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For the majority of my life, there are some truths that have stuck with me over the years.
- Don’t lick raw chicken
- Age of Mythology is a timeless classic of a video game
- Always buy your movie snacks from anywhere but the movies
- Scottie Pippen is criminally underrated by basketball fans
The Chicago Bulls, by proxy of Space Jam, were my introduction to the NBA. So despite being a Los Angeles Lakers fan my whole life, they were probably the team I received the most exposure to from a young age.
All the old videotapes that I had were heavily Michael Jordan centric and for good reason. After all, he was the most famous athlete on the planet, bar none. However, amidst all the Jordan-hype, Scottie Pippen seemed to be merely a footnote. Despite the relative lack of media attention he received, the older I got, the more I realised just how good Pippen really was.
10 all-defensive team selections, 7 all-NBA selections and career averages of 2 steals per game and 5.2 assists are testaments to Pippen’s all around basketball ability. He was the prototype for the modern-day point-forward, decades before it became somewhat commonplace in the league.
Readers may be confused by my provocative choice in title after reading the above. After all, hasn’t Pippen always been underrated if anything? The answer to that is yes, until The Last Dance was released.
The 10 episode documentary about the 90’s Chicago Bulls has taken the world by storm, not only giving us basketball fans something to watch while the season is on hold, but even enthralling non-basketball fans across the globe (as evidenced by its #1 spot on Netflix in Australia).
The combination of a lack of current basketball content coupled with this journey down a nostalgia rabbit-hole has led to a lot of sports-writers delving into the past to compile various all-time lists. Heck, even I joined in on the fun. Yet, no all-time list has garnered more attention than ESPN’s all-time NBA player rankings list.
The top 10-15 were surprising to few; despite the fact that I may have ranked a few guys differently, I think most hoops fans can comfortably say that most of those guys deserve to be there in some order. The first ranking that stuck out to me like a sore thumb was number 21, Scottie Pippen.
Pippen was placed ahead of guys that he had no business being ahead of, including but not limited to:
- Elgin Baylor
- Charles Barkley
- David Robinson
- Dwyane Wade
Baylor’s NBA career pre-dated the time of any of the voters and ESPN staffers, so despite the numbers saying otherwise, there’s some justification for having him behind Scottie. The other three? Not so much. Six rings aren’t a good enough argument, considering that he was the #1 option for zero of those (unlike Wade for example). After all, if rings are everything, then Robert Horry better be making everyone’s top 5 of all-time, and Bill Russell would be the GOAT.
One common line of rhetoric I have seen repeatedly parroted on sports forums in particular, is the notion that the Chicago Bulls barely saw a dip when Michael Jordan was away from the team, and that Scottie Pippen proved that he was a top-three player in the league at the time.
That’s not entirely true. First of all, for one of the years where Scottie was the unquestioned #1 option in Chicago (1994-95), there was a big drop off. Yes, they made the playoffs, but with 8 fewer wins than the season prior at 47-35. Their season also happened to end in 6 games to the Orlando Magic, even with Michael Jordan playing very well. For that series, Scottie Pippen shot less than 41% from the field, struggling to get good looks at the rim against Shaq and Horace Grant.
The season prior to that (1993-94) was Pippen’s best season of his career; a strong blend of high-level individual performance (second-highest single-season VORP, or Value Over Replacement Player of his career) with high-level team performance, leading the Bulls to a 55-27 record as the #1 option. Therefore, out of fairness to Pippen, I’ll be using that season in particular when discussing his peak when it comes to his all-time standing.
Scottie Pippen led the Bulls to the equal fifth-best record in the NBA in the 1993-94 season. Statistically speaking, his numbers were impressive: 22 PPG / 8.7 RPG / 5.6 APG with an absurd 2.9 steals per game mixed in for good measure. However, keep in mind that this was his absolute peak. Whether unfairly or not, for the rest of his career he was a #2 option at best, which notably weakened his individual statistics. This also makes it difficult for me to allow the six rings to influence Pippen’s legacy as much as I ordinarily would for a superstar, because Michael Jordan was by far the most significant contributing factor to all six of those titles.
So, was Pippen’s peak impressive enough to justify being ranked ahead of Charles Barkley, David Robinson, and Dwyane Wade on ESPN’s all-time list?
For the 1993-94 season, he was 5th in the NBA in Defensive BPM, 5th in VORP, 9th in win-shares, and 9th in win-shares per 48 minutes. Putting it generously, he was a borderline top 5 player in the NBA that season. How can someone whose best career year is arguably not even top 5 in the league that season be the 21st best player in the history of the league?
Meanwhile that same year, David Robinson had a year so ridiculous (29.8 PPG / 10.7 RPG / 4.8 APG / 1.7 SPG / 3.3 BPG), that the difference between his VORP and that of the 2nd placed John Stockton’s, was larger than the difference between Stockton’s VORP and 20th placed Glen Rice’s.
Robinson also happened to have seven seasons equal to or greater than Pippen’s 93-94 season in terms of VORP, every single season from 1989-90 to 1995-96. You can argue “6 rings” until you are blue in the face, but the difference in on-court production between The Admiral and Pippen is enormous.
As for Charles Barkley, according to advanced statistics, he had 5 seasons that were better than Pippen’s 93/94 season (every season from 1987-88 to 1990-91 and his MVP season of 1992-93). He may not have the rings that Pippen had, but he did make an NBA finals as the #1 option of the Phoenix Suns. He also happened to lead those Suns to three consecutive seasons of 56 wins or greater from 1992-95, a win total that Pippen never achieved as a #1 option.
Yes, Pippen was a more dominant defensive player than Barkley ever was, according to conventional statistics, advanced statistics, and the eye-test. However, don’t let Barkley’s current physical appearance fool you – he was a slightly above average defensive player for the majority of his career. I believe that the difference on the offensive end between the two players was far greater than the difference in their defensive ability.
Comparing Dwyane Wade and Pippen has a little more scope for debate if you place more of an emphasis on longevity and durability. Pippen played in approximately 120 more games than Wade, accumulating 0.4 VORP more than him in their respective careers. Meanwhile, Wade did slightly more damage on a per-game basis, with a slightly higher career BPM (5.0 vs 4.1). Wade’s peak was also better, with his advanced metrics across 05-06, 08-09, and 09-10 seasons being statistically stronger than any one individual season of Pippen’s.
The raw statistics are significantly in Wade’s favour, with both his career averages and peak averages dwarfing Pippen’s in the majority of categories. However, what really ends the debate for me is the 2005-06 playoffs. During his age 24 season, in 23 playoff games Wade averaged 28.4 PPG / 5.9 RPG / 5.7 APG / 2.2 SPG / 1.1 BPG on 50/38/81 shooting splits, en route to a title and Finals MVP.
Meanwhile, Scottie Pippen had some very good statistical postseasons, but never once carried the Bulls to a title as the #1 option. Would he have been capable of doing so had he been given the opportunity? Who knows. Yet, during the one postseason that he had that chance, he shot just over 43% from the field en route to a second-round exit at the hands of the New York Knicks.
Pippen is simultaneously the greatest second-option and one of the greatest what-ifs in the history of the NBA. He was a phenomenal two-way player and an integral part of the Chicago Bulls 90’s dynasty. However, Pippen’s legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats never got the chance to truly be tested. He was as much a victim of circumstance as he was a beneficiary; living in Jordan’s shadow not only led to him being underpaid throughout his career, but meant that he never really got a proper chance to lead a franchise.
However, I don’t believe that projection of what a player could have done with different circumstances should have factored into these rankings at all. If that were the case, then Portland fans would be banging at the table for the inclusion of both Greg Oden and Brandon Roy somewhere on ESPN’s list. Pippen was almost never asked to carry the load for an NBA franchise, yet the potent combination of 90s nostalgia coupled with “The Last Dance” putting him back in the spotlight, has led to the travesty of Robin being ranked ahead of some of the game’s Batman’s, like David Robinson, Charles Barkley and (pre-LeBron) Dwyane Wade.
Scottie Pippen may be beloved by many and have been underappreciated his whole career. Yet in 2020, he’s holding a title that I never thought I’d see him possess: overrated.