When living legends leave, precipitous falls almost invariably await their former teams.
But "almost" is the operative word, and it's all thanks to Scottie Pippen. Twenty-five years ago, he prevented the Chicago Bulls from undergoing that dizzying plunge after Michael Jordan shifted gears and attempted to work his way through the Chicago White Sox's minor league system. In establishing himself as a superstar, the do-everything forward kept Windy City basketball afloat and defied all expectations.
This isn't an everyday occurrence, which is why the world should take notice of this quarter-century anniversary of Jordan's first retirement and work to move Pippen firmly out of that underrated category in which he's dwelled for so long.
We saw the Cleveland Cavaliers bottom out after LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010, winning just 19 games and subsequently drafting Kyrie Irving No. 1 in the 2011 NBA draft. History won't quite repeat itself eight years later, but James' second departure from Northeast Ohio, this time to don the purple-and-gold uniform of the Los Angeles Lakers, will make the playoffs a pipe dream for a Cavs squad headlined by Kevin Love and George Hill.
James is the archetypal example of this millennium, even if he's not the only star who's left his former squad in a lurch. But Pippen functions as the left-behind exception to the rule, despite the fall that was seemingly mandated after Jordan swapped sneakers for cleats.
As Phil Taylor wrote for Sports Illustrated on Nov. 22, 1993, the entire mentality of the Bulls shifted in the wake of Jordan's departure:
"Bull coach Phil Jackson has tried to lighten the burden of replacing Jordan by parceling it out among several players. Veterans Pippen, [Horace] Grant and starting center Bill Cartwright have tried to fill the leadership vacuum, journeyman [Pete] Myers has been called on to provide a fair imitation of Jordan's defense, long-awaited Croatian swingman Toni Kukoc has added his passing skills to the mix, and the Bulls have looked for more scoring from, well, from everyone. Jackson's job has even changed—from trying to build toward the playoffs to approaching every game as if it were the playoffs. 'This is a team still in the process of finding itself,' he says. 'One thing we do know is that we're going to have to get emotional about games to win them.' On their best nights, the Bulls look excited about the transition from a monarchy to something approximating a democracy. On their worst, they look like they desperately need a new king."
At the time of that article's publication, the Bulls stood at a shabby 4-5—a far cry from the juggernaut start that might be expected of a squad that's coming off a three-peat. But that mediocre form wouldn't last.
Despite the team's scramble to fill Jordan's void, despite the diminished expectations and despite the fact that Pippen hadn't paced a team in scoring since his senior year at Central Arkansas in 1987, the 28-year-old was up for the challenge.
Reaching a New Level
"I've been able to sit back and enjoy for a long time, but no more," Pippen explained to Taylor. "I've been asked to step up in front of the pack. I know I'll be measured by that, and I'm ready for it."
In spite of that rough nine-game stretch to kick off the campaign, during which he had an ankle injury and only suited up twice, he lived up to that prophetic phrasing. By the end of the year, his Bulls had gone 51-21 with him in the lineup, somehow putting them on pace to surpass the previous season's 57-25 record. The team could only muster a 4-6 mark sans his efforts, though, leaving them just short.
As impressive as that win-loss tally might be, Pippen was even better individually. No qualified player has ever matched his per-game averages (22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals, 0.8 blocks) in a season, and he compiled those eye-popping numbers while shooting 49.1 percent from the field and keeping his turnovers in check.
Once the season wrapped up, the league honored him with spots on the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team, and his 0.386 MVP award shares (trailing only Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson that year) were more than he earned throughout the rest of his career combined (0.329).
Pippen could simply do everything.
He was comfortable asserting himself as a go-to scorer who could rain in tough, contested jumpers or attack the basket. He never stopped functioning as a primary playmaker. He rebounded with aplomb. He continued to play stifling defense against a wide variety of assignments.
That panoply of skills didn't diminish in 1994-95, either.
Though Chicago struggled without Grant and needed Jordan's late return to cement a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Pippen was, arguably, even better. This time, he led his team in every major box-score category while averaging 21.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.9 steals and 1.1 blocks—a feat only accomplished by Pippen, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dave Cowens, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James.
Increasingly comfortable operating as the alpha, he was slightly better at the stripe and far more potent from beyond the three-point arc—a skill he relied upon more than ever, though often at the expense of his athletic, early-career work as a slasher.
Neither year resulted in a championship. The Bulls swept the Cavaliers to open the 1994 postseason before bowing out at the hands of the New York Knicks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but not before notable controversy unfolded when Pippen wasn't called upon for the final shot of Game 3. Perhaps anger remained and motivated him three contests later when he provided an unabashed baptism of an in-his prime Patrick Ewing with one of the most vicious jams in the NBA archives:
One year later, even with Jordan back in action, the Bulls couldn't get past Shaquille O'Neal's Orlando Magic in the second round. Controversy took center stage during that second season, with trade rumors swirling around Pippen, and it ended with the bitter taste of defeat.
But even without claiming any all-important jewelry, Pippen had still delivered an indelible message: He was so much more than a Robin to Jordan's Batman, and carrying a team was by no means out of his reach.
What Could Have Been?
This is the tough part.
On one hand, a fully realized version of Pippen terrorized the league and proved how much more he could be outside Jordan's interminable shadow. On the other, it was a draining experience that might not have been sustainable, as evidenced by the uncharacteristic outburst and subsequent refusal to play the final seconds of Game 3 in the 1994 Eastern Conference semis.
Would Pippen have reached such atmospheric heights without having learned alongside Jordan? Could he have continued to fill the alpha-dog role for a few more seasons? We'll never know.
But as former Bulls head coach Doug Collins made clear in a 1995 article by the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith, his mentality and skill set were still more valuable than popular perception would indicate:
"I'll watch Scottie even today, and even before Michael came back, he'd be going down court late in a game and looking to find someone. Scottie is not the kind of player to make winning shots, game-winning plays, but he was always more unselfish than Michael. If I were on the floor, I'd want to play with a guy like Pippen more than Jordan, but the perception always runs ahead of the reality, and Michael was the guy always perceived as hitting that winning shot and Scottie not doing it."
Numbers, however, don't care about game-winning shots. Those cold calculations provide emotionless snapshots of value, and they make it clear Pippen reached the zenith of his career in that brief era as the unquestioned leader.
Win shares by no means function as a perfect statistic, but they are useful for our purposes. They're intended to provide approximations of the wins for which an individual was responsible, so we can then look at the percentage of a team's total victories that can be attributed to one player by dividing win shares into team victories. Take a gander at Pippen's career progression before he left the Bulls for the Houston Rockets in 1998:
- 1987-88: 2.3 win shares; 4.6 percent of Chicago's 50 wins
- 1988-89: 4.0 win shares; 8.5 percent of Chicago's 47 wins
- 1989-90: 5.7 win shares; 10.4 percent of Chicago's 55 wins
- 1990-91: 11.2 win shares; 18.4 percent of Chicago's 61 wins
- 1991-92: 12.7 win shares; 19.0 percent of Chicago's 67 wins
- 1992-93: 8.6 win shares; 15.1 percent of Chicago's 57 wins
- 1993-94: 11.2 win shares; 20.4 percent of Chicago's 55 wins
- 1994-95: 11.8 win shares; 25.1 percent of Chicago's 47 wins
- 1995-96: 12.3 win shares; 17.1 percent of Chicago's 72 wins
- 1996-97: 13.1 win shares; 19.0 percent of Chicago's 69 wins
- 1997-98: 6.6 win shares; 10.6 percent of Chicago's 62 wins
Yes, the two highest percentages—though not the two greatest raw win-share totals—came during the campaigns in question.
Maybe Pippen could've kept earning over a quarter of his team's victories if he'd continued in this role or been granted such an opportunity earlier in his career. But based on how well he played in the surrounding seasons, such performances may not even have elevated his stock substantially—at least when rankings are based on more objective criteria. He thrived irrespective of role, demonstrating a level of malleability few ever have.
I already had Pippen at No. 25 when I ranked the top 100 legends in the sport's history in 2015, though a few modern-day standouts have admittedly leapfrogged him. NBA Math's career leaderboard for total points added places the Hall of Famer at Nos. 7 and 20 for playoff and regular-season production, respectively. Combine the two, and he checks in at No. 18, sandwiched directly between Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant. (Of course, this shouldn't be surprising for a stat-sheet stuffer of Pippen's caliber, considering box-score prowess lends itself to boosted TPA marks.)
Far more important than any hypothetical assessments of changing value based on this two-year burst of extreme production is how the stint assisted him during Chicago's second three-peat. Pippen was more comfortable both filling a secondary role and taking on any hurdles that arose. And more so than ever, his effect was recognized. Jackie MacMullan's November 1997 article for Sports Illustrated showed as much:
"Pippen's absence, however, has shown how vital a cog he is in the Bulls' machine. While Pippen has long been recognized as one of the game's top players, his accolades customarily have come with an addendum: He couldn't have done it without Jordan. What hadn't occurred to many observers was that perhaps Jordan couldn't have done it without Pippen.
"Pippen is central to the delicate balance of Chicago's triangle offense. He's the primary ball handler and an unselfish distributor who often passes up his own scoring opportunity to create a better one for a teammate. Moreover, as a perimeter threat, he makes opponents pay for double-teaming Jordan.
"Take Pippen out of the lineup and Jordan becomes the Bulls' primary ball handler. This additional chore is already wearing him down."
Pippen's scoring average didn't undergo a monumental shift from one three-peat to the next. During the first, he put up 19.1 points on 15.7 field-goal attempts per game; during the second, 19.7 on 16.2. But the ways in which he produced his typical tally changed noticeably, and not just because he continued to trade basket-attacks for jumpers.
Including the playoffs, he suited up 303 times during the initial run of titles, which ranged from 1990-91 through 1992-93. He scored at least 15 points in 78.9 percent of his appearances, 20 points in 46.9 percent, 30 points in 5.0 percent and 40 points in 0.7 percent.
During the second title stretch from 1995-96 through 1997-98, he logged minutes in 261 games. This time, he put up at least 15 points in 72.4 percent of his showings, 20 points in 47.1 percent, 30 points in 6.1 percent and 40 points in 0.8 percent.
Adam Fromal @fromal09
Interesting to look at Scottie Pippen's scoring distribution in the Chicago Bulls' first three-peat vs. the second. Don't be thrown off by the frequencies, since he played in 42 more games during the first. Far more of a boom-or-bust scorer after his experience as an alpha dog. https://t.co/7l5SEKfbyr
Low-point outings came more frequently, but Pippen assumed a larger slice of the scoring pie when necessary. The uptick in 30-point showings isn't a fluke, and the percentage of 25-point outings grew even more demonstrably, moving from 18.8 percent in the first three-year segment to 23.0 percent in the second.
He didn't have to take over as a point-producer, but he could. He was a boom-or-bust scorer, except he capitalized on his continued standing as a primary ball-handler and provided value with his other skills even when he wasn't keeping scoreboard operators busy with his own buckets.
And perhaps that's how we should best remember this hardwood hero.
Not as an ancillary piece during Chicago's six championship runs with Jordan at the head of the charge. Not as a forward who took the league by storm for two years as a do-everything centerpiece. But as a man who could capably fill both roles and was still willing to make those individual sacrifices for the betterment of his team.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.