Saturday, August 27, 2011

Scottie Pippen: Greatness in a Nutshell

With the lockout upon us, and the future of the NBA as we know it up in the air I want to take some time to reflect on the sport and the league that I love so much, and all the players, teams, and moments that hold the most special places in my heart.

What better way to kick-start all my lockout posts with a tribute to my favorite basketball player of all-time – the incomparable Scottie Pippen. I have always felt and still feel that Scottie continues to receive far less due than he deserves – he remains eternally underappreciated, and I want to illuminate some of the qualities that endeared him so much to me. There has already been a lot written by much smarter basketball minds (and much more concise writers) than myself, and I only hope to add a few of my own thoughts to the blogosphere’s Pippen anthology, starting with all the things I loved about Scottie strictly as a basketball player:

· The Physical Gifts: If you drew up the ideal small forward, you would probably end up with a physical specimen resembling either Scottie Pippen or Lebron James, depending on personal preferences. The point is, Scottie was the total package as an athlete. His speed, quickness, leaping ability, stamina, power, they were all top of the line; watching Pippen fly around the court reminded me of watching a gazelle gracefully gallop across the land; spry and agile, able to nimbly change directions or explosively sky high into the air at a moment’s notice, Pippen’s on court antics made me want to question everything my physics professors ever told me. In his masterpiece of a blog Psychology PhD, Caltech men’s basketball head coach, and one of the smartest hoops minds I have ever met, Oliver Eslinger, details some of the athletic drills that not even Michael Jordan could accomplish but Scottie made look easy. But what I remember the most was his incredible length. Now I know you’re all going to come at me for that – you’ve probably read a million Bill Simmons jokes about Jay Bilas’s wingspan fetish, and I agree the term may be overused. It seems like during NBA draft season every single prospect has “long arms” and “great length” – but there’s a reason GM’s obsess over this kind of stuff – because you never know when some kid from a tiny Arkansas school will ride those long limbs all the way to a spot in the Hall of Fame, which is exactly what Scottie Pippen did starting with 1987 draft. If you watch old Bulls games it’s hard not to notice how much his long arms stand out. Remember Michael Jordan’s iconic game winning dunk in Space Jam? Well that’s how every Scottie Pippen fast break dunk felt like – he would jump from three feet out farther than most players would, but he made it work because his arms seemingly reached forever. The Patrick Ewing dunk is a perfect example – Ewing had a good five inches on Scottie height-wise, but Pippen’s arms could reach up to the heavens and clear over Patrick to put the ball in the hoop. On defense too he was able to make plays because his reach allowed him to control spots and lanes from miles away. Most probably remember the blocks on Charles Smith (I loved watching Pippen jump flat-footed and still block guys with his insane length), and rightfully so, but another particular play that stands out to me was in game 3 of the 1991 finals when Scottie first deflected an entry pass that appeared far out of his reach; then, after everyone else had given up on the play because nobody thought the ball could possibly be saved, Scottie leapt out of bounds, managed to grab it right before it fell into the third row, and then he somehow had the wherewithal to flick it to a streaking Michael Jordan while Scottie was almost completely horizontal!!! It was exactly the kind of play that only a freak athlete with uniquely ideal bodily proportions could make – aka someone like Scottie Pippen.

· The Defense: how do we start anywhere else? Scottie was in my mind the greatest perimeter defender in basketball history and one of the five greatest defensive players ever at any position. Obviously he was just as good as anyone defending on the ball – he didn’t guard four positions as much as shut down four positions. There wasn’t a single perimeter player that he couldn’t stay in front of and bother, and even when guarding guys in the post Scottie’s length allowed him to play bigger than his size. Nobody was better at stealing the post entry pass – Scottie would bait the guard into thinking the big man was open, time his movement perfectly, and in the blink of an eye wrap his long arms around the big man to deflect the pass. But what separated Scottie from every other perimeter defender were his help defense and the amount of ground he could cover. Sometimes it seemed he could simultaneously guard two guys with the way he could shadow one man but still have the speed and length to get back to his original assignment. Back in the early 2000’s the Blazers were one of the few teams that could even slow down Shaquille O’Neal, and Scottie was as big a reason for that as anyone. Getting the ball into Shaq was a chore alone, having to see and pass around Pippen’s grapevine arms; and even if that happened, Scottie’s unique ability to be able to double down but still be able to either A. sense when cutters were going to the hoop and block Shaq’s passing lanes or B. manage to run back and contest the shot should Shaq pass out of the double team to the original passer made life hell for the big Aristotle.

· The Point Forward: I have always been a big fan of point forwards of all types. In basketball there has always been a harsh stigma associated with combo guards, a.k.a. guys who are too small to guard shooting guards on defense, but not point guard-like enough to run the offense. Sometimes it feels like no matter how much talent is there, it’s impossible to play such players without losing something on one side of the floor. But when one of your forwards is able to handle the ball and run the offense that completely changes the calculus. A good point forward lets you get away with a point guard who isn’t really a point guard but is still wildly talented; a good point forward lets you get away with playing guards who aren’t great ball-handlers; a good point forward can serve as the ultimate press-breaker because he’s got the handles to bring it up court without getting stripped, but if he gets trapped he also has the size to see over and pass out of the double team. Well, as far as point forwards in NBA history go Scottie Pippen was top of the line. Scottie’s handles and vision made him Phil Jackson’s most common choice to bring the ball up court and set up the offense. The 1990’s bulls were able to cycle through limited guards like John Paxson, Steve Kerr, and B.J. Armstrong because they knew Pippen had the ball handling covered; if you remember Scottie for one thing, remember him for the way he could cover up everyone else’s weaknesses, make the game easier to play, and allow guys to flourish by only having to do the specific things that they did best.

· The Versatility: Scottie Pippen was one of the most complete and diverse basketball players ever – there simply wasn’t anything he couldn’t do on the court or any way he couldn’t impact the game. Offensive he could score in so many ways – Scottie could post up and drain leaner after leaner, up-and-under after up-and-under, turnaround after turnaround jumper, hook shot after hook shot; he could stroke it from the outside; his quickness, athleticism, and handles allowed him to dribble-drive on anybody – and boy could he finish at the rim like few others! Pippen was easily one of my two or three favorite in-game dunkers of all time – with his lengthy limbs it felt like he could reach the hoop from 50 feet away or put the ball in the hoop from any angle, and those tomahawks were a thing of beauty. Plus there’s this. Ummmmm…yeah…Scottie was alright at finishing. But to me what always stood out was his passing ability – I loved seeing him zip the ball to guys who didn’t even know they were open because they couldn’t think two or three or ten steps ahead like Scottie. For a player who was so individually gifted and could create his own shot whenever he wanted, Scottie was one of the most unselfish players I ever saw, taking so much pure joy in making plays for others.

· The Basketball IQ: Kelly Dwyer once called Scottie Pippen a basketball genius – and I could not agree more with that description. In my opinion no player in the history of the game has ever understood the triangle offense as well as Pippen. You can pick out any old bulls games, and it’s fun to see him direct the offense – he always knew where the next pass had to be, where the next cut had to be, which of the many initialization options to pick based on the opposing defense, when to break away from the structured passing game and make a play for himself or others. Not only did he know what the next play had to be – he knew what was supposed to happen after that, and after that, and well after that. And yet I always found his defensive acumen to be even more impressive. I could ramble on and on, but instead let’s let Phil Jackson take it away: “Our quarterback on defense was Scottie Pippen. ‘Go get him, Luc,’ he’d yell to center Luc Longley. ‘Bring some help.’ All I needed to do was whistle, and Scottie would know instinctively how our defense should react. On the occasions when I signaled a player toward the bench to ask why he suddenly changed his defensive position, the standard reply was: ‘Scottie sent me.’ Which is why, when I met Dr. Buss in Hawaii last May, Scottie was my first choice among the prospective free agents.” (excerpted from The Last Season).

Beyond all his physical, mental, and basketball-related talents, what made Scottie so special were his intangible qualities as a teammate – ask anyone who ever played with the Bulls in the 90’s, or with the Blazers in the early 2000’s, and they’ll all agree that Scottie was everyone’s favorite teammate. Just like his on-court existence was predicated on unselfishness, much of Scottie’s success has to do with the galvanizing effect he had on locker rooms and the way he endeared himself to teammates. In particular, the one thing that I feel Scottie never gets enough credit for: the way he made being around and playing with MJ easier for everyone. Michael Jordan is the greatest player in NBA history, but make no mistake: he was far from the easiest person with whom to deal. Michael’s obsession with winning bordered on pathological, and this greatly affected his people skills; he regularly would tear down his teammates to weed out the ones he deemed to weak. A single mistake at any time could elicit the wrath of MJ – and if you even dared to talk back you were in for a world of hurt (just ask Steve Kerr). Thankfully Scottie was the one who was always there to pat you on the back, to build you back up with encouraging words, to glue your cracked psyche together instead of letting it fall apart into a million little pieces. See, Scottie had been there before, too many times to count. He had gone through all the toughest courses in Air Jordan’s school of hard knocks and managed to come out alive when almost any other human being would’ve folded. And it was because of that experience that Scottie was able to empathize with everyone else in ways that Michael never could. Michael Jordan led the Bulls by example, but Phil Jackson always said that Pippen was the team’s vocal leader in the locker room and on the court. Unfortunately all of Scottie’s intangibles are conveniently forgotten by his detractors and instead several myths have been perpetuated about him. My response to all of the most common/irksome criticisms:

Myth 1: Scottie Pippen never would’ve been great without Michael Jordan – to be clear, I am not trying to deny the incredible benefit that Scottie received from playing next to the G.O.A.T. – but to say that Pippen wouldn’t have been a top 50 player without MJ is just absurd in my opinion. Yes it’s true that MJ helped build Pippen up into a championship-caliber running mate, but let’s not forget how much Pippen achieved on his own. When he arrived at college he wasn’t even there to play basketball but rather be the equipment manager – in fact as a freshman he couldn’t even bench the bar on the bench press; even if you took all the weights off he couldn’t do it. But by the time he became a senior, thanks in part to a growth spurt but more than anything his own hard work Scottie matured into a 20 points-per-game scorer and one of the best players in the nation. After MJ left in 1993 Scottie could’ve allowed the team to cave in but he wouldn’t; instead he took it upon himself to take on all the necessary responsibilities as both a player and a leader. Don’t tell me that Scottie couldn’t have become a great player on his own.

Myth 2: Michael Jordan did all the heavy lifting and Scottie road his coattails to six championships – Funny how everybody forgets that Jordan never won anything without Scottie either. How does Chicago win the title without Scottie taking over defensive duties on Magic Johnson and putting a chokehold on the Lakers offense? Or how about when he led a 15 point comeback in the series-clinching game 6 of the 1992 finals while all the other starters (including Jordan) were resting? When Indiana had the bigger team in 1998 it was Pippen making Mark Jackson look like a middle school player and crashing the boards along with MJ to will an older team running on fumes into the finals. Everyone remembers Jordan playing through the flu to beat Utah in game five of the 1997 finals, but nobody gives credit to Pippen for keeping the team in the game in the first and third quarters and doing all the dirty work so that MJ could shine. Pippen’s defense also was a key component in their wins over Orlando and Utah in the late 90’s. Jackson on Pippen: “Against Utah in the NBA Finals, John Stockton was killing us on the screen and roll with Karl. Scottie went over to double team Stockton, trapping him at half-court. The extra pressure forced Stockton to give up the ball too quickly, taking valuable time off the twenty-four-second clock. When the ball came back to Stockton, there were usually less [sic] than ten seconds left, not long enough to develop any rhythm in the possession. In a playoff game against Orlando, after Shaq put up close to thirty points in the first half, Scottie trapped Penny Hardaway on the opposite side of the floor. The Magic offense sputtered. We took teams away from what they liked to do.” (from The Last Season). I think M. Haubs at The Painted Area did a good job describing some more of Pippen’s finest (and lesser-known) moments in this wonderfully penned post

Myth 3: Scottie wasn’t a tough guy – first of all, the fact that he not only survived but flourished playing next to Michael Jordan should dispel all questions about his mental toughness. Most guys would’ve faltered under the weight of MJ’s expectations and not known how to handle the abrasive, intense ways Michael went about making sure everyone could match his will to win. But Scottie wouldn’t let himself become the victim of such obstacles; he blossomed where others wouldn’t have had the mental sturdiness to stand strong. Physically, Scottie has always gotten a bad rap from the infamous migraines against the Pistons – but if you’re going to go there how do you ignore the fact that he gutted it out on a bad back throughout the entire 1998 playoffs? Despite the fact that he was an impending free agent who had a whole lot to lose, Scottie just wouldn’t give up a chance at a title, even if it meant barely being able to walk or bend over by the end of the finals. It’s particularly heroic to see him hobbling up and down the court in game six to help clinch the second three-peat. Don’t forget the 2000 playoffs, when he fought through dislocated fingers and a concussion at various points to help lead the Blazers to the brink of the finals. Scottie Pippen had all the heart, toughness, and grit in the world, and the Bulls wouldn’t have been six-time champions if he was a softie.

Myth 4: The Meltdown in 1994 should permanently mar his legacy – I’m not saying that Scottie necessarily reacted properly – it was unprofessional and selfish of him to take himself out of the game when Phil Jackson decided to give the last shot to Toni Kukoc in game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals. However, this moment has, I feel, been exaggerated and twisted by Scottie’s detractors. Let me make a few remarks about this moment: first, that one decision was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum of all the things that Scottie stood for as a player as a person. Scottie’s entire career was defined by his unselfishness and his loyalty as a teammate; why should an entire career be ruined by one heat of the moment mistake when every single thing about that career flew in the face of said mistake? Second, as Bill Simmons articulated so well here, when you consider Scottie’s situation and life experiences – he grew up poor and went through hell to get to that point, he was envious that Jerry Krause had openly courted Kukoc while woefully and grossly underpaying Scottie throughout the 90’s, his patience had finally been rewarded with the chance to lead his own team and escape Michael’s shadow – it’s understandable why all those past emotions would explode when Phil denied Scottie the moment that he had worked so hard for. Scottie was the boy-scout who followed all of the rules, brought home straight A’s, and never complained who felt cheated when his spoiled, lazy, bratty, rebellious younger brother was the one who got the Ferrari for his birthday. Finally, and the angle that no one ever talks about – wouldn’t Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, and almost every other great player have reacted the same way? Don't we always lionize MJ for his “killer instinct” and the fact that “he always wanted to take the last shot”? Jordan has always seemingly been beyond reproach – but could you imagine him happily accepting Phil Jackson allowing somebody else to take the final shot? I suppose the difference is that MJ or Kobe probably would’ve said nothing but then broken off from the play to take the last shot, but the point is that every other great player would’ve demanded that final shot and not accepted any other outcome. And guess what – I have no problem with that! Part of the reasons the great ones are so great is because of their ego, the fact that they believed they were the best and should have total control over the game. During the 1994 season Pippen had to develop that same type of competitive willpower in order to be able to lead the Bulls in lieu of Michael; the Kukoc moment simply represented that confidence-bordering-on-arrogance rearing it’s ugly head, but just know that it was partially because of that ego that the Bulls were even in the position that they were, and the reason they didn’t collapse when MJ retired. Speaking of which…

Myth 5: Scottie couldn’t carry his own team – I’ve always found this axiom somewhat perplexing – to me it just doesn’t seem to fit with the evidence. We never got to see Pippen have to be the best player for extended stretches, but when he did he performed admirably. After coaching the original Dream Team Chuck Daley declared that Scottie Pippen was the second best player to go to Barcelona, and Scottie’s success during MJ’s first retirement supports the idea that he was a transcendent talent who simply happened to be hidden in the shadows of history’s finest player. Did you know that the 1993-94 Chicago Bulls lost the greatest player of all time but they lost only two more games than they did the previous year? That’s right, Pippen was able to raise his game so much that despite losing MJ (they didn't just replace him with a lesser player, they flat out lost the G.O.A.T. playing AT HIS PEAK for nothing in return) they only downgraded from 57 to 55 wins thanks to Scottie becoming the first player since Dave Cowens to lead his team in five different categories. I’m not saying MJ was only worth two wins, but rather that Scottie proved he was more than capable of picking up a lot of MJ’s slack when necessary. The Bulls took the Knicks to seven games in the 1994 West semis – and they should’ve won that series in six if not for one of the worst calls in playoff history. Pippen cleanly blocked Hubert Davis’s shot, only for Hue Hollins to inexplicably reward Davis with two free throws (Pippen never got MJ’s star treatment from the refs) – that should’ve been a no-call, thus giving Chicago game five, and eventually allowing them to win game six at home and go to the East Finals sans Michael Jordan. In 1995 the team replaced Horace Grant at power forward with Larry Krystkowiak, thus hindering the roster further, but Scottie was the one who kept them in contention until MJ was able to return. Don’t forget the 2000 Portland Trail Blazers – even though he was well past his prime he was definitely the emotional leader on that team that was mere minutes away from the finals, taking a 15 point fourth quarter lead into game seven of the Western Conference finals. Did Scottie benefit greatly from being able to be the second option to the game’s greatest player for so many years? There’s no doubt he did. But to say that he wasn’t good enough to be the best player on a championship contender is in my opinion garbage considering how well he performed during the rare time that he played in his prime without Jordan.

To cap things off here’s my closing thought: I’ve always found it perplexing that there hasn’t been a book written about Scottie Pippen. Think about it: his story is interesting enough on its own (grew up dirt-poor, went from the equipment manager to college star to a key player on one of the greatest dynasties in sports history, spent his whole life overcoming adversity, and had a career full of many memorable moments, both good and bad,); then when you consider his uniqueness as a player and his aforementioned basketball knowledge (hell, I would read an entire book on Scottie breaking down the Triangle Offense to the most minute minutiae) and the unparalleled insight that he could provide about the greatest player ever (especially considering all the personal trials and tribulations that Scottie experienced with Michael that not even Phil Jackson would be able to properly describe), I think a Scottie Pippen autobiography would be an absolute treat to anyone and everyone who cares even a smidgen about basketball (or even a non-sports fan who cares about the value of perseverance, unselfishness, class, and compassion).

Now all that, my friends, is why I loved watching Scottie Pippen play basketball, why I think Scottie Pippen is one of the 20 greatest players in NBA History, why I think Scottie Pippen is the most underappreciated superstar of his or any generation, why Scottie Pippen remains my favorite baller forever and for always.