With the drama of the baseball playoffs and the excitement of the NFL season, former NBA star Scottie Pippen’s retirement last week went by with little notice. Pippen’s career was brilliant: The NBA named him one of its 50 greatest players of all time during the league’s 50th season, and Pippen was Michael Jordan’s sidekick for six NBA championships in the 1990s.
Pippen’s standing among NBA aficionados, however, fell substantially after he left the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Pippen never averaged more than 20 points per game in his post-Bulls career, and many felt he could never lead a team on his own. At this point, it is unclear if Pippen would make a list of the 60 greatest players of all time during the league’s 60th season if such a lineup were created.
Pippen, however, was underappreciated even in his prime and should be considered in the third tier of greatest NBA players ever. The first tier would include players such as Jordan, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain. The second would feature greats such as Karl Malone and Isiah Thomas. The Arkansas native was one of the most versatile players to ever don a jersey and with his long arms and extreme quickness, Pippen should be considered the second greatest defensive player in league history, behind Bill Russell.
I was part of a large contingent that felt Pippen was overrated while he was a Bull. But in 1997, I was lucky enough to score third-row seats when the Bulls took on the Washington Bullets. In Chicago’s previous game, Pippen had collected a season-high 46 points. The 6-foot-7 forward continued to have a hot hand against the Bullets, scoring 27 points in the first three quarters. Seeing Pippen on the court immediately changed my opinion of his talents. Bulls coach Phil Jackson innovatively used Pippen as a point-forward; he did not bring the ball up the court but he clearly initiated offensive sets.
Even with Jordan, Pippen was completely in control of the game. After an assist to center Luc Longley, I could hear Pippen yell, “Luc, we got this all day.” And he did. Pippen continually used Longley’s limited talents to perfection throughout the 48 minutes.
Although Pippen’s first three quarters were dominating, I was not truly convinced of his talents until the fourth quarter. In the final stanza, Jordan took over. He had 18 points in the first three quarters and then 18 in the fourth. Realizing Jordan was in one of his grooves, if my memory serves me correct, Pippen did not take a shot in the fourth quarter. He continually set up Jordan so as to give the Bulls the best chance of scoring. Can you imagine such a scenario with the now-defunct Kobe and Shaq tandem?
After seeing him in person, I began to notice the subtleties of Pippen’s game on television as well. Pippen simply did all the little things that often go unnoticed to the casual fan. No. 33 was the consummate teammate, not complaining once when Jordan won the Finals MVP trophy, despite the fact that he could have reasonably won the award at least two of the six times the Bulls won the NBA Championship.
The critique of Pippen’s post-Bulls career also fails to take his injuries into consideration. Immediately following his final two seasons with Jordan, Pippen had foot and back surgery, respectively. By 1999, there is no doubt Pippen’s past ailments were taking a toll on his explosiveness, an element essential to his game. Pippen was certainly valuable to the Rockets and then the Trailblazers, but he no longer could subtly dominate the game. If anyone believes Pippen’s post-Chicago troubles occurred because he could only play behind an even better player, how does one explain the 1994 season, when Pippen led Chicago to 55 wins while Jordan was playing baseball?
Behind Russell, Pippen’s defensive ability was unmatched. He could size any player up, whether he played point guard or power forward. Pippen worked to become a considerable offensive threat, but defense was always his staple.
He played with the greatest player of all time, but Pippen was the reason the 1996 Bulls were the greatest defensive team ever assembled. Pippen left a great legacy and his contributions to the game of basketball should forever be cherished.
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