Scottie Pippen was so good at being the No. 2 guy that he became a No. 1 guy. He enters the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend with the unique distinction of being the NBA's greatest secondary player, showing how sometimes greatness can be achieved by creating a previously undefined category.
Pippen rode shotgun for all six of Michael Jordan's championships in Chicago, as they were the only two players on hand for both the first and second three-peats. Pippen excelled in his role so much that he's still the standard for it. When LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade in Miami this summer one of the most-asked questions was "Who will be Michael Jordan and who will be Scottie Pippen?" No further explanation was needed. Pippen's brand has replaced the generic name, like Kleenex for tissues.
Pippen created the template and it has yet to be filled in. Put it this way: Kobe Bryant has come a lot closer to replicating Jordan than anyone has come to duplicating Pippen. Manu Ginobili comes to mind, but Pippen could grab twice as many rebounds as Ginobili … and has twice as many championships.
When Phil Jackson came back to coach the Lakers in 2005 people looked at the combination of him, Bryant and Lamar Odom and assumed Odom would fill the Pippen role, but it never came to fruition. Like Pippen, Odom is a versatile 6-foot-8 player, but Odom was never the lockdown defender or 3-point threat that Pippen was. Odom turned out to be best suited for the No. 3 role, behind Bryant and Pau Gasol. A few more championships and it could be Gasol who becomes the worthiest successor to Pippen, in terms of success and function, if not actual playing style.
What sets the Jordan-Pippen dynamic apart from other great duos in NBA history is that there was never a question of who came first, never a power struggle, never a changing of the guard, as there was with Shaq and Kobe, Kareem and Magic, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. The Bulls were always Michael Jordan first and Scottie Pippen second, and everyone understood that. The hierarchy extended even to their paychecks. When Pippen's new contract began in 1991-92 it wasn't a coincidence that his $2.8 million salary was about $500,000 less than Jordan made that season.
Pippen never went on to greater things on his own the way, say, hockey's Mark Messier did without Wayne Gretzky. As well as he played immediately after Jordan's first retirement (the Bulls won 55 games and Pippen finished third in the MVP voting), his 1¾ years as the Bulls' lead dog produced two of the most petulant moments in NBA history: his sit-down when he was asked to inbound the ball with 1.8 seconds remaining in a 1994 playoff game and his chair toss after an official's call became the tipping point for his frustration in the 1994-95 season. But that season also produced one of my favorite Pippen moments, when the Jordan-is-returning rumors were at their peak and a camera showed Pippen on the sideline pointing to the Air Jordan logo on his shoes, then making the "come here" motion with his index finger.
Pippen had yearned to have his own time on center stage, but he quickly discovered all of the additional pressure that comes with being The Man and realized life is better when you're winning, even if someone else gets the bulk of the credit. By then Jordan had also realized just how valuable Pippen was. People don't realize how the course of NBA history could have changed if a 1994 trade sending Pippen to the Seattle SuperSonics for Shawn Kemp had not been squashed at the last minute. At the 2008 All-Star Weekend in New Orleans I finally got the chance to ask Jordan the question that had nagged me for more than a decade: If that Pippen-Kemp trade had gone through, would Jordan have come back to play for the Bulls in 1995?
"Probably not," Jordan said. "I could have played with Shawn, but I wouldn't have been as comfortable as I was with Scottie."
So Jordan did come back to the Bulls in 1995 and the duo won three more championships together. Not only could Pippen bring the ball into the frontcourt, which saved Jordan wear and tear, he could save Jordan the responsibility of guarding the other team's best perimeter player.
Pippen was a member of the NBA's first-team all-defensive squad during every championship season except 1990-91, when he was on the second team. But that might have been the season he made his biggest defensive contribution. When Jackson had Pippen guard Magic Johnson all over the court, it tilted the 1991 NBA Finals in the Bulls' favor and began their title spree.
That Pippen-Johnson matchup was as symbolic as it gets, two mold-breaking players going against each other as the league entered a new era. If Johnson was revolutionary as a 6-9 point guard, Pippen was evolutionary as a ballhandling 6-8 forward who could actually defend a 6-9 point guard in addition to rebounding and starting fast breaks and draining 3-pointers.
It was Pippen's long arms that made him so distinctive. They were the arms that got Bulls general manager Jerry Krause so excited about an unheralded small-college player when he first saw Pippen at a pre-draft camp, the arms that lured Krause into making a draft-day trade to get Pippen in 1987. They were the arms that enabled Pippen to get 7,494 rebounds and 2,307 steals during his NBA career, that enabled him to be a scoring threat whose repertoire ranged from shooting 3s to dunking on a tightly defended basket.
It's too bad the basketball Hall doesn't give its members jackets similar to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, because the history of the game will show that Pippen didn't just ride Jordan's coattails, Jordan relied on Pippen's sleeves.