Scottie Pippen Was Fucking Great

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There’s no need for a preamble. Let’s just say it: Scottie Pippen was fucking great. Not good. Not really good. Not very good. Great. Great great.

He’s been called the second-best player of the 1990s, quite a feat considering the all-time greats that peaked during that decade. Though he came close a few times, including losing in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals with the Portland Trail Blazers after holding a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, he never won a championship without Michael Jordan.

Like LeBron James a generation later, Pippen was star-crossed in his non-MJ years, from the officiating against the New York Knicks in ’94, to the failed Houston Rockets experiment in ’99, to the Blazers meltdown in ’00.

Yet his game was undeniable. His résumé speaks for itself: Hall of Famer, six-time champion, seven-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA First Team, two-time All-NBA Second Team, two gold medals, played all 82 games five times (and all 50 in the lockout-shortened season of ’98 — ‘99), made the playoffs in sixteen consecutive seasons, was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, led the league in steals in ’94 — ’95, and has the most steals in NBA postseason history (395).

Not everyone can — or should — hold the top spot. Every successful team and organization needs individuals to contribute across the spectrum and Scottie Pippen understood that better than most. He was the ultimate number two, doing the things necessary to help his team win. A Swiss army knife that could defend all five positions as well as lead the break, he had the ability to shoot from deep or finish strong at the rim with either hand. In short, he could do it all. “The multidimensional Pippen ran the court like a point guard, attacked the boards like a power forward, and swished the nets like a shooting guard.”

Ultimately, defense was his hallmark. His defense, as Phil Jackson once said, was “a one-man wrecking crew.” He would often match up against the other team’s best player and his guarding of Magic Johnson during the 1991 NBA Finals was a major factor in the Chicago Bulls winning their first championship:

When Jackson had Pippen guard Magic Johnson all over the court, it tilted the 1991 NBA Finals in the Bulls’ favor and began their title spree.

That Pippen-Johnson matchup was as symbolic as it gets, two mold-breaking players going against each other as the league entered a new era. If Johnson was revolutionary as a 6–9 point guard, Pippen was evolutionary as a ballhandling 6–8 forward who could actually defend a 6–9 point guard in addition to rebounding and starting fast breaks and draining 3-pointers.

He made the All-Defensive First Team eight consecutive times, with another two on the Second Team that bookended them.

Together, Pippen and Jordan — himself a member of nine All-Defensive First Teams and winner of the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1988 — were a terror defensively, roaming the perimeter, cutting off driving lanes, and attacking from all angles like a couple of velociraptors or, as they called it, dobermans: “Teammates for parts of 10 seasons, they are quite possibly the best defensive tandem in basketball history.”

Their terror wasn’t restricted to America, either. Just ask Toni Kukoč.

A Croatian, Kukoč was arguably the best player in Europe and had been drafted by Bulls GM Jerry Krause, who was enamored with Kukoč and told anyone that would listen that he was the future of the franchise, even going so far as to save money for him rather than renegotiating Pippen’s contract. Jordan and Pippen, having just won back-to-back titles and now members of the 1992 Dream Team, didn’t enjoy being slighted:

“‘Krause was recruiting this guy, talking how great he was,’ Jordan says. ‘That’s like a father who has all his kids and now he sees another kid that he loves more than he loves his own. So we were not playing against Toni Kukoč. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatian uniform.’

Adds Pippen: ‘We were going to give (Kukoč) the worst experience he ever had on the basketball court…We wanted to go guard him on the bench.’”

As Karl Malone put it: “You ever watch a lion or a leopard or a cheetah pouncing on their prey? We had to get Michael and Scottie out of the locker room, because they was damn near pulling straws to see who guarded him. Kukoč had no idea.”


At times in the early ’90s, Pippen had chafed at constantly being in Jordan’s shadow and longed to be the focal point. He received his wish at the start of the 1993 — ’94 season when Jordan retired.

That season, Pippen emerged as a star in his own right, wining the All-Star Game MVP, leading the Bulls to 55 wins, and finishing third in the MVP voting with career-high averages in points (22.0), rebounds (8.7), and steals (2.9). However, the Bulls fell to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Pippen discovered that the spotlight does have its downsides:

Pippen had yearned to have his own time on center stage, but he quickly discovered all of the additional pressure that comes with being The Man and realized life is better when you’re winning, even if someone else gets the bulk of the credit.

Thus, Pippen welcomed Jordan back.

For his part, Jordan knew Pippen’s value: “He may have been known as a defensive specialist, but he had a great all-around game and was a quiet and unselfish force on our Chicago Bulls teams, as well as on the Dream Team.”

It’s not difficult to imagine that without Pippen the Bulls may not have had any championships. Yet, Krause still tried to trade Pippen — twice! — in the midst of their dynastic run.

The first time was in 1994, when the Seattle SuperSonics wanted to acquire Pippen in exchange for Shawn Kemp. While Jordan told his friend, Sonics coach George Karl to do the deal because Seattle would have gotten the better end of it and he was still playing baseball, the fact that it didn’t happen helped facilitate his return to basketball:

If that Pippen-Kemp trade had gone through, would Jordan have come back to play for the Bulls in 1995?

“Probably not,” Jordan said. “I could have played with Shawn, but I wouldn’t have been as comfortable as I was with Scottie.”

The second time was in 1997, when Jordan vetoed a deal that would have sent Pippen to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for 18-year-old Tracey McGrady on draft night.

Jordan believed the Bulls had one final championship run in them and he knew they needed Pippen. Fittingly, it was Jordan who welcomed Pippen during his induction into Hall of Fame.

It’s true that Scottie Pippen never won a championship without Michael Jordan but it’s also true that Michael Jordan never won a championship without the great Scottie Pippen, the man that could do everything on both ends of the floor.


Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at MediumHis work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business InsiderThe CauldronMedium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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