One of the most versatile and talented players, 6-7 Scottie Pippen orchestrated an offense like a point guard, rebounded like a power forward, scored like a shooting guard, and defended on the perimeter like few others. The seven-time All-Star was a vital component of the Chicago Bulls’ six NBA Championships in the 1990s.
He played 17 seasons missing the postseason only in his final campaign, which allowed him to rack up the second most playoff game appearances (208) behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (237). But above and beyond, his all-around game was the prototype for the next generation of small forwards.
As the second-best player on the championship Bulls team to perhaps the greatest player to lace up a pair of sneakers - Michael Jordan, Pippen may never get his due. Like with the chicken and the egg conundrum, the question may always remain how much of Pippen's success was a result of his association with Jordan.
Pippen was a member of the 50th Anniversary Team, a two time gold medal Olympian with the Dream Team in 1992 and in 1996. He was an eight-time member of the NBA All-Defensive First Team (1992-1999) and 1994 NBA All-Star MVP. Yet, his career averages of 16.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 5.2 apg were not staggering.
Chicago sportswriter Sam Smith, who covered the Bulls during the Jordan-Pippen era, explained the dynamic dilemma this way on ESPN.com: "Pippen was the ultimate supporting player, the perfect complement."
But what may even be a bigger mystery was how he even reached the heights he did in the basketball world. He was one of a dozen children who grew up in tiny Hamburg, Arkansas. As a freshman at tiny University of Central Arkansas, an NAIA school, he was a nonscholarship player and received financial aid for being the team manager. To pay for the rest of his education he worked in the summers as a welder attaching the arms of school desks to the legs, leaving him with scars on his own arms.
He averaged just 4.3 ppg that first season and received little attention for much of his college career, despite improving quickly and steadily. Finally after averaging 23.6 ppg and 10.0 rpg as a senior, Pippen found himself a hot commodity in the 1987 NBA Draft.
Chicago Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause was impressed with the multidimensional talents of Pippen and wanted to select him with their eighth overall pick in the draft. However, Pippen didn’t last that long as the Seattle SuperSonics selected him with the fifth pick. Chicago then picked Olden Polynice, the 6-11 center from the University of Virginia.
The lanky long-armed rookie came off the bench in his first season, playing a reserve role behind small forward Brad Sellers. Pippen averaged 7.9 ppg and 3.8 rpg, shooting .463 from the field and .576 from the free-throw line.
Pippen began the postseason as a reserve, but he replaced Sellers in the starting lineup in the fifth and final game of a first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Pippen responded with 24 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals in the Bulls’ 107-101 victory, and Coach Doug Collins elected to keep him in a starting role for the next round. Chicago then lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Although back surgery kept Pippen out of the entire preseason and the first eight games of 1988-89, it was as a second-year player that he began to show the variety of skills that made him a superstar and a constant triple-double threat. Pippen still came off the bench in his first 16 appearances, but started all but one game thereafter. For the season, he averaged 14.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 3.5 apg. Against the Los Angeles Clippers, Pippen recorded the first of twenty career regular season triple-double with 15 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
But the next year, Pippen became a force to be reckoned with. The Bulls began the season with a new head coach in Phil Jackson and a new triangle offense --a fluid passing and cutting system that created opportunities for all five players on the floor.
The Eastern Conference coaches rewarded Pippen’s all-around contributions when they selected him to play in his first NBA All-Star Game in 1990. For the season, Pippen ranked second on the Bulls in scoring (16.5 ppg) and third in the NBA in steals (2.57 per game), coming into his own as one of the league’s best defensive players.
The Bulls advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight season, but for the second straight season they lost to the eventual repeat champions, Detroit Pistons, this time in seven games. Pippen was outstanding throughout the playoffs, averaging 19.3 ppg and 7.2 rpg in 15 postseason games. He notched his first of four career playoff triple-doubles with 17 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds in Game 1 of a first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
That would be the last time for a long time for the Bulls to go down in the playoffs. Pippen used the 1991 postseason to prove that the Chicago Bulls was not a one-man gang. Although Michael Jordan carried the Bulls at times en route to their first-ever NBA Championship, Pippen was equally indispensable.
He had done it all for the Bulls in the regular season, ranking second on the team in scoring (17.8 ppg) and rebounding (7.3 rpg) while leading the club in assists (6.2 apg) and blocked shots (1.13 per game).
But in 17 postseason games, he averaged 21.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 5.8 apg, and 2.47 steals, leading Chicago in both rebounding and steals. Due in large part to Pippen, the Bulls exorcised its playoff demons by sweeping its nemesis the Pistons in the 1991 conference finals.
Up next were the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA Finals. Initially, Jordan guarded the Lakers' great Magic Johnson. However, after a home court loss in Game 1 and Jordan getting two quick fouls in Game 2, Pippen was charged with defending Johnson. Pippen hounded the point guard throughout the series and effectively stymied the remnants of the Showtime offense. The Bulls went on to win the next four games to capture the title. In the fifth and final game, Pippen contributed 32 points and 13 rebounds as the Bulls notched a 108-101 victory.
Pippen established himself as one of the NBA’s elite players in 1991-92. He appeared in his second NBA All-Star Game, originally selected as a reserve but eventually starting in place of the injured Larry Bird, and at season’s end he landed on the All-NBA Second Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
He also played for the United States Dream Team at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, and above all he helped lead the Bulls to their second consecutive NBA Championship.
Pippen ranked 14th in the league in scoring (21.0 ppg) and 15th in assists (7.0 apg). He added 7.7 rpg, 1.89 steals, and 1.13 blocks per game. During Chicago’s march to a second straight title, the Bulls encountered their greatest roadblock in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, needing seven games to move past the New York Knicks. Pippen was pivotal in Game 7, recording his second playoff triple-double with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists.
Although his stats (18.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 6.3 apg) declined slightly in 1992-93, he helped lift the club to its third straight NBA title. As the season unfolded, Pippen’s popularity continued to soar, in Chicago and around the league. NBA fans made him the second-leading vote-getter in balloting for the NBA All-Star Game, trailing only teammate Michael Jordan.
He also earned his second straight berth on the NBA All-Defensive First Team as well as a spot on the All-NBA Third Team. He had a consecutive-games streak snapped at 307 when he was suspended for one game after fighting but he bounced back to score a season-high 39 points against the San Antonio Spurs
Pippen played a workmanlike 41.5 minutes per game in the postseason, helping the Bulls to their third straight NBA title, a feat that had not be done since the Boston Celtics 1963-66 teams. He had his best series in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks, averaging 22.5 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting .510 from the floor.
Following the surprise temporary retirement of Michael Jordan on the eve of training camp before the 1993-94 season, Pippen was thrust into the role of team leader. Given the opportunity to move outside of the Jordan shadow, Pippen shined. He recorded career highs of 22.0 ppg and 8.7 rpg and guided the team to a surprising 55-27 record. Playing in his fourth All-Star Game, he scored 29 points in 31 minutes and was named the game’s MVP.
He also earned his first selection to the All-NBA First Team. Pippen finished the season ranked eighth in the league in scoring, second in steals, and 19th in assists. He led the Bulls in all three categories, ranked second on the team in rebounding. At season’s end he was named to the All-NBA First Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
In Chicago’s 10 postseason games, Pippen led the club in scoring (22.8 ppg), rebounding (8.3 rpg), and assists (4.6 apg). The Bulls lost in the conference semifinals to the New York Knicks, ending their three-year hold on the championship.
Some felt the Bulls could have won that series not for a controversial foul call against Pippen. In Game 5, with the series tied two games apiece, Pippen was whistled for a foul as he defended the shooting Hubert Davis. The ensuing free throws were the difference in the Knicks' 87-86 win and helped propelled the Knicks to take the series in seven games.
But what many may most remember about that series was Pippen’s most embarrassing moment as a player. With the Bulls down 0-2 in Game 3 tied 102 apiece, Pippen decided to watch the final seconds from the bench after head coach Phil Jackson diagrammed a last-second play to go to Toni Kukoc and not Pippen. Kukoc cashed in on a 22-footer at the buzzer for a 104-102 Bulls win, but the headlines the following day centered around Pippen sitting, not Kukoc swishing.
Pippen returned for a superb season in 1994-95 and continued to show why he was at that time possibly the best all-around player in the NBA. Jordan did return for the last 17 regular season games, but Pippen led the Chicago Bulls in five categories - scoring (21.4 ppg), rebounding (8.1 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), steals (2.94 per game and first in NBA), and blocked shots (1.13 per game). The last player to top his club in these five categories before Pippen was Dave Cowens, who paced the Boston Celtics in 1977-78.
He was rewarded with an All-Star berth and selection to both the All-NBA First Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team. The Bulls finished the regular season at 47-35 to claim third place in the Central Division. They ousted the Charlotte Hornets in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals.
Following that season, Pippen was named to the 1996 Olympic Team, which would go on to win the gold medal in Atlanta.
The Bulls opened the 1995-96 season with Jordan and the newly acquired Dennis Rodman, a unique rebounding and defensive force. The team enjoyed one of the most remarkable years ever posted by any club.
Finishing with a record of 72-10, the best in NBA history, the Bulls stormed through the playoffs with a 15-3 record ending in a six game Finals win over the Seattle SuperSonics. Pippen and Jordan were named to the All-NBA First Team and the two along with Rodman were selected to the NBA All-Defensive Team. In addition, Toni Kukoc won the NBA Sixth Man Award and Phil Jackson, NBA Coach of the Year.
The Bulls would repeat in 1996-97, this time in six games over the Utah Jazz led by Karl Malone and John Stockton. Pippen posted regular season numbers of 20.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg and 5.7 apg.
Pippen began the 1997-98 season on the injured list, missing the Bulls' first 35 games while recovering from off-season left foot surgery. After his return, he would average 19.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg and 5.8 apg. Again, the Bulls won the NBA tile in six games over the Jazz, equaling their three consecutive titles form the early 1990s.
However, the dynasty was over.
Before the 1998-99 labor lockout shortened season began, Jordan retired for the second time (not the last) and Pippen was traded to the Houston Rockets. The previous season, the Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler only finished 41-41. Drexler retired after the disappointing campaign. And Pippen was brought in for his championship quality play.
Pippen's offensive point production slipped to 14.5 ppg but his rebounding (6.5) and assists (5.9) were as good as ever. The Rockets tied the Lakers with a 31-19 record but due to a tie breaker ended up behind the Lakers for fifth place in the Western Conference. The Lakers would also go onto defeat the Rockets 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs.
Pippen may have never felt comfortable in the Houston offense revolving around Olajuwon and Barkley. But he and Barkley's personal relationship also deteriorated. In the offseason, the two exchanged harsh words through the media and Pippen after just one season in Houston was dealt to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Pippen spent the next four seasons with Portland, the best season coming in his first year. He was the leader of the team that finished 59-12; the second best in the league behind Pacific Division champ Lakers. The two teams would also meet in the Western Conference Finals.
After going down 3-1, the Trail Blazers forced a Game 7 and held a 15-point fourth quarter lead in the decisive game. But a miraculous comeback by the Lakers sent them to the Finals where they eventually won the NBA title.
The Blazers would make the post season in each of the next three seasons that Pippen was in a Portland uniform, but an assortment of injuries reduced the amount of time he spent on the court. Although, in his last season in Portland, he became the starting point guard and led the Blazers on a 21-5 streak.
As Pippen's career wound down, many of the game's new crop of superstars remarked on Pippen's influence. In Hoop magazine, Tracy McGrady commented, "Scottie wasn't a one-dimensional guy. He plays both end of the court, and he's a team player. I just saw some of my talent relating to Scottie."
In that same article, Kevin Garnett added, "Scottie was definitely [someone who] I sat back and watched. For him to be so tall with long arms, and agile, I saw that as an example, definitely."
Pippen returned to Chicago as a free agent for his last season. The Bulls had struggled mightily since Pippen's departure. He would only play in 23 games but he brought experience and mentored the core of young players that would help the team in the following season of 2004-05 post a 47-35 record and make the playoff for the first time since 1997-98.
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