flow of the game, such as James' disinterested--but statistically prolific--performance versus Boston in game six of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. Pippen just did whatever his team needed for him to do to win, even if he sacrificed his scoring or his statistics. James seems to be very keenly aware of his numbers and sometimes seems to be more intent on making a statistical case for his greatness than on actually making sure that his team wins. Pippen did not complain about the talent level around him when Jordan left or when Pippen played for Houston and Portland; Pippen just figured out what his team needed for him to do and he did it.

It is worth noting that Jordan sans Pippen never advanced past the first round of the playoffs, while Pippen not only led the Bulls on a solid playoff run in 1994 but he led the 2000 Portland Trail Blazers in playoff minutes (38.4 mpg), rebounds (7.1 rpg), assists (4.3 apg) and steals (2.0 spg) as that squad pushed the Shaquille-O'Neal-Kobe Bryant L.A. Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference Finals.

I found a wonderful YouTube video filled with Pippen highlights and with quotes about Pippen from those who know the game best: the players and coaches who saw his work firsthand. My experience interviewing such professionals is that knowledgeable NBA insiders have a much higher opinion of Pippen's game than many media members and fans who have not educated themselves about the sport. Here is the video:

Here are some quotes from the video:

"I don't know what position Scottie was; he was just a basketball player. He could dribble, shoot, pass and rebound. Defensively, he was excellent. He had quick hands and quick feet with a great understanding of the game. He could do it all."--B.J. Armstrong

"The subtle things he did so well--defensively helping his teammates, recovering out to guys offensively, making plays being unselfish--those are things that teammates always recognize and noticed. You always felt like Scottie had your back. If you made a mistake somewhere on the floor, he was going to try and cover up for you."--John Paxson

"If I had a vote in that first championship for MVP it would have been Scottie. He brought his whole game and everyone could see. The way he played Magic and made him turn and turn and turn and made him work like that was the difference, especially after we lost the first game."--Horace Grant

"He sets the tempo defensively for us. He can disrupt anybody's offense because he can play anybody from the point guard to the five position."--Michael Jordan

"I know Michael's the best player, but Pippen was the best player on that team."--Chuck Daly on the 1992 Dream Team

"Michael returned from the games raving about Scottie's performance. Before the summer, Michael had regarded Pippen as the most talented member of his supporting cast. But after watching him outplay Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler and other future Hall of Famers in Barcelona, Michael realized that Scottie was the best all-around player on what many consider the best basketball team ever assembled. Scottie, Michael had to admit, had even outshone him in several of the games."--Phil Jackson

"He's the best athlete all-around to ever play in the NBA. Tell me somebody who can do what he could do for 48 minutes on the basketball court. He was the best all-around. He could play three positions, four positions, rebound, assists, steals..."--Charles Oakley

"He's the best defender I've ever seen. I put him in a class with Bobby Jones, Sidney Moncrief and certainly Jordan. But they're different. Jordan, at his position, may have been as good as there ever was. But Scottie could guard more positions than Michael. Scottie can handle more sizes."--Mike Dunleavy

"It's like Scottie Pippen--when you played the Bulls, you were praying that, 'I hope he guards the other guy tonight.' Because Pippen was one of those guys that could guard the 1, 2 or 3. And you were hoping, 'Okay, I hope he guards the other guy.' I mean how rare is it that you want Michael to guard you?"--Doc Rivers

"It's amazing to see how good Scottie is. The guy shot 1-for-9 and scored four points and totally dominated the game. That's what makes him one of the greatest players ever. He doesn't have to score a point and he can control the whole game."--Steve Kerr

"Let me have Scottie. See how I do then."--Clyde Drexler to Michael Jordan

"He was one of the best. He and Michael Cooper gave me the most problems."--Larry Bird

"There are certain things that Pippen does for that team that Michael doesn't do. Definitely defensively. I think offensively he's always conscious of getting the other guys involved. Not to take anything away from Michael, but I think Scottie is just more cognizant of the total package, and that makes them complement each other real well."--Julius Erving

"What Scottie represented to me is a player whom I would pick first for my team every time. Even if Michael was available, I would pick Scottie Pippen."--Bill Wennington

"Jordan always felt Pippen was something special. 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."--Tex Winter

"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. He was probably the player most liked by others. He mingled. He brought out the best in players and communicated the best."--Phil Jackson

Further Reading:

It is Wrong to Call LeBron James "LePippen"

Scottie Pippen Completes His Journey from Hamburg, Arkansas to the Basketball Hall of Fame

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM



At Wednesday, July 22, 2015 8:47:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


Would you consider Pippen a Pantheon-class player, and if not, why not?

At Friday, July 24, 2015 11:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


One could make a case for Pippen being included in the Pantheon based on his skill set versatility.

At Saturday, July 25, 2015 11:36:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

Excellent writing as always, David. I assume this was written in response to the Shaq-Pippen instagram war but I've always found it annoying how Pippen is often downplayed or even maligned in the media in general when it comes to his talent and contributions to the Bulls dynasty. The obnoxious Skip Bayless comes to mind specifically as someone who has vocally written off Pippen in order to uphold his Jordan hagiography.

At Saturday, July 25, 2015 4:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

I actually started working on this article before Pippen and Shaq traded online barbs but that incident just made this piece even more timely.


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