From Scottie Pippen to LeBron James: The Evolution of the Small Forward

Frances WhiteAnalyst IIJanuary 4, 2009

The greatest small forward that I ever saw play was Scottie Pippen. I am sure that there are greater arguments in today's game such as James Worthy, and of course LeBron James. I may have forgotten quite a few and by no means am I disrespecting them.

This is a position that is near and dear to my heart because I was a small forward in my playing days. I wasn't a superstar, by any means, but I was a very good rebounder and defender. Think of me as a female Dennis Rodman without the eccentricities.

My love affair with this position really started when Doctor J and the Philadelphia 76ers were in their prime. Billy Cunningham was coaching, Andrew Toney was the Celtic killer, and Bobby Jones was an All-Star. Bobby Jones brought a nastiness to the position that was sweet and not thuggish. 

His forays in the lane inevitably ended up with someone being posterized. If ESPN was the worldwide leader in sports then, he would have found himself as part of a highlight reel montage. His defensive skills were superb, at 6'9" with long arms, great footwork, and the ability to score when necessary. 

When he retired, I felt like a jilted lover, watching games and just waiting for someone to take his place in my heart. Then, in 1987, the Seattle Supersonics, in the biggest rip-off of talent by Jerry Krause, traded fifth pick Scottie Pippen to the Bulls for Olden Polynice, who was the eighth pick in the draft. 

Polynice was the first Haitian-born player to play in the NBA, the precursor to Samuel Dalembert. Well we all know how that turned out.

I watched that draft and I remember telling my mother's boyfriend how I loved that trade and Pippen is going to be a great player. It was a gut feeling I had about the skinny kid from Hamburg, Arkansas. He laughed at me then, saying it was all about Michael Jordan. I felt that he was wrong.

My innocent prognostication became true; he was part of the big three in Chicago that won six championships. The constants of Jordan, Pippen, and the Zen Master, coach Phil Jackson, were the driving force behind the Bulls' mastery of the '90s. Jordan said he would have never won without Pippen.

Here are Pippen's career highlights:

6x NBA Champion (with one team, sorry "Big Shot" Bob, you are a mercenary).

7x NBA all-Star

8x First team all defense

One of NBA's 50 greatest players of all time

Original Dream Team Member

When Jordan retired the first time, as stated in Wikipedia: "Pippen earned All-Star Game MVP honors and led the Bulls in scoring, assists, and the entire league in steals, averaging 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals, 1.9 three-pointers, and 0.8 blocks per game, while shooting 49.1 percent from the field and a career-best 32 percent from the three-point line. For his efforts, he earned the first of five straight All-NBA First Team nods, and the Bulls finished with 55 wins only two less than the year before."

He accomplished all of this without Jordan, only a Hugh Hollins phantom foul call on Pippen against Hubert Davis prevented him from winning without Jordan (that is only my opinion). Replays showed Pippen never touched him; Hollins had a bias against Pippen.

Could James Worthy have carried his team without Magic? I doubt that. Worthy played more like a power forward and was a finisher, not a creator. Like Bobby Jones, Pippen was a defensive hound and had the added ability to create shots for his teammates, as well.

His disappointing petulant behavior in the 1994 playoffs withstanding cannot overshadow the way the NBA started drafting for versatility at the small forward position. Witness Grant Hill, who was supposed to be Detroit's answer to a modern-day Scottie Pippen. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his career and we will never know if the Pippen comparisons were accurate. 

Pippen prepared us for the likes of the Paul Pierce and LeBron Jameses of the world. We now see the almost completed transfer of small forward greatness in James. I say almost completed because, until James can surpass Pippen in championship totals, he will still play second fiddle. The "King" would do well to try and be like Scottie and less like Mike.

I hope the Hall inducts him and Michael Jordan in the Hall together—it would only be fitting because neither would have won without the other.