Around the time I was 16, I use to wear the jersey number 4 on my basketball team, but then I decided to make a temporary switch and wear #33. It was my way of wanting to be the next Scottie Pippen. I loved the way Pip would get the Bulls into their offense, his ability to defend multiple positions, his rebounding, his scoring and his knack for recognizing when to get out of Michael Jordan’s way. I loved his game and still do today. After Michael’s second retirement, Pip went to Houston for a season and then moved on to Portland. I still remember watching his first game with the Trail Blazers, as they faced off against the Grizzlies in Vancouver, because I was curious to see if he would be able to adjust to playing with the likes of Steve Smith, Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire and Bonzi Wells. And you know what? Pippen was a the best player on the court that night and yet look at his stat line:
14 PTS, 4 RBS, 3 ASS, 1 BLK, 6-11 FGs.
That’s Pippen’s career in a nutshell: unremarkable numbers in a quite remarkable career. Pip took shots when he was open, played an excellent brand of defense and helped get the team into their offense. Scottie is like that dude that helps you plan the party, get the booze, find a DJ and then dances to a few songs in the background and lets everybody else enjoy a killer party. Those who followed his career can all testify to this.
And yet, for years some fans said that Scottie was merely riding Michael Jordan’s coattails. They failed to see what the Bulls star forward brought to the table because they were so in awe of Jordan’s performances. Let’s be real, it was far easier to notice #23 dunking on people, talking trash with opponents, shutting down premier perimeter scorers, reinventing himself and becoming a dominant low post player and a great ambassador for the game. Mind you, MJ was able to do all those things because he had a terrific partner in crime in Scottie Pippen. Indeed, Pippen always understood when to assert himself on the court, and when to just blend into the background and set the stage for Jordan. The 6’7 forward was good, but how good was he really?
The best way to describe Scottie Pippen is basically to compare him to an Iphone (I’m not even kidding). You need some scoring on the low block? There’s a Pippen app for that. You need someone to initiate your offense? There’s a Pippen app for that. You need someone to get the ball to the post? There’s a Pippen app for that. You need someone to get Steve Kerr a shot? There’s a Pippen app for that. You need someone to set the tone by driving aggressively to the hoop? There’s a Pippen app for that. The opposing team is trapping you full court, and you need someone to handle the ball against the pressure? Yup, you guessed it; there’s a Pippen app for that too.
We all agree that Pippen was perhaps the perfect player to play with Michael Jordan (ESPN’s J.A. Adande did a great job of breaking down why here), but the truth is that he was the perfect player to play alongside everybody. You never got the sense that he was forcing shots. On the contrary, Pippen understood when and where to pick his spots. His points always came within the flow of the offense unless the Bulls were in the midst of a scoring drought with his Airness on the bench. Scottie did it in a variety of ways: a few transitions baskets, at least one three point field goal per game to keep the defense honest, maybe one or two post ups, a few drives to the basket and a few free throws; all of which came without forcing the issue as evidenced by his 13.3 career field goal attempts (doesn’t that sound amazingly low?). Pippen was a brilliant offensive player because he understood his limitations better than most and also knew when it was time to let Jordan take over. Some might argue that it was easy to let Michael do his thing but any player with a shred of ego wants to shine on the grandest of stages; you can ask Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady about it. Pippen on the other hand was comfortable enough in his own role to understand that he would always come second or possibly even third depending on who was hot in any given game.
We have seen over the course of the years an evolution in the way that teams defend now. Indeed, if you have to guard say Tony Parker, you get a player in the mold of Lindsey Hunter or Marcus Banks to try and match his quickness. If the job is to guard Kevin Durant, you ask Ron Artest to chase him around and bump him on every play and stay in his face. If your opponent is Rip Hamilton or Ray Allen, you sign someone to shadow them and that won’t mind running through screens, basically a player in the mold of Bruce Bowen. And lastly, if you have a big player like Dirk Nowitzki that likes to float around the perimeter, you would hope to be able to get someone like Shawn Marion to guard him because of his discipline, attention to detail, size (to avoid getting backed down in the post), speed, length as well as jumping ability to contest shots.
But back in the 1990’s, the Bulls didn’t need to sign any type of defensive specialist because they had perhaps the most destructive perimeter defender in league history in Scottie Pippen. Pip was what I like to call a bucket of cold water. You see a player getting hot, you put Pip on him and that’s it. Case closed. I have two playoff instances that perfectly illustrate this:
I. 1996 Eastern Conference Finals
Chicago entered the Eastern Conference Finals in a rematch with the Orlando Magic who had eliminated the Bulls the previous year as Michael Jordan came back from retirement. The Magic were being touted by many to be the new dominant team of the Eastern Conference; and thus the Bulls’ biggest threat. In Game 1, Penny Hardaway went nuts against Chicago as he went on to score 38 points on 15-21 field goal shooting. Then Bulls head coach Phil Jackson (yes, the same one that just celebrated his 11th title this past June) made an adjustment and assigned Pippen to guard Hardaway sporadically for the rest of the series. The result? The guy that was slated to be the next Magic Johnson struggled. Look at Hardaway’s numbers for the remainder of the series (Games 2 to 4):
21.3 PPG, 23-60 FGs, 38.3 FG%
Just like that, the Bulls swept the Magic and were back in the Finals.
II. 1998 Eastern Conference Finals
Entering the Eastern Conference Finals, Pacers point guard Mark Jackson had just finished abusing Knicks guards Charlie Ward and Chris Child in the second round of the playoffs. Then Pacers head coach Larry Bird, had Jackson post them up and have him dissect the Knicks defense from the low block. Look at Jackson’s numbers in the Conference Semi-Finals Vs. New York:
10.2 PPG, 9.6 APG, 1.2 TPG, 57.9 FG%
Phil Jackson did not want his Bulls defense to get sliced up the same way so he decided to stick Pippen on Jackson. One of the best point guards of all time suddenly turned into Eric Snow. Look at Mark Jackson’s numbers from the ’98 Eastern Conference Finals:
10.9 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.4 TPG, 42.9 FG%
That’s what I call a bucket of cold water. Pippen just shut down whoever was placed in front of him. Also, there is no way to measure just how great of a team defender that he was. The former Central Arkansas player had a knack for completely disrupting his opponents’ offense because he always understood where each play was going. He anticipated brilliantly, helped close off passing lanes and then recover in time to guard his man. If there is ever an old Bulls game on television, I would strongly suggest you watch it, just so you can see what Pippen did day in and day out.
Let’s take a quick look at what Pippen accomplished during his 17 year career:
-Six time NBA champion
-Seven All-Star Game selections
-1993-94 All-Star Game MVP
- Three All-NBA 1st team selections (1993-94, 1994-95, 1995-96)
-Two All-NBA 2nd team selections (1991-92, 1996-97)
-Two All-NBA 3rd team selection (1992-93, 1997-98)
-Eight NBA All-Defense 1st team selections (1991-92, 1992-93, 1993-94, 1994-95, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1997-98, 1998-99)
- Two NBA All-Defense 2nd team selections (1990-91, 1999-00)
-86th all time in blocks
-80th all time in total rebounds
-63rd all time in three point field goals made
-52nd all time in points
-45th all time in defensive rebounds
-26th all time in assists
-13th all time in steals per game
-6th all time in steals
When you look at Scottie Pippen’s list of achievements during the course of his NBA career, there are two things that stand out: the six championship rings and the All-Defensive honors. None of his stats truly blow you away, however he does show up in the top 100 of all time in every major basketball stat (points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks); which is a testament to his longevity and also his ability to do it all. Much like others before him, Pippen is player of great stature because of how he mastered the game.
Coincidentally, the NBA is home to several legends that have dominated the game of basketball. The very best ones are all part of an exclusive and prestigious painting that tells the story the NBA from start to finish. Scottie Pippen’s accomplishments as well as his impact on the game of basketball have forced a collection of painters to include him into the masterpiece; its name: the Hall of Fame. Much like he was during his NBA career with the teams he played for, Pippen is a perfect fit for this painting….Nuff said.
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