Even before you consider , Scottie Pippen was always somewhat of a divisive figure. During his time on the hardwood, basketball fans debated whether the forward was a star in his own right or .
, however, didn’t have any doubts about what he witnessed.
In fact, Bird paid Pippen a high compliment in 1999, writing that he was a top-five player on his own, but climbed to number two in the rankings when suiting up alongside MJ. While that might sound like something of a cop-out, it does provide some perspective on how we view Pip today.
During his time on the NBA hardwood, Larry Bird faced off against plenty of talented opponents. When all was said and done, though, two men from Chicago left quite the impression on the Celtics star.
In his 1999 book, , Larry Legend recounted how frustrating it was to see his Pacers team be intimidated by Michael Jordan. , the NBA legend did understand where the fear factor stemmed from. Not only was MJ an elite player with a knack for crushing opponents’ confidence, but he had a pretty good running mate.
“Michael Jordan played the mind game better than almost anyone. He really knew how to get inside people’s heads,” Bird wrote. “Plus, I believe he had the second best player in the league right next to him in Scottie Pippen. You take Michael off that team, and Scottie moves down to fifth. But when Michael was out there with him, they were the best two in the league.”
Since Bird stated that his frustrating encounter with the Bulls came during his first season on the bench, we know exactly how Pippen performed that season. The forward only appeared in 44 games, but he still averaged 19.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per outing. Chicago, of course, would go on to win the NBA title that summer before breaking up the metaphorical band.
While it may seem like Bird took the easy way out by saying that Pippen was good but better with Jordan, the living legend does make a valid point. Playing alongside a special player doesn’t devalue someone’s talent.
In Pippen’s case, we know what kind of player the forward was. Since he grew up playing guard, Pip was a comfortable ballhandler, a solid scorer, and a lockdown defender. That worked perfectly with the Bulls, where he was good enough to take some weight off Jordan while still forcing the opposition to respect his skillset.
The numbers reflect that reality. During his entire time on the hardwood — we’ll discuss the splits with and without MJ shortly — Pippen averaged 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per outing. Are those top-five player numbers? You can decide that for yourself.
With those numbers established, you might be saying that Pippen’s success was due to Jordan’s presence in the lineup. While that might seem intuitive, the stats don’t really show much of a difference. According to data, Pip averaged 17.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in 691 games when playing alongside Jordan and 15.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists in 464 games without MJ. When you consider that many of the forward’s solo outings came at the end of his career when he was slowing down, the difference becomes even less significant.
To be clear, I’m not trying to assess Bird’s claim about Pippen’s greatness — he was probably overstating things a bit, but that’s neither here nor there. Instead, I’m more focused on the idea that Pippen’s legacy is devalued by the fact that he rode shotgun with one of the greatest players to ever hit the hardwood. You can be both a great player play alongside someone who’s even better.
At the most basic level, we shouldn’t penalize a player for where they happen to land. In Pip’s case, he was traded to the Bulls and didn’t leave for more than a decade. Free agency, at least as we now know it, really didn’t exist yet, and while the forward could have forced his way out of the Windy City, that was a nuclear option. Is it really fair to count that as a strike against Pippen?
Beyond that, good players are good players, and when we try to account for circumstances, things get tricky. Let’s say that you wanted to argue Pippen’s success stemmed from playing with MJ, even if the stats don’t really indicate that’s the case. By that logic, you could argue that Jordan might not have won six championships without Phil Jackson. At a certain point, you have to let the combination of resumes and the eye test stand on their own.
So, to bring it full circle, let’s return to Larry Bird’s take. Scottie Pippen, with or without Michael Jordan, deserves a respected place in NBA history.