In the absence of live sports, TV events such as “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s documentary about the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, have thrust historical players back into the limelight. Though the series mainly revolves around Jordan, early episodes were also devoted to the backstories of MJ teammates like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman — and perhaps not surprisingly, all have seen an uptick in online search interest over the past few weeks. These days, people are googling that trio more than they’re looking up, say, LeBron James.
Getting reacquainted with Jordan is easy; his shadow still looms relatively omnipresent over the modern NBA. Rodman is a cult figure whose fame transcends basketball. But what to do with Pippen? His Hall of Fame credentials are unquestionable, but his greatness can be difficult to contextualize. Was Pippen simply Jordan’s longtime second banana — or far more than that? Could he have carried a championship team — or is that question missing the point? Is his ultimate legacy as an evolutionary step on the ladder that led to today’s hyper-versatile stars? Pippen’s talents were unique, which makes the arc of his career difficult to pin down.
As sidekicks go, Pippen was easily the greatest in modern NBA history. There have been only 16 individual seasons since 1976-77 in which a player:
- Had at least 10 wins above replacement, according to our RAPTOR player-rating metric (including playoffs).
- Added at least 6.0 more points than an average player per 100 possessions, according to RAPTOR.
- Was the second-best player on his team by WAR.
Of those, nearly a third belong to one player — Pippen.
|Scottie Pippen||CHI||1991, 1992, 1996, 1997, 1998||5|
|Draymond Green||GSW||2015, 2016, 2017||3|
|Manu Ginobili||SAS||2006, 2007||2|
|Karl Malone||UTA||1996, 1997||2|
|Terry Porter||POR||1990, 1991||2|
|Dwyane Wade||MIA||2011, 2012||2|
Some of that owes to Jordan’s brilliance; he led the league in WAR every season from 1988 through 1993 and again from 1996 through 1998. No matter how good Pippen was, he was probably going to come in behind MJ. But Pippen still had to play like a star in his own right just to keep up. He finished in the top four in WAR six times between 1991 and 1998, never ranking lower than eighth. There have been some pretty dynamic duos in the NBA over the years, but the Jordan-Pippen pairing was probably the best in recent history.
In today’s superteam-laden NBA, hyper-focused on who is the true leader of any championship contender, the notion of being history’s greatest second fiddle feels like an insult. A lot of that stems from Jordan himself, who dismissed the idea that he would ever join forces with another superstar. “There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team,’” Jordan said when James chose to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. “In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.”
But Jordan had the luxury of already having another superstar to play with in Pippen. Pippen was the rare player who was nearly as good as Jordan, and their skills overlapped in some important ways. Jordan was a superior scorer in both volume and efficiency, and Pippen couldn’t match MJ’s legendary low-post skills or ability to avoid turnovers. But he was every bit Jordan’s equal as a defender, playmaker and 3-point shooter — and a better rebounder, too.
|Free throw %||84||31|
|Off. rebound %||39||53|
|Def. rebound %||60||61|
Having a second perimeter player capable of guarding the opponent’s top threat, who was versatile enough on offense to both score when needed and also fill a complementary role next to the greatest scorer ever, was vital to the Bulls’ dynasty — and Jordan knew it. “Whenever they speak Michael Jordan, they should speak Scottie Pippen,” Jordan said in Episode 2 of “The Last Dance.” “Everybody says I won all these championships. But I didn’t win without Scottie Pippen. That’s why I consider him my greatest teammate of all-time.”
Pippen’s skill set also anticipated the direction basketball would move in over the coming decades. According to Basketball-Reference.com, only two forwards — Rick Barry and Larry Bird — debuted before Pippen and averaged at least 16 points per 36 minutes with an assist rate of 20 percent or higher in their careers. After Pippen, six others have done that, including two Hall of Famers (Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady), another Hall hopeful (Chris Webber) and a pair of active league MVPs (James and Giannis Antetokounmpo). The “point forward” archetype didn’t exist much until the mid-1980s, but Pippen was one of the first stars who was well-rounded enough to pull it off: defending either forwards or guards at one end of the court, fighting for a rebound and then orchestrating the offense going the other way.
Despite his far-reaching contributions to the Bulls, much was made in “The Last Dance” about Pippen’s criminally low salary late in Chicago’s dynasty years. And it’s true — Pippen was paid about $52 million less than his WAR should have warranted from the 1991-92 through 1997-98 seasons.1 Among NBA players over that span, the only player who was more underpaid was Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton:
|Wins Above Replacement||Salary ($M)|
During the 1996-97 season, Pippen was the single most underpaid player in the game, generating $12,783,380 more value from his WAR than the $2,250,000 he pulled in. As CNN’s Brandon Tensley pointed out, Pippen’s situation was the result of his accepting a long-term deal as a young player, opting for the security of a guaranteed contract — an appealing proposition for someone who grew up poor in rural Arkansas, one of 12 children, with multiple family members who had special health needs. “I felt like I couldn’t afford to gamble myself getting injured and not being able to provide,” Pippen said in “The Last Dance.” “I needed to make sure that people in my corner were taken care of.”
Critics of Pippen point to his inability to lead a championship team outside of Jordan’s shadow. Although Pippen was the best player on a Bulls team that won 55 games — 55 games! — without Jordan in 1993-94, they lost to the New York Knicks in the second round of the playoffs (a series that saw Pippen refuse to play the final 1.8 seconds of Game 3 because the final shot wasn’t called for him). He immediately ceded top-player status back to Jordan in 1995, despite Jordan returning with only 17 games left in the regular season (and being a notably rustier version of his usual self). After leaving Chicago for Houston in 1999, Pippen couldn’t coexist with Charles Barkley, and the Rockets were ousted in the first round. He led the exceptionally talented 2000 Portland Trail Blazers in postseason WAR but mustered zero points (on just three shots) in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals as the team melted down in epic fashion.
From then on, Pippen was never really the same player, battling injuries to produce 15.3 WAR with a RAPTOR plus/minus of +1.7 over the final four years of his career between Portland and a return tour with Chicago. His chance to lead (or even contribute to) another title run without Jordan had passed forever — and with it, an opportunity to forge a legacy outside the context of being MJ’s second fiddle.
But there’s no shame in being a sidekick if you are the absolute best at it — while playing No. 2 to the greatest player ever. Maybe that complicates Pippen’s legacy among the game’s all-time greats, but it also proves his value in a sport that still prizes teamwork and unselfishness even as it exalts the dominant individual star. In fact, that’s what questions about Pippen’s ability to lead a title run get wrong: Pippen’s greatest value wasn’t in mimicking Jordan’s job as lead scorer but in pioneering the do-everything role later perfected by acolytes such as James and Antetokounmpo. That makes Pippen one of the most interesting and influential figures in shaping how the modern game is played, second banana or not.