Legends profile: Scottie Pippen
One of the most versatile and talented players ever, Scottie Pippen orchestrated the 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.
In 17 seasons, Pippen missed the postseason only in his final campaign, allowing him to rack up the second-most playoff appearances ever (208) at the time of his retirement, behind only then-leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (237). More than anything, his all-around game became the prototype for the next generation of small forwards.
As the second-best player on the championship Bulls teams alongside Michael Jordan, Pippen may never get his due. As 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 NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team, and a two-time gold medal winner with the Olympic Dream Team in 1992 and in 1996. He was an eight-time member of the NBA All-Defensive First Team (1992-1999) and the 1994 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 their dynamic as such for ESPN.com: “Pippen was the ultimate supporting player, the perfect complement.”
But what may even be a bigger mystery was how he even reached such heights at all. He was one of a dozen children who grew up in tiny Hamburg, Arkansas. As a freshman at the University of Central Arkansas, an NAIA school, he was a non-scholarship 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. Pippen finally found himself a hot commodity in the 1987 NBA Draft after averaging 23.6 ppg and 10.0 rpg as a senior.
After being selected with the fifth pick in the Draft by the Seattle SuperSonics, Pippen was dealt to Chicago for a package including center Olden Polynice, a 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 46.3 from the field and 57.6 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.
It was as a second-year player that Pippen began to show the variety of skills that would make 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.
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 with his first All-Star selection 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, losing once again to the eventual repeat champion 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 were not a one-man gang. Although Michael Jordan carried the Bulls at times en route to their first championship, Pippen was equally indispensable, averaging 21.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 5.8 apg, and 2.47 steals in 17 playoff games. Due in large part to his handiwork, the Bulls exorcised their playoff demons by sweeping the Pistons in the 1991 conference finals.
Up next were the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA Finals. Jordan initially guarded Lakers great Magic Johnson. But 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 future Hall of Famer 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. Pippen contributed 32 points and 13 rebounds in the fifth and final game 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 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 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 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 All-Star Game, trailing only teammate Michael Jordan. He also earned his second straight berth on the All-Defensive First Team as well as a spot on the All-NBA Third Team.
Pippen played a workmanlike 41.5 minutes per game in the postseason, helping the Bulls to their third straight title, a feat that had not been achieved since the Boston Celtics in the mid-1960s. He had his best series in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks, averaging 22.5 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting 51.0 percent from the floor.
Following the surprise 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 Jordan’s 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.
Pippen finished the season ranked eighth in the league in scoring, second in steals, and 19th in assists, and at season’s end he was named to the All-NBA First Team and the 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 dubious 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 2-0, with Game 3 tied at 102, 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 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, and went on to enjoy 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 All-Defensive Team.
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.
The dynasty, however, was over.
Before the 1998-99 labor lockout shortened season began, with Jordan in retirement again, Pippen was traded to the Houston Rockets, trying to recreate a superstar trio with Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley.
Pippen’s offensive point production slipped to 14.5 ppg but his rebounding (6.5) and assists (5.9) were as solid as ever. The experiment didn’t pan out though as the Rockets finished in fifth place in the Western Conference and fell to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Pippen never seemed comfortable in the Houston offense, and after he and Barkley’s personal relationship deteriorated the Rockets shipped him off to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Pippen spent the next four seasons with Portland, with his best season coming in his first year. He was the leader of the team that finished 59-23, good enough for second best in the league behind the Pacific Division champion 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 en route to the title.
The Blazers would make the postseason in each of the next three seasons that Pippen was in a Portland uniform, but an assortment of injuries reduced his availability. His versatility and leadership were still assets though, as 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.”
In his final NBA season, Pippen would return to the city of Chicago, where the Bulls had languished near the bottom of the Eastern Conference since the dynasty he led with Jordan in the ’90s broke up. He would only play in 23 games, but he brought experience and mentored a core of young players that would help the team return to the playoffs the following year for the first time since 1997-98.
Though finished with the NBA, Pippen would return to the hardcourt briefly in 2008, touring Scandinavia and playing a few games in the Finnish and Swedish pro leagues at the age of 42.
After the finish of his stellar career, Pippen was selected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010. In retirement he has also worked as a broadcaster with ESPN’s NBA coverage and as an ambassador and broadcaster for the Bulls.