Thursday, September 13, 2007

Let's Not Insult Scottie Pippen

To a lot of NBA writers and fans, this current Cavs team defied explanation. The team relied more heavily on one player than any other playoff team, and that player seemed to have regressed from the previous year. It was entirely possible that we had the worst starting backcourt in basketball. Fans were making Iraq Study Group-like studies about how we ever signed Larry Hughes. Our center and power forward didn't shoot over 50%. By the playoffs, our 2nd and 3rd scoring options were a second-round rookie named "Boobie" and a shooting guard who had been a benchwarmer for the first three and a half years of his career.

And yet we made the NBA finals. How? One team the media has chosen to compare the Cavs to is the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers, a deeply average team led by a singular effort by Allen Iverson to a brief moment of finals glory before realizing the bonds of their own mediocrity and never challenging for a championship again.

I dislike this comparison. I greatly prefer to think of these Cavs as the new version of the Jordan Bulls. First and foremost, we have the player whose destiny is to become the next coming of Jordan. (Wade emulates Jordan's game, while LeBron emulates his legacy.) Second, while all of the hoopla about both teams was about their offensive weapons, both the Cavs and Bulls relied first and foremost on a suffocating defense and domination of the boards, with a slow-down offense meant to keep the pace of the game in the trenches. Neither team features a top-caliber center. Neither team features a true point guard of any description; The Bulls' starting Ron Harper as their de facto point bears eerie similarities to our making Larry Hughes our de facto point, and their other main option, B.J. Armstrong, bears striking resemblance to Boobie. They relied on Dennis Rodman to supply energy, rebounding, defense, and ridiculous hair; Anderson Varejao and Drew Gooden supply those qualities for us. Both teams struggled mightily with Detroit. And Mike Brown and Phil Jackson both coach basketball.

However, there is one huge difference between the Jordan Bulls and this team. His name is Scottie Pippen. Many Cavalier fans have expressed a desire for the Cavs to go and get LeBron a "Pippen", a 2nd banana who can score 20 a game and take some pressure off of LeBron. But by saying that a Larry Hughes, a Michael Redd, or even a Joe Johnson or Ray Allen is to misunderstand just how instrumental Scottie Pippen was to that team's success. Over the years, Scottie Pippen's legacy has become that he was Michael Jordan's great sidekick, a guy who was a good 2nd option on offense and who did all the little things as MJ did his superhero thing and got his team championships. To call Scottie Pippen simply a "glue guy" and mention him in the same breath as a guy like Josh Howard or Shane Battier is simply insulting.

Scottie Pippen was an extraordinary offensive player; playing with one of the biggest ball-dominating players of all time, he scored 20 points a game, not simply by making cuts or knocking down open shots, but by using his ball-handling and athleticism to drive to the hole and finish resoundingly, scoring with his back to the basket using his height, wingspan, and a huge collection of post moves, and an outside shot to boot. And he could also hit open jump shots and move without the ball for easy scores, but again, to say he simply took advantage of the opportunities given to him by MJ is underestimating his offensive arsenal. And his chief role on offense wasn't even to be a scorer; he was a true point forward, whose court vision, passing (he averaged 6 or 7 assists per year during the Bulls championship years), and understanding of the offense was crucial to working the legendary triangle offense that won Phil and MJ all those championships.

Then, of course, there was his defense. He was the best defensive player on one of the best defensive teams of all time, and probably the best perimeter defender of all time; while the Jordan mystique dictates that he evolved into one of the best defenders around, it was always Scottie who got to shut down the other team's best scorer, as well as rotate over to provide help defense better than just about anybody. He regularly made more steals than anybody in the league today, and made enough blocks to put him on par with most centers.

When Jordan was off playing baseball, Scottie put up MVP numbers and led his team to 55 wins and within one game of the Finals. Simply put, he was no sidekick.

So when we talk about adding a "Pippen," what are we saying? We're asking for someone who plays on-ball defense like Ron Artest and help-side defense like Shawn Marion, as well as an offensive player with the scoring ability of Carmelo Anthony, and the passing ability of the kind of true point guard we so desperately wish we had. There's honestly no comparison for the kind of player Scottie was-the closest I can come is Artest, Tayshaun, or Marion, but he was far more skilled offensively than any of those players, and had point-guard like passing ability to boot.

Jordan and Pippen was an amazing coincidence, the kind of thing that shouldn't be able to happen-putting the greatest player of all time alongside a top-5 player that took absolutely nothing away from the team is extremely rare. The closest thing we've had to a "Pippen" situation since MJ left is when Kobe Bryant was paired up with Shaq in his prime, or Shaq just past his prime was paired up with Wade. So when we hope that Larry Hughes can come along into an effective defender and scorer, or that we can land a low-level star like Michael Redd or Joe Johnson, know that we aren't adding a "Pippen"; we're not doing that unless we add Tim Duncan.

So by all means, let's hope we can find a 20-point per game weapon to put next to LeBron, that Larry Hughes will get healthy and together and become the player we're paying him to be, or that we can find a point guard to run the offense smoothly and unleash LeBron, but don't think that those players can deliver us to six titles. Only one man would be capable of doing all that-This Man.


Damon said...

Thanks for defending Scottie Pippen. This post was long overdue. I grew up a huge Pippen fan, trying to mimic every aspect of his game, and it's amazing how much the Cult of Jordan eroded then and particularly erodes now his legacy. While I'm not sure I agree with you that he had Carmelo-like scoring skills, he is vastly superior to all the players people compare to him today.

Anonymous said...

Let me preface this by saying that the longer the Bulls team has been broken up the more I appreciate Scottie Pippen. But make no mistake about it. MJ was the straw that stirred the drink. Jordan was a bonafide star on and off the court before Pippen first donned a Bulls uniform and in fact Jordan averaged 32 pts 8 rbs and 8 assts in Scottie's rookie year. I will go to my grave believing that part of the reason Scottie became who was did is because of the influence of Jordan on him. Pippen needed a player of Jordan's magnitude to be the star so that we could truly appreciate his gifts. He never looked the same playing for Houston or Portland because there was no MJ to feed off (let's also remember that he was 33 when he went to Houston and 34 when he went to Portland...but MJ was 33 when he came out of retirement the first time on his way the 3 championships).

Also, you may wanna check your numbers again. MJ had more steals and assists and just as many blocks as Scottie did from about 88' to 98' with the exception of the year that MJ unretired. And in the 93'- 94 season, the Bulls were indeed very close to making it to the Finals....the Eastern Conference Finals. They lost to New York in 7 in the 2nd round and the Knicks went on to defeat the Pacers before bowing out to the Rockets in the Finals.

Having said all that, I still have a DEEP appreciation for Scottie Pippen and we don't win ANY of those championships without him. I think Scottie would have put the clamps on any wing player in the league today if they would quit calling all the ticky tack fouls and let the perimeter guys play defense again (that's why guys like Wade shoot 20+ free throws against Dallas in an NBA finals game). Mike is my man, but you can't pay respects to the career successes of MJ without honoring Scottie THE VERY SAME WAY!!!

Anonymous said...

It's about time that SP gets some love. He locked down the Diesel in the ECF, twice! He guarded Grant Hill and put the clamps on John Stockton, twice.

I tried to play like SP. The shots off glass, the incredible vision, and the athleticism. You can really appreciate MJ without understanding SP.

PS When SP punched in Ewing's 5 all time dunk.


fizatdh said...

Its awesome to hear praise for Scottie! He was and always will be my favorite player. He was the prototypical point-forward, but he was so much more in my mind. I don't think we will ever see another player like him, he was elite defensively (individual and team), wasn't too shabby offensively and ran the team and offense better than a large percentage of NBA point guards.

I think people get caught up in defending Pippen or Jordan's abilities against the other, the fact is they were teammates for the most important and remembered parts of each one's career. Its a moot point, no reasonable person can say that certain economies of scale weren't realized by them playing together, they were both better off.

Another thing that I think people often crudely simplify is that Scottie was only considered a great player because of Jordan. Scottie was named a Top 50 player, he is often referred to as being the second best player on the Dream Team. That stuff doesn't just happen to a guy in the right place at the right time, that happens to the ultimate team player.

Anonymous said...

it's funny, most don't remember it now, but when pippen got a migraine during game 7 of the 90 conference finals he was criticized and blamed for not having heart. but lost in "the shot" by mj in utah in 98 was that 8 years later pippen gutted out that game 6 in utah with a severe back injury and hit a big shot during that 4th quarter to keep it close. after the game barely no mention was made of pippen's heart, putting his long term health on the line to make sure he did whatever it took for his team to win.

one thing lost in mj's "flu game" -- game 5 of the 97 finals at utah: when jordan hit the game clinching shot (bulls were up by one--then mj hits a 3 with less than a minute to play), how did jordan get that shot? jordan had it on top, pippen was posting hornacek (pippen had been scoring at will all game), so russell felt so worried about pippen that he left jordan to double pippen. think about that. he left jordan wide open to double pippen. pippen of course got the ball to mj, and mj's shot effectively clinched the game.

the most beautiful thing about pippen was his mindset on offense -- after bird redefined the small foreward position as a "point" forward, pippen was the next great point at the 3 spot. he was born with a pass first mindset, which was the only way he and jordan would succeed together. you need a guy who's a great player to know your #1 guy should get the ball in crunch time. doug collins and phil jackson helped scottie realize he needed to take over the game and score more during the times mj went to the bench, so pippen could have it both ways -- pass and defer, then shoot and score. watch the 4th quarter of game 6 of the 92 finals against portland when pippen spearheaded that historic comeback from down 15 points at the start of the 4th quarter (mj was on the bench). when jordan came back in pippen deferred and picked his spots, giving the best player on his team the room to operate. that quarter of basketball perfectly sums up the jordan-pippen duo, and pippen's ability to flip a switch and move from dominant scorer to deferential temmate.

while jordan is the best defensive 2 guard in nba history, pippen is the best defensive small forward in nba history. pippen singlehandedly threw the indiana pacers' offense off kilter in the 98 conference finals when he guarded mark jackson and made entry passes difficult with his 7 foot wingspan. pippen helped the bulls blow the lakers out in game 2 of the 91 finals --which changed the whole complexity of the series, giving the bulls confiedence --when he guarded magic iafter mj got into foul trouble. had the bulls won their last 2 games of the 94 regular season they would have had 57 wins --the same number they had won the previous year when jordan was in the league --and been the #1 seed in the eastern conference. after preseason prediction of 40 wins with no mj, pippen would have won the mvp that year. but the bulls lost those last two games and ended up the 3 seed, then lost in the playoffs to the 2 seed (ny) in the second round. in game 7. on the road.