Scottie Pippen will be remembered as one of the best all-around players in NBA history. He is universally seen as Robin to Michael Jordan's Batman, yet, if not for his contribution to the Chicago Bulls dynasty, there would be no dynasty. Pippen's 7'3" wingspan served as a defensive equalizer, and as he releases his much discussed book, Unguarded, let's analyze the career of the Hall of Fame forward, and what Pippen's motives may be in criticizing his Bulls teammate, the legendary Jordan.
Scottie Pippen and Unguarded
When pro athletes drop books, depending on the market, sensationalism is a path to sell those books. Pippen, with the current pejorative narrative aside, was truly one of the best players of his era. The two-time Olympic gold medalist may not have had the gaudy offensive statistics advanced metrics enthusiasts are excited about, yet his effect on any game he played in was pronounced and valued in NBA history. With the release of his book, Pippen is telling a side of the story that may not have been expressed in The Last Dance sports documentary, and because Jordan is seen as arguably the best player to ever play in the NBA, some fans are not happy with what Pippen has to say.
We know about Chicago, but what about Portland?
Pippen was one of the most feared basketball players of his era. His Chicago Bulls' teams will be mentioned in NBA history as one of the greatest teams ever assembled, yet in four short years, Pippen and the Portland Trailblazers were as intimidating an NBA team as any other. They were a thorn in the Western Conference, and on both sides of the ball, the Trailblazers were a force. I once asked Shaq O'Neal who was the best team he ever faced. His response came as a surprise:
"The Portland Trailblazers. Remember when they had Steve Smith, Scottie Pippen and Rasheed Wallace? That was the team to beat. They had us up by 19 in the 4th quarter of that Game 7, and we came back and won."
I asked the question thinking Shaq would exclaim Chris Webber's Sacramento Kings who finished atop the Pacific Division twice during the Los Angeles Lakers three-peat. After leaving the Bulls' 1998 NBA title team, Pippen played one forgetable year with the Houston Rockets and sought better pastures with the Trailblazers after a summer of back-and-forth with his Rockets' teammate, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. At that point in his career, Pippen was hungry for another NBA title, so why not the Trailblazers? A title potentially won in Portland without Jordan's shadow diminishing the value would only add to his NBA legacy.
During those four Portland years, Pippen never averaged more than 12.5 points per game, yet it was his versatility on both ends; his rebounding and passing that made him a very important piece for a formidable Trailblazers team that was unlucky to run into Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal.
The 1993-94 NBA All-Star game MVP was a 10-time NBA All-Defensive team member. He was the fifth pick in the 1987 NBA Draft out of the University of Central Arkansas (where he walked on), and was NBA-ready defensively to eventually play the stifiling defense that was his signature. Pippen often defended the opposition's best player, and his passion for defense led to deflections and steals, blocks by him or his teammates, and final scores in the 80's range in this era of basketball would seem like typos. He is regarded as the best perimeter defender of all time. It did not matter if he was shutting down smaller, quicker guards or bigger, stronger forwards - Pippen's defensive prowess helped win championships.
Phil Jackson, Tex Winter and the rest of the Chicago Bulls coaching staff understood how important Pippen was to the dynasty. Jordan was capable of guarding the opposition's best player on the perimeter, yet it was Pippen who usually took up that responsibility. In doing so, Jordan was able to rest a bit on the floor by not expending so much energy on the defensive end. He was then energized enough to fight through food poisoning (the flu game) or whatever else to hit clutch shots true to his name.
This is where Pippen sacrificed an adulation that simply would not come as loud as Pippen most likely desired. He was essentially a glamorized garbage man for the Bulls: the do-everything mate who set the table for one of the best athletes to ever play pro sports. With all the Bulls winning, Jordan racked up every award imaginable - whether MVP's or a Defensive Player of the Year award. Pippen outpaced both Dennis Rodman and Jordan in all defensive team selections, yet it is interesting that Pippen never won DPOY. As charismatic as Pippen was on occasions, Jordan and Rodman were larger than life characters, and as a result, Pippen's workmanlike approach to the game was egregiously understated.
Pippen, a member of the 50th and 75th NBA anniversary teams, averaged 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 1,178 games. Those following the NBA at the time knew that Pip could have scored more than his season career high of 22 points per game in 1993-94 - the year Jordan played minor league baseball for the Birmingham Barons - yet his career was so keenly robotic that Pippen did just whatever it took to win, and combined with him not going into the game vs. the New York Knicks infamously, the narrative of his career will be skewed.
Fans of pro sports must understand that top tier athletes are wired differently. What fans see as arrogance and overconfidence are the tools these athletes use to both enter pro leagues, have long careers and become superstars for as long as possible. Average egos just won't cut it, and what fans may think is just as important to an athlete may be an afterthought to the athletes themselves. They are asked the same questions over and over as they go from city to NBA city, and watch teammates answer the same questions as well. Responses can rub players the wrong way if absent from a full perspective with teammates in mind. Players who sacrifice for the betterment of the team are human as well, and some want their contributions to be noted - especially for an all-time franchise like the Bulls.
Over the course of time, great athletes desire to control their legacies, and when legacies appear inaccurate to an athlete's mind, how is that athlete to set the record straight?
Write a book, or in this era, produce a sports documentary.
The Last Dance was Jordan's way of telling his side of the Bulls story. As with other documentaries focused on teams, often the interpretation of those teams leaves much to be desired. Teammates aren't the producers of these docs, yet after doing many interviews for the documentary, athletes simply want their careers to be accurately portrayed.
When news of Unguarded's release date was revealed, the controversy at the time was Pippen labeling Phil Jackson as a racist. This dropped a lightning bolt into the 24 hour news cycle just as Pippen lost his son Antron a little over a month prior. The timing of the book's release and his son's passing made me wonder if Pippen should be speaking at all publicly, yet every person has their own personal method of mourning, yet in a perfect storm, the Phil Jackson is a racist soundbyte had to have been music to Pippen's book publisher ears.
This is where I took a step back and became impartial about what Pippen was saying during interviews for Unguarded back then as well as now. I don't know that man's motivation, yet as a father, I don't know how I would be on TV talking about my career in the aftermath of such a horrific happening.
In the last few days, Pippen has noticeably softened his stance on how he was portrayed in the classic doc, yet in other interviews he says he wants to be remembered as the best of all time. Such a paradox is going down between two of the greatest teammates in sports history. Pippen has mentioned that he and Jordan have talked since Jordan found out that Pippen has issues with him, and while they aren't the friends many think they are, there isn't animosity one would think is exhibited throughout his current book press tour.
Is this about selling books, making money (he should have made more money in the NBA) or is Pippen simply mad that he wasn't more of a positive focus in The Last Dance?
Only Pippen can answer that, and if you look and listen closely enough, he might be somewhere in this very second speaking his peace; yes, his peace. Sometimes he'll contradict himself, and other times he'll pour his heart out. Surely Unguarded is more than sparking controversy to sell books, so after all the dust settles, it might do us all a favor to read Unguarded, and subsequently judge the particulars accordingly.
We might just learn a little more about both Pippen and Jordan in Unguarded. This is all reminiscent of what went on with Chris Webber and Jalen Rose beef except at the NBA level. If Chris and Jalen can pull it together, there surely is hope for Jordan and Pippen.
Poll : Should Scottie Pippen be more highly regarded in NBA history?
No, he's good where he sits.