Growing up in the South Suburbs of Chicago during the '90s, the Chicago Bulls were more like the Royal Family than they were a sports team. Every kid in my neighborhood had one thing in common: we all loved the Bulls. The Bulls were the shared bond which brought us to the parks and the blacktops and the driveways, trying to emulate what was truly too significant for a bunch of kids to fully comprehend. But that was the beauty of it all, because as kids, we couldn't understand or explain why Michael Jordan was the best, we just knew it to be true.
Eventually, as I grew older and started to view basketball more maturely, I learned something that nine-year-old me couldn't understand: Scottie Pippen was equally as important to the Bulls' dynasty as Jordan was. Pippen could dominate a basketball game without scoring. Pippen could successfully guard all five positions on the floor. Pippen had point guard ball skills and a 7-foot-4 wingspan. Eventually, thanks to Scottie Pippen, I learned that there's more to basketball than just scoring points.
But this isn't to wax poetic over Pippen's career because Ricky already did an excellent job of that. This isn't to make the argument that Pippen was the second best player of the 90s, because that, too, has already been done. No, instead, this is to encapsulate Pippen's time without Jordan, and to reveal just how fragile a dynasty can be.
It goes without saying, but Scottie Pippen was an anomaly in every sense of the word. Great players typically harness some combination of physical superiority, divine skill and mental sharpness. The greatest of players harness all three, which Pippen did. But Pippen's greatness didn't go on full display until Michael Jordan retired from basketball, and understandably so. Because while Pippen's individual brilliance was certainly visible, he and Jordan had found a balanced, championship winning formula. Simply put, part of why Jordan and Pippen worked so well together is because they worked together so well.
In the 1993-94 season, though, the perfect balance was gone, and Scottie was tasked with carrying an imbalanced roster. For starters, between a 36-year-old Bill Cartwright being on his last legs, journeyman Bill Wennington and trading for an unseasoned Luc Longley at the deadline, the Bulls were a bit of a mess in the frontcourt. Throughout the dynasty, Chicago never really posed much threat by way of a back-to-the-basket scorer, but that was especially felt in '93-'94.
Then, of course, there was how the Bulls went from Michael Jordan to Pete Myers at two-guard. Which, I mean, doesn't require much explanation. Effectively, Phil Jackson went with a seven-man rotation, and while one of those players was Toni Kukoc, he was only a rookie, therefore lending a decent-at-best impact. This roster was bare bones pretty much no matter how you slice it. And yet -- with all due respect to B.J. Armstrong and Horace Grant -- they won 55 games almost entirely because of Pippen.
Remarkably, Pippen either led the team or finished second in every single statistical category. He was first in points, steals, assists, free throws, field goals and three-pointers while finishing second in blocks, rebounds and minutes played (despite missing ten games). All the more impressive is that nearly all of Pippen's totals and averages on offense saw sizable increases even though his usage and volume skyrocketed. Or, put another way, Pippen produced at essentially career-high levels despite being surrounded by lesser talent and being used exponentially more.
Peruse Pippen's game log from that season and you'll uncover gems like his 39-point,10-assist, 9-steal, 6-rebound performance on 17-27 shooting against the Atlanta Hawks on March 8th. Or how about 25 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds and 6 steals on 11-16 shooting against the New Jersey Nets on April 12? He recorded two triple-doubles on the year and registered eight 30-point games -- not bad for a defense-first player, eh?
You know, as crazy as it sounds, an exhibition game is what might be most responsible for catapulting Pippen from best supporting actor to the lead role. Of course, I'm talking about Pippen's All-Star Game MVP performance:
That All-Star game was vindication for Pippen, distancing himself out from under Jordan's shadow. Scottie was never going to make people forget about Michael, but that was never the goal, anyway. Establishing your own identity after winning three rings alongside the greatest player of all-time doesn't just magically happen. It takes time, it takes moments. And the All-Star Game, to be sure, was a huge moment for Scottie.
There was one other large, singular moment where Scottie elevated his identity to new heights. And for my money (of course I'm a little biased here), it's the greatest in-game dunk of all-time. I mean, unless you're a Knicks fan, how does Scottie's emphatic slam over Patrick Ewing not send chills down your spine? Everything about it -- the semi-fastbreak development of the play, Scottie trailing in late, obviously the thunderous throw down itself, Ewing and Pip getting tangled up post-dunk, the trash talk, Spike Lee, Hubie Brown on the call, playoff game, the home crowd reaction -- is all so perfect.
The '93-'94 season did not end perfectly, though. And that summer, stunning news of the Bulls attempting to trade Pippen to Seattle on Draft Night upset the superstar, and justifiably so. Put yourself in Pippen's shoes: he exceeded every possible expectation sans-Jordan coupled with the fact his contract stipulated he was about to take a sizable pay cut, and yet the team wanted to just send him packing? Under that treatment, would you want to return to your employer?
It's amazing to think that Pippen, who begrudgingly played out the '94-'95 season, arguably had an even better year than '93-'94. He led the team in every single statistical category aside from shooting percentages and did so while publicly expressing his desire to be traded. Like, seriously! Here's Pippen literally saying he hoped to be traded in a sideline interview during a game.
(Major shout out to our buddy Nillz from The Bulls Show for finding this clip)
I mean, does it get much uglier than that? What would be the reaction today if a superstar talent spoke so freely about his displeasure with his situation? Mayhem. Pandemonium. Chaos.
Thankfully, as we all know, Pippen was not traded (at that time, anyway), Michael Jordan returned to basketball a month after Pippen made those comments, and the rest is history. But it goes to show just how close things came to unraveling. Without Pippen, does Jordan come back to basketball? Probably not. The course of basketball history would've changed dramatically.
Yes, in Pippen's time without Jordan, we did witness an incident that will likely haunt him forever: his infamous refusal to play after Jackson diagrammed the final play for Kukoc with 1.8 seconds remaining in the '94 playoffs. It'd be remiss not to mention it. But hopefully, that moment doesn't color an otherwise sensational time period of Scottie Pippen's career. Sure, Pippen didn't match Jordan's level of individual success, but that shouldn't define a truly undefinable player.
That's the thing with Pippen: you can't box him in, you can't categorize him. He doesn't fit a mold. What he accomplished -- both with and without Jordan -- should absolutely be commended, but especially the latter. He was a transformational perimeter player in an era where the game was primarily played down on the blocks. Stick him on any team from any era and he fits in seamlessly. He could control the game in nearly every way imaginable, and that's what makes him a one of a kind.