A couple months ago, Scottie Pippen said something very interesting. He said that he was "LeBron James before LeBron James." On the sports talk radio circuit, this earned Pippen a fair amount of derision, as his name has become synonymous with being a sidekick, a "second banana," a guy who was never the best player in the world. For many, for Pippen to compare himself to James seemed to beggar belief. On closer inspection, however, it's not hard to see why Scottie would believe this to be true.
Smart basketball guys, like SBNation's own Tom Ziller and Paul Flannery, have ranked Pip as the second best player in the entire NBA for the 1990s. According to a statistical plus-minus model that I put together (very similar to Basketball Reference's Box Plus-Minus, but with a few other variables, including height, included), Pippen was the 7th best player of the 1990s, per possession, and the 4th most valuable when you account for minutes played. Box Plus-Minus tells a similar story.
Here it has to be stated that Box Plus-Minus, as with any system based only on the box-score, will tend to underrate the defensive contributions of anyone who is very good at that end.
Scottie Pippen was more than very good on defense. He was the greatest perimeter defender of all time and one of the best overall defenders ever.
The analytics movement has taught us the value of the steal in assessing a player's defensive value. Generally speaking, steals are very, very valuable. They take possession away from the opposing team and result in a better than average scoring opportunity for the stealing player's team. All steals are not, however, created equally. The average value of a steal is very high, but there are players who take unnecessary risks to gamble for steals. Those players don't receive a box-score penalty when they chase a steal and miss. Essentially, there is no equivalent of "thieving efficiency." A Rajon Rondo steal where he allows his man to blow by him so he can try to pick his pocket, despite resulting in a negative play far more often than not, results in the same steal in the boxscore that a steal off fundamentally sound defense does.
Scottie Pippen was remarkable on defense for a number of reasons, but a big reason was that his incredible length paired with his wiry strength allowed him to body guys up and register a massive number of steals without gambling. For his career, Pippen averaged 2.9 steals per every 100 possessions. Pippen's steals were almost certainly more valuable than the same number of steals would have been for an average player because he just didn't need to gamble to get them. That's not to say that Pip didn't play the passing lanes. He did so, expertly. The point is just that he was rarely out of position. In Pippen's incredible 1993-1995 run, he registered steals on 4% of all of his defensive possessions, leading the league, all while carrying a first option's offensive burden sans Michael Jordan.
As a result, the claim that Pippen was the second best player of the 1990s is pretty well supported. (I would argue that Ziller and Pflanns underrated David Robinson pretty badly, but that's a separate digression.) Perhaps more surprising, though, is just where Scottie stacks up among the all time greats in the three point era. Among players that have played 15,000 minutes or more since the 1979-1980 season, Pippen ranks as the 18th best player per possession, and 15th when accounting for minutes played by Basketball-Reference's Box Plus-Minus. Again, this probably understates Pippen, given his status as one of the greatest defensive players ever.
All of this makes it more understandable that Pippen felt fine in comparing himself to the consensus best player in the world and one of the maybe top five players ever in LeBron James. Adding even more credence to Pippen's claim that he was LeBron before LeBron were Scottie's years without Michael Jordan. Most of the statistical plus-minus models give a pretty sizeable boost to high usage players. With Michael freaking Jordan on the team, Scottie's role wasn't to necessarily to carry a huge offensive burden. As a result, it's plausible to suggest that BPM and similar metrics systematically underrate Pippen's talent, because his role was not to be a ball dominator, due to the presence of His Airness. Fortunately, at least for these purposes, we have a glimpse of the alternate history of Scottie without Michael. In the two years without Jordan, Pippen was able to show off the full range of his offensive game, increasing his usage by roughly 4 to 5 percentage points over his career average all while maintaining his efficiency, which just doesn't usually happen.
Generally, as you increase a player's offensive workload, their efficiency declines. Not for Scottie. In those two non-Jordan years, Pip put together BPM numbers that look positively LeBron-esque. He was roughly a +8 per 100 possessions over the course of those two years and placed 2nd in the league in BPM both years, behind only David Robinson. Yes, Scottie was better than Barkley, better than Hakeem, better than Malone, better than all of the greats you remember from the 1990s in those two Michael-less years.
Given what he was able to accomplish when he was allowed out of Jordan's shadow, and his profile as a rangy do-it-all forward who had basically no weaknesses in his game, it's not hard to see why Pippen looks at LeBron and sees a bulkier version of himself. LeBron is better than Pippen was, but the gap isn't nearly as large as the scoffing you heard after Scottie's quote would imply. Scottie Pippen was more than a sidekick, he was an MVP level player in his own right, in the same way that today Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both MVP level talents on the same team. The Bulls were just incredibly blessed to do the current Thunder one better and have the best player ever and a guy who was arguably the league's next best player. Thank the basketball gods (and Jerry Krause) for that.