Archive 75

Archive 75: Scottie Pippen


Scottie Pippen Archive 75

The challenge in writing about this particular NBA 75 player is to see how long you can go without mentioning another particular NBA 75 player. You know the one.

There’s no other dynamic quite like that among the players being celebrated as part of the league’s diamond anniversary season. Certain rivalries and several sets of teammates might seem to go together, but when it comes to Scottie Pippen, it’s almost word-association to mention the “other guy,” Michael Jordan.

C’mon, how far could someone go in writing a profile of Robin the Boy Wonder before mentioning Batman?

It is to Pippen’s credit that he carved out such an impressive career of his own while working next to arguably the greatest player in NBA history.

As the very best corporate vice-presidents or warehouse assistant managers will tell you, a particular set of skills are needed to thrive as a No. 2. Well, no No. 2 in league annals, perhaps across all North American team sports, gets lauded for those skills and accomplishments quite like the 6-foot-8 versatile force from tiny Hamburg, Arkansas.

There’s an old saying about actors in Hollywood that the career arcs for the best of them go from “Who is [fill in the blank]?” to “Get me another [same name]!” in what can seem like the blink of an eye.

Archive 75: Scottie Pippen as a rookie

If ever an NBA player did that — going from a nobody to a prototype — it was Pippen.

All props to Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ general manager at the time, for making it happen. Krause, the interpersonally awkward general manager who inherited Jordan but no one else for Chicago’s remarkable 1990s run, had his critics. But he glommed onto Pippen early when a little-known player from the University of Central Arkansas began to light up scoreboards and stats sheets from the college basketball’s elites.

While it’s true that Pippen’s name began to leak out thanks to showcases in his senior year, Krause was the guy who did what it took to snag him. Fearful that his sleeper prospect would be gone by the time the Bulls selected at No. 8 in the 1987 NBA Draft, Krause arranged for Pippen to be picked by Seattle three spots earlier, then shipped to Chicago in a trade.

As the missing ingredient to play alongside Jordan, Pippen was perfect. A complementary wing whose game boasted many similarities to the former North Carolina star, he was also a guy who could be deployed quite differently in playing off of Jordan.

With Jordan as the league’s most potent scorer, Pippen could assume — under coach Phil Jackson for sure, taking over in Pippen’s third season — his duties as an unofficial “point forward.” The role played to Pippen’s versatility and court awareness, which allowed Jackson to use deep threats such as John Paxson and Steve Kerr as titular point guards and got Jordan off the ball to make him even more elusive and dangerous.

Some of his highlights are as spectacular now as they were 30 years ago.

Even in rookie form, Pippen’s skills and impact were evident and often breathtaking. The recognition of opportunities that might open and close in a split second was matched only by his physical capability of actually completing the plays.

Pippen teamed with Jordan to give Chicago a pair of elite defenders. Jordan was ferocious defensively when he wanted or needed to be, but because of the scoring duties he shouldered, Jordan and his coaches had to deploy him judiciously at that end.

Enter Scottie Pippen. This was a player who could be assigned to the opponents’ top threat and lock in for however long that guy was on the floor. His quickness, length, mobility and wingspan made him a major disruptor against both individuals and entire teams when they played the Bulls. He never was named DPOY but he topped Jordan (nine) by making 10 All-Defensive teams.

Pippen wound up fourth all-time in steals, combining NBA regular season and postseason games (2,702, behind No. 3 Jordan’s 2,890). At 6-foot-8, he’s the tallest of the top seven players on that list, an indication of his ability to guard one through five.

He, Jordan and the rest of the Bulls dialed up their stinginess over their time together. The second three-peat crew that included Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper was frequently lauded as the toughest champions against whom to score, ever. But Pippen’s raw ability and instincts as a defender were evident from the start, too.

Before Pippen arrived, Jordan’s Bulls had tried and failed three times in the playoffs, going a combined 1-9 against Boston (twice) and Milwaukee without surviving the first round. Pippen got there in time for the aggravation and frustration foisted upon them by Detroit’s “Bad Boys,” nemeses who blocked Chicago on their way to the Finals each spring in 1988, 1989 and 1990.

What the Bulls wanted, the Pistons got: Back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, bragging rights in the Eastern Conference and most pointedly over their rust-belt rivals.

It was Pippen’s development as a star in his own right, standing next to the Great Man rather than in his shadow, that elevated their team as much as anything. He earned his first All-Star appearance in 1990, to be followed soon thereafter by six more. By the following season, Pippen topped Jordan in rebounds, assists and blocks.

And come that June, when Chicago finally did reach the Finals for the first time, the single biggest adjustment – the maneuver that turned an 0-1 start into a 4-1 series victory – was Jackson switching Pippen defensively onto Lakers star Magic Johnson. It came from necessity, with Jordan picking up quick fouls in Game 2, but it stuck for its effectiveness.

Scottie Pippen as a championHad Jordan and Pippen chosen to team up as free agents, a tactic that became all the rage with the next generation of NBA stars, they might have been seen more as equals for the rest of their careers. But because they hooked up the old-fashioned way – Pippen added to what Jordan already had established as his team – the tandem never quite broke beyond No. 1 and No. 1A.

It was fine for most and not too bad for Pippen, either. The Bulls kept claiming rings. When USA Basketball conceived and assembled the original “Dream Team” of NBA players to compete in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Pippen was invited to fill one of the first 10 spots. Right there with Jordan, Johnson, Larry Bird and all the rest.

Several years later, the NBA went a step further by compiling a list of its top 50 players from its first 50 years. Pippen was there, too, honored at the 1997 All-Star Weekend in Cleveland. In fact, he was not far beyond the mid-point of his career – 10 seasons in, seven to go – and the second-youngest member of the group, behind only Shaquille O’Neal (a premature but prescient pick).

Scottie Pippen dunks

In between Pippen’s two greatest honors through 1997, he got what so many No. 2’s in life hope for: the departure of No. 1. When Jordan abruptly retired before the 1993-94 season, taking his all-world skills and 32.6 points per game with him for a foray into professional baseball, Pippen was the one expected to pick up the slack.

He did precisely that, seizing the opportunity to lead Chicago to 55 victories – only two fewer than the season before. He put up remarkable stats across the board (22.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, 2.9 spg) and was the brightest in Minneapolis in February, scoring 29 points in 31 minutes to earn the MVP award in the 1994 All-Star Game.

Pippen was named to both the All-NBA first team and All-Defensive first team and finished third behind Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson as the league’s MVP. In 10 playoff games, he led Chicago in scoring, rebounding and assists before the run ended in the East semifinals against New York.
In 1994-95, Pippen again capably filled Jordan’s sneakers on many nights. His all-around game was clear when he led the Bulls in all five major stats categories – scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks. He became the first player to do so since Boston’s Dave Cowens in 1977-78. This time the Bulls won 47 games – they were 34-31 before Jordan shocked the sports world by returning for the final 17 regular-season contests – and Pippen finished seventh in MVP balloting, the third of his five Top 10 finishes.

Pippen took on some baggage in his time apart from, y’know, that guy. There was his notorious 1.8 second sitdown in a playoff game against the Knicks in 1994, a team-last decision that Pippen never fully has walked back. His ego reared up on him other times in media sessions that generated headlines.
And yet, if only for 18 months, the ultimate sidekick had done well as an alpha.

Jordan famously faxed his way back into the NBA and Pippen dutifully accommodated him. At least from all appearances, it went smoothly enough. Pippen resumed his all-around excellence. Chicago went 13-4 in the games Jordan played near the end of 1994-95, a taste of what was to come before they lost to Orlando in the East semifinals that spring.

The 1995-96 Bulls season exploded onto the rest of the NBA. With the Jordan-Pippen tandem restored, with Rodman and Harper filling two key starting spots and with Toni Kukoc providing his own bundle of marvelousness off the bench, they went 72-10, the best record in league history to that point. Pippen’s scoring average dropped by two points per game, but they weren’t missed. His overall play was at peak form and Pippen’s shared leadership with Jordan kept Rodman on task (at least for the games).

Three rings followed for that crew in 1996, 1997 and 1998. Pippen got the top 50 distinction, made his final two All-Star appearances and even got paid fair market value as Chicago’s dynasty ended.

The final third of his career played out under dimmer lights. The Rockets’ attempt to turn aging stars Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Pippen into a championship core disappointed in the 1998-99 season. Pippen followed that up with a lucrative new contract in Portland, but never came close to the team success he once had in Chicago.

Not to worry: Pippen’s place in Bulls history, in the league’s record books and among the game’s legends was secured in 2010 when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

No man is a hero to his valet. It’s an old proverb from somewhere in Europe, and it resonates in the relationship Pippen had for so many years with Jordan. He saw His Airness’ flaws, on the court and off, even as he was caulking around them to win games and titles. The underlying emotions of always playing second fiddle were revealed again when the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” was aired in May 2020, baring old grudges and new resentments from Pippen for how their relationship was depicted.

And yet, after all this time, it’s difficult to argue for a more perfect union of two teammates. Whatever Jordan lacked compared to some of the game’s greats in having an ideal rival – no Bird to his Magic, no Wilt Chamberlain to his Bill Russell, no Jerry West to his Oscar Robertson – he got in a different direction with Pippen.

They wound up in a sibling rivalry, older brother vs. younger. Measured against each other so often by outsiders, but coming together from the inside in the most important times.

Without Jordan, Pippen’s illustrious career might have wound up very different. Flip that around, though, and the point still applies.