In Defense of Scottie Pippen

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In Defense of Scottie Pippen
Scottie Pippen was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame this week, but his credentials extend far beyond being Michael Jordan’s sidekick.

Scottie Pippen. (Steve Lipofsky/Basketballphoto.com)
Three years ago, I was in Shanghai Pudong airport with some friends when two gorgeous flight attendants walked toward us. When I finally looked passed them to see who was important enough to merit such an escort, I saw a 6’7” man wearing a black leather jacket and dark sunglasses. Like any idiot caught off guard by a celebrity sighting, I blurted out the first words that came to my head: his name.

“Scottie Pippen!”

“Excuse me,” he said in his low rumble, right before splitting the defense between my friend E-Y and his mom, and then bolting down the escalator to the VIP lounges. I dropped my suitcase and unzipped it, frantically looking for my camera. I couldn’t find it, but I pulled out something else that I thought might be relevant: my gray Nike Air Pippens.

“Hey Scottie!” I shouted down the escalator. “I bought your shoes!” Dude ran like I was 1989 Dennis Rodman coming up behind him on the fast break.

Nike Air Pippens. Still got'em! (The NBA from the Cheap Seats)
A Stronger Argument for Scottie Pippen

So I may not be the most unbiased source of Scottie Pippen information. More than any other basketball player, I admire Pippen’s skill set. A six-foot-seven small forward who had court vision and handled the ball like a point guard but still had the length and quickness to guard four positions and the power and athleticism to unleash thunderous dunks on the league’s best big men. People say LeBron James has no historical comparison? Pippen was clearly the template for LeBron (insert Dwyane Wade’s sidekick joke here). LeBron is just Pippen on steroids (“on steroids” just an expression, that needs to be clarified these days).

Yet some critics still find ways to detract from his accomplishments. Critics like ESPN’s Skip Bayless, whom I am absolutely positive does not believe half the garbage he says and deliberately chooses the most inane angles on sports arguments just to sound ridiculous. Fine, that’s his schtick. I get it. What aggravates me is that ESPN puts him up against a creampuff like Jemele Hill who rambles off a bunch of subjective statements (“There are a lot of players who would’ve been too intimidated to shine the way he did [next to Jordan].” Yeah, put that on Pippen’s HOF plaque.) and can’t connect even against these softballs Bayless lobs at her.

Not a clue on either side of this table. (ESPN)
Since Hill won’t give Pippen a proper defense, I will. Let’s tackle Bayless’s jokes in reverse order:

Joke #1  In his five years with Houston and Portland, Scottie Pippen averaged 14.5, 12.5, 11.3, 10.6, and 10.8 ppg.

How weak is your position when you resort to points-per-game to argue a man’s Hall of Fame credentials? Pippen joined a Houston team with Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and no real point guard. He joined a Trailblazers team with Rasheed Wallace, Steve Smith, Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas
Sabonis, Bonzi Wells, and Detlef Schrempf. On neither of those teams was he asked to carry the scoring load. He fit in because his talents are so multi-faceted that he could play other roles—like facilitator and defensive stopper—that those teams needed.

Here are the yearly career PPG averages of another Hall-of-Famer: 14.7, 16.6, 16.7, 18.7, 18.2, 16.9, 18.9, 16.8, 15.0, 14.1, 12.9, 13.3, 12.5, 9.9. This bum couldn’t even crack 20 ppg in any single year. How the hell could he possibly make it into the HOF? Perhaps on account on his 11 championship titles, considering we’re talking about Bill Russell. Not every player makes his impact through scoring. Duh.

Joke #2  At age 34, Michael Jordan averaged 29-6-4, led the NBA in scoring, was first-team All-NBA, and won his sixth Finals MVP while leading the Bulls to their sixth title. At 34, Pippen was a role player on the Trailblazers.

The only reason Bayless picked 34 was because that was the age at which Jordan won his last title. Let’s play along and assume there is some type of magical significance associated with that number. Yes, even at 34, Michael Jordan was sublime, but what if we hold other top HOF swingmen to his standard at that age?
  • Elgin Baylor 25-10-5. First-team All-NBA, All-Star. His Lakers lost in seven in the Finals to the Boston Celtics. Jordanesque, though Jerry West was clearly the leader on that team, and they also got a 20-20 year out of Wilt Chamberlain.
  • Jerry West 23-4-9. Trailed only Gail Goodrich on his team for points but led it in assists. First-team All-NBA, All-Star. His Lakers lost in the Finals to the New York Knicks. So far so good!
  • Oscar Robertson 16-5-8. Fourth highest scorer on his team, though he did lead it in assists. His Milwaukee Bucks lost in the playoff semifinals to the Golden State Warriors. Bit of a drop-off now.
  • John Havlicek 19-6-5. Played all 82 games. Second-team All-NBA, first-team All-Defense, All-Star. Helped the Dave Cowens Celtics to the Conference Finals, where they lost to the Bullets.
  • Earl Monroe 12-3-1. Came off the bench, and played only the eighth most minutes. His Knicks didn’t make the playoffs.
  • Rick Barry 14-6-4. Acted as facilitator for the Moses Malone/Calvin Murphy/Rudy Tomjanovich Houston Rockets that got swept by the Hawks in the first round.
  • Julius Erving 20-5-3. All-Star. Helped a stacked Philadelphia 76ers team with Moses Malone and Andrew Toney in their primes plus rookie Charles Barkley to the Conference Finals, where they lost to the Celtics.
  • Adrian Dantley 6-1-1. Played only 10 games for the Milwaukee Bucks.
  • Larry Bird 19-9-7. Led his team in minutes and points and was second in rebounds and assists, but missed 22 games. All Star. His Boston Celtics lost to the Pistons in the Semifinals.
  • Dominique Wilkins 24-6-2 for the Hawks before trade. 29-7-2 for the Clippers after. Still a scoring machine if no longer a highlight reel. Third-team All-NBA, All-Star. His Clippers did not make the playoffs.
  • Clyde Drexler 18-6-6. Third wheel for those Hakeem/Barkley Rockets, but he missed 20 games. All-Star. His Rockets lost in the Conference Finals that year to Utah.
  • Joe Dumars 13-4-1. His Pistons didn’t make the playoffs. 
  • Reggie Miller 18-3-2. Missed just one game. All-Star. Led Indiana Pacers team that lost in the Finals to the Lakers, though Jalen Rose carried an equal share of those Pacers. Reggie isn’t HOF yet, but he played in the same era and just happened not to retire until later.
  • James Worthy, George Gervin, and Pete Maravich were no longer playing in the NBA at 34.
Now for Pippen:

The defensive-minded Pippen. (NBA)
  • Scottie Pippen 13-6-5. Played all 82 games. On that stacked Blazers team, he was second in minutes, second in assists, third in rebounds, and third in points. Second-team All-Defense. This is the Blazers team that had the infamous collapse in Game 7 of the Conference Finals against the Lakers and let a 17-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter.
Few approached Michael Jordan’s standard. None reached it. Obviously. He's Michael Goddamn Jordan.

While Pippen may be in the bottom half when comparing his age-34 production against the best Hall of Fame shooting guards and small forwards of all  time, he is still firmly in the conversation.

Joke #3  Michael Jordan made Scottie Pippen.

This argument can be deconstructed in two ways. First, look at Michael Jordan’s career without Scottie Pippen. Number of MVP awards won: five. Number of MVP awards without Pippen: zero. Number of Championships won: six. Number of championships without Pippen: zero. Number of first-team All-NBA’s: 10. Number of first-team All-NBA’s without Pippen: one.

You can look at Jordan’s first-team All-NBA in 1987 without Pippen and say he was already on his way even if Pippen never came along, and you’d be right. But how far was he going to get without Pippen? Couldn’t you also say Pippen would have been on his way even if Jordan never came along? No logic can extract how much of those Bulls teams’ success belonged to Jordan, how much to Pippen, and how much to Phil Jackson. All those elements affected each other, and no one with a functional brain can say one of them completely manufactured another (unless you’re Skip Bayless and blowing smoke up everybody’s asses for kicks, of course).

It's Pippen's time!
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
Second, look at Pippen’s career without Jordan. Since we already discussed his roles on the Rockets and Blazers, we’ll focus on the two years Pippen played in his prime when Jordan was playing baseball. In 1993-1994, Scottie Pippen averaged a monstrous 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals, 0.8 blocks, and 2.7 three-pointers. He led the Bulls in points, assists, steals, and 3s along with field goals made and attempted and free throws made and attempted. He finished second to Horace Grant in rebounds and blocks.

Finally out of Jordan’s shadow, he received his first first-team All-NBA selection, remained first-team All-Defense, and finished third in MVP voting. He even won the All-Star game MVP. He led that Bulls team to 55 wins, but ultimately lost in seven to the New York Knicks. This was the series that featured his infamous refusal to come back into a game after Phil Jackson drew up a last shot play for Toni Kukoc, an admittedly selfish decision that sadly has been given far too much weight in determining Pippen’s legacy.

Unfortunately, I don’t know Pippen’s splits in 1994-1995 before and after Michael Jordan came back. I do know Jordan returned late in the season and averaged an astounding 27-7-5 over 17 games with virtually no time to prep for the season, which showed in his paltry 41.1% field goal percentage.

Still, this Bulls season belonged to Pippen, who went 21-8-5 over 79 game, received his second first-team All-NBA selection, and continued to remain first-team All-Defense. Over the entire season, Pippen led the team in total points, rebounds, assists, steals (league-leader), blocks, minutes, field goals made and attempted, and free throws made and attempted.

You’ve Got to Do a Better Job Arguing for Pippen than That

Do I expect Jemele Hill to know all of these points when arguing for Pippen? You’re goddamn right I do! You get time to prepare for these debates, and you know Bayless is going to come at you with the dumbest possible angles.

Even without preparation, anyone familiar with Pippen should be able to throw out the 55-win season, Pippen’s two All-NBA first-team selections (mostly) sans Jordan, the versatile roles Pippen was asked to play on those Rockets (point forward) and Blazers (defensive stopper) teams, the fact that saying Jordan made Pippen is just as illogical as saying Pippen made Jordan, and the fact that judging a player’s value based on PPG is makes about as much sense as using height and weight.

This is all before mentioning that Jordan himself acknowledged Pippen, an eight-time All-Defense first-team selection, may have been an even better defender than he was, as noted in David Halberstram’s seminal book on Jordan, Playing for Keeps. If Michael Jordan is giving the speech to induct Scottie Pippen into the Basketball Hall of Fame, if His Airness himself says Pippen is HOF-worthy, who is Skip Bayless to say he isn’t?

That’s right. Bayless is nobody. Congratulations, Scottie Pippen.

(Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty Images)


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