Scottie Pippen was the ultimate wingman, but the No. 2 player in the ’90s? That’s a stretch
The most enduring thing about ESPN’s documentary on Michael Jordan and the six-ring Bulls might be the way Pippen’s reputation as a player has soared.
Sunday night, “The Last Dance” ends.
What the heck are we supposed to look forward to then?
There’s no great, big ESPN documentary series coming about Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and the three-time Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks as far as we know. Neither the Cubs nor the White Sox have won enough World Series to warrant such a deep dive. Quarterback Tyler Bray hasn’t even led the Bears to a single Super Bowl yet.
After Episodes 9 and 10 about Michael Jordan and the six-ring circus of the 1990s, we’ll be back in sports limbo and so will the Bulls. All their glory will have returned to the distant past, and as for their future, well, just how excited are we supposed to get about Arturas Karnisovas?
But at least the world will finally agree that Jordan is the No. 1 player of all time. On second thought, didn’t pretty much everybody know that already?
Actually, the most enduring thing about this whole “Dance” might be the way Scottie Pippen’s reputation as a player soared.
Pippen reportedly isn’t thrilled with the manner in which he was portrayed in the doc — sitting out for 1.8 seconds in the 1994 playoffs, sitting out for half the 1997-98 season because of his awful contract — but he must love the accolades he’s receiving 20-plus years hence.
Phil Jackson suggested in an early episode that Pippen was the second-best player in the NBA, behind only Jordan, as the Bulls were pulling off their second three-peat.
OK, so he embellished a little.
Dennis Rodman took it into Crazytown when he said to ESPN, “If LeBron [James] was playing during the ’90s, I’d still say Scottie Pippen was the second-best player, behind Michael.”
As if Pippen could carry LeBron’s water bottle.
In an April article on NBA.com, Pippen was ranked as the seventh-best player of the 1990s, behind — from sixth on up — Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Jordan. That looks about right to me.
But when ESPN released its list of the NBA’s top 74 players a few days ago, Pippen was ranked so high — 21st all-time — it made me do a double-take. Really, 21st? That puts him ahead of not only Robinson (24) and Ewing (37) but also Elgin Baylor (22), Kawhi Leonard (25), Dwyane Wade (26), Giannis Antetokounmpo (27) and Isiah Thomas (31).
I know the arguments for Pippen. He was a brilliant defender. He was a gifted ball handler and playmaker. He was long and fast and (usually) unselfish and, oh, yeah, how about those six rings?
He also benefited from playing with Jordan, and, yes, Jordan benefited greatly from playing with Pippen, too. But the NBA.com article asked, “Is Pippen the most underrated and underappreciated player of all time?” And then ESPN essentially flipped that question around.
I get it: Pippen was a huge winner. He subjugated himself to Jordan for the good of the team. Maybe he could’ve been even better alone, though I doubt it.
But Pippen wasn’t better than Baylor. He didn’t carry a team to a title like Leonard in Toronto or Wade in Miami. He wasn’t the best player on a championship team like Thomas. He never carried a giant load or put up giant numbers.
Pippen averaged 16.1 points per game in his career. Of those ranked higher by ESPN, only Bill Russell, who is at No. 4, scored less. But Russell is the greatest defender and champion the game has seen.
Pippen’s only “greatest” claim may be as a sidekick. The website fivethirtyeight.com deemed him that based on advanced metrics. Nice — nothing wrong with it.
But Pippen had his moments that weren’t so hot. In 18 playoff games against the Pistons from 1988 to 1990, he averaged a mere 12.2 points. Battling back pain, he couldn’t buy a bucket in Games 5 and 6 of the Finals in the Bulls’ last title year, 1998.
After joining the Rockets in 1999, he shot 23-for-70 (.329) as they went down in the first round. With the Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals, he was scoreless in the fourth quarter as they imploded against the Lakers.
Let’s just say Pippen wasn’t always Mr. Clutch.
But was he ever the second-best player in the NBA? Are there really only 20 who’ve ever played who were better?
That dance requires too big of a stretch for me, anyway.