How Great Was Scottie Pippen?

Scottie Pippen - Chicago Bulls
Photo Credit: NBA.com
(Originally published in 2013)

With the Chicago Bulls dynasty, there has always been a clear hierarchy of talent:  There was Michael Jordan, then Scottie Pippen, and everyone else.   Many have made the argument that Jordan needed Pippen and Pippen could NEVER have won without Jordan.  Somehow, Michael Jordan‘s legacy separated itself from Scottie Pippen’s and he has been defined by most as the greatest player of all-time, but Scottie Pippen’s legacy is often attached to Jordan’s labeling him as ‘Robin’ to Jordan’s ‘Batman.’  The question remains: How great was Scottie Pippen and what is his legacy?  Statistically, Scottie stacks up well: 16.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 5.2 ast, .8 bpg, 2.0 spg, 47% FG, 32% 3pt, 70% FT.  6-Time NBA Champion, 7-Time NBA All-Star, NBA 1994 All-Star Game MVP  (along with the worst haircut and brightest shoes in NBA All-Star History), 3-Time All-NBA First Team, 2-Time All-NBA Second Team, 2-Time All-NBA Third Team, 8-Time All-NBA Defensive First Team, 2-Time All-NBA Defensive Second Team, named one of the 50 Greatest NBA Players, 2 Olympic Gold Medals (’92 & ’96), and his jersey was retired by the Bulls.

The accomplishments speak for themselves: Scottie was truly an amazing basketball player.  As a kid growing up, I knew several things about my beloved Bulls: 1) Michael Jordan was the best player on that team   2) Bill Cartwright was worthless   and 3) I would love to be like Mike, but I want to play like Scottie. As an aspiring basketball player, I marveled at Scottie Pippen’s game.  Perhaps it’s because I fell in love with basketball when Paxson made the game-winning 3-pointer against Phoenix and by that time Jordan was retired and playing baseball.  Maybe it’s because the first NBA game I ever went to was at Rupp Arena, with the Pippen-led Bulls taking on Jamal Mashburn and the lowly Mavericks.  But as I reflect back on watching Pippen play, it’s because he played basketball the right way.  He was selfless, he was athletic, he played hard on both ends of the court, he had an arrogance and a humility about him, he carried himself with dignity.  He could take over the game with long scoring stretches or timely defensive plays, he could make an amazing pass or pick someone’s pocket.  He frequently carried the stretches when Jordan would rest and lead the second unit for the Bulls.  Pippen’s game just complemented the team perfectly.  He was competitive and he understood what Bill Simmons’ calls “The Secret” (see: The Book of Basketball).  He was willing to sacrifice his stats to win championships.  Yet somehow he gets lost in the discussions of great players in NBA history.

Why is this?  Is it because his stats with Houston, Portland, and his final stint with Chicago are lackluster at best? (11 ppg, 1.5 spg, .52 bpg, 4.68 apg, 5.08 rpg, 42% FG, 31% 3PT, 73% FT)  Was it because he enters competitions like the Shooting Stars Competition or playing Celebrity B-Ball with Justin Beiber on All-Star Weekend?

(Note: Pippen was AMAZING that game.  He wasn’t even trying and still scored almost 30 pts…and freaking Justin Beiber got the MVP…as a lifelong Pippen fan, I was outraged. He could’ve put that trophy right next to his 6 NBA Championship rings!  Unreal…by the way, I also pined for the Bulls to sign Pippen to fill their hole at shooting guard.  Wouldn’t this have been perfect? He watches team practices and every game…don’t you think he could’ve filled in?  Did you see him shoot in the celebrity game? He’s still in amazing shape!  Anyways…)

Or maybe it’s the infamous incident with Toni Kukoc when Phil Jackson drew up the game-winning shot for Toni, and Scottie refused to re-enter the game.  I think Scottie felt THAT should have been his moment…it was HIS team and Phil took it away from him.  Maybe it’s the migraines in the early 90s, or maybe it’s him cheesing at courtside like he’s just happy to be in the building for every Bulls game.  Maybe it’s because he didn’t mesh well in Houston (for whatever reason) with Olajuwon and Barkley.

Maybe it’s because the Trailblazers choked in the 2000 Western Finals.  Maybe it’s because he went broke because of bad investments.  Maybe it’s because everyone just saw him as ‘Robin’ and he never could become ‘Batman.’ Many people don’t remember this, but Scottie and Michael used to play one-on-one after practices to hone each other’s offensive and defensive abilities and improve each other’s games.  What greater matchup could there be: The greatest offensive player ever against the greatest defensive player ever….and they were IMPROVING each other’s games!  This is one of the reason’s I’m optimistic about the Derrick Rose/Jimmy Butler pairing.  They could have the same effect on each other.

Scottie Pippen was one of the greatest small forwards to ever play in the NBA, there’s no question.  In fact, Larry Bird and maybe one day, Lebron James may be the only players who could ever say they were better than Scottie Pippen.  Pippen was a unique player…a combination of aggressive offense and smothering defense, the substance a champion was made of, and one of the most relentless basketball talents to ever step foot in the NBA.  Whatever the reason, whatever the cause his legacy has begun to fade, and it’s a tragedy.  With the generation of selfish basketball being pushed to the forefront, with fundamentals and a lack of intensity swallowing a generous portion of NBA players, perhaps young players should be looking at legends like Scottie Pippen, who knew how to play the game with the finest balance of selfishness and selflessness.  If you have ever watched a Bulls game in the early 90s, watch how the Bulls run a fast break.  The ball rarely touches the ground and there’s Pippen or Jordan, gliding gracefully and finishing at the rim.  Perfect fast break basketball that is rarely seen these days.  A lot of people talk about how great Jordan’s post game was in his later career (well-deserved I might add), but no one mentions how dominating Scottie was in the post.  He had a beautiful turn around jumper, he mastered the jump hook, and quite frankly, if  Scottie used the glass he NEVER missed.  He always would bank it in on the block.  Watch the 97 or 98 seasons.  Poor Jeff Hornacek was abused by Pippen in the finals and Scottie did this for two entire seasons.  He was unstoppable on the block.  Even in the 1998 Finals when his back was shot, he just punished Hornacek down low and helped power the Bulls to the 6th championship.

The answer to the questions I posed earlier: How great was Scottie Pippen?  Scottie was definitely one of the top 15 greatest players to ever play in the NBA, a proven winner, a champion, a defensive powerhouse, and one of the most dominating players to ever play.

What is his legacy?  It should be the greatest perimeter defender ever, one of the top 20 greatest players ever, and one of the most dominating players in NBA history.  Watching Scottie play basketball was like watching perfection on the court.  He did everything so well and was elite in so many ways.  He had the unselfishness that fans always clamor about with guys like Derrick Rose or Tim Duncan, but he was also competitive to the point that he would decimate you in multiple ways – either by scoring, passing, lockdown defense, or whatever else his team needed.  He was the perfect pairing with Michael Jordan.  Both were crazy competitive, talented, and drove each other to new heights.  Their legacies will always be intertwined, but don’t you dare refer to Scottie Pippen as a mere “sidekick.”  He was much more than that.

Scottie Pippen highlights:

 

Brandon Pence is the founder and editor emeritus of “The Bulls Charge.” Follow him on Twitter at @thebullscharge and The Bulls Charge at @ChiBullsCharge