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'Most of Basketball is In the Mind': In Defense Of Scottie Pippen

Something has been bothering me for a while about Scottie Pippen.

I figured anyone who was alive for basketball in the '90s knew Scottie was one of the best players of his era, but apparently I was wrong. One of the better examples: this is possibly the stupidest sports-adjacent tweet I've ever seen.

If you didn't click through, Bomani Jones, who is supposedly an expert on the NBA, thinks that at no point during his career was Scottie Pippen one of the five best players in the NBA. The people he puts ahead of Scottie...phew. I mean...PHEW. Either Jones doesn't get basketball, or Scottie killed his dog. Those are the only possible explanations.

Before I go any further here, I need to be clear: I grew up watching basketball in the '90s and vehemently rooted against Jordan's Bulls every single year. I hated this team. It's not like I was rooting for an opposing title contender; I'm a Bullets fan, meaning I am hopelessly and perennially depressed. I didn't particularly care about any of the other East squads; Reggie's Pacers mildly annoyed me. I actively disliked Riley's Knicks, and the Bad Boy Pistons were the most insufferable team in the league. I loathed Jordan in every conceivable way, possibly because no matter how hard I rooted against him, he always (with the notable and watershed exception of 1995) found new ways to rip my heart out. I found Phil Jackson incredibly pretentious and annoying. Toni Kukoc was soft as hell. Luc Longley looked like he'd wandered in off the street and won a fan contest to play in an NBA game. Rodman was Rodman. Pippen himself is allegedly a terrible tipper. I had (and have), if anything, a strong bias against those Bulls teams and everyone on them.

But to claim Scottie wasn't a top five player in the league requires willful idiocy on a fundamental level. This is one of the basketball litmus tests; when someone says it, you know they don't get the sport. Other classics include "all Shaq can do is dunk" (this take was everywhere in the 1990s and 2000s), "Chris Paul isn't clutch because the Clippers blew the 2015 Western Conference Semis" (the team's entire secondary scoring group went 28-100 over the final three games), and "Kobe is one of the five best players ever" (Jesus CHRIST). And sure, if you're simply looking at counting stats and weren't there to see it, I could understand how someone could make this mistake! Bomani Jones doesn't have any such excuse; he lived through it, and he should know better.

Scottie Pippen Was Criminally Underrated

Scottie Pippen in 1998.

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Scottie from 1990-1997 was a clinic in brilliant team basketball. Picture Draymond Green's instincts, defensive versatility, and passing, but give him a reliable 20-foot banker, infinitely more quickness, and take away Dray's foul trouble issues and penchant for cheap shots.

That was Scottie: a much, much better version of a four-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer. You can also compare him to Andre Iguodala, but that's selling him short; Iggy could never carry or run an offense, and Scottie did both at various points during his career. He was excellent on the offensive end, a consummate team player who could score when he needed to but never really cared about his own stats. He also rebounded well above his size and had passing chops so good he was able to morph into a point forward in his later years once his speed started to abandon him, dragging the dysfunctionally chaotic 1999-00 Jail Blazers to within one quarter of the NBA Finals before crappy officiating and Mike Dunleavy's even crappier brain shot them directly in the kneecap.

Defensively, he was breathtaking; the man just did not make the incorrect defensive play, ever. I have watched (either during my lifetime or on old recorded VHS tapes my dad made during the '80s) Gary Payton, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Dennis Johnson, Michael Cooper, Sidney Moncrief and Alvin Robertson. Every one of those guys was brilliant, and not one of them came close to Scottie's perimeter defensive prowess and versatility.

He was simultaneously a human blanket in man-to-man and a constant, terrifying threat to come out of nowhere and jump a passing lane (he's seventh all-time in steals). You know how Jrue Holiday smothers guys on defense without ever seeming to make a dirty or even questionable play? It was like that, only if Jrue was 6-foot-8 and could guard four positions.

Scottie drew the toughest defensive assignment from 1-3 (and sometimes 4) in every game, wrecking guys' days on a nightly basis for the better part of a decade and doing whatever it took to win. The only defensive player during his era who was better was Hakeem, who is inarguably one of the two best defensive players of all time.

Here are the guys Bomani Jones lists as being better than Scottie during his prime: Jordan (not actually listed, but obviously implied), Hakeem, Shaq, Barkley, Robinson...and Ewing. We're not going to talk about Jordan - obviously Jordan was better in every single season in which he appeared, because he was Michael Jordan. And I'm the same guy who once wrote 1500 words about how Hakeem is my favorite basketball player ever; there is at least a 20% chance I make a good faith attempt to convince my wife to name our son "Hakeem" if we ever have one. I will grant you those two guys without question.

But the others? Hoo boy. Let's take them in order.

Pippen's Case Against His Peers

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Shaq: I don't think there's any argument Shaq had a better career than Scottie. Shaq is, in many ways, one of the more underrated superstars in league history, as well as the single biggest litmus test for understanding the sport. But the claim made here isn't "Shaq had a better career than Scottie Pippen," it's "Scottie wasn't a top five NBA player during any point at which their careers overlapped." I love Shaq and always have; you couldn't stop young Shaq running the floor if you'd been allowed to run him over with a '72 Chevelle. But in the mid-'90s, he wasn't quite all the way there yet. During their overlapping years in Scottie's prime...I'm sorry, but it wasn't close.

Value Over Replacement Player is an imperfect statistic - for one thing, it rates point guards WAY too highly, as evidenced by Terrell Brandon and Mookie Blaylock making multiple top ten appearances during the mid-'90s, and John Stockton getting way more credit than he deserves. But once you weed out the 1's, it starts to look a lot more reasonable. From 1992-1997 (the five years in which you can consider both playing at a high level), Scottie racked up 30.7 VORP to Shaq's 24.1, and the only year in that stretch where Shaq was indisputably better was 1994-1995 (and even that's closer than you think). The main culprit here is defense: though Shaq eventually became a destructive defensive presence, that didn't happen until the turn of the millennium, when he started making All-Defense teams. There was never a point during Scottie's career when he wasn't one of the best defensive players in the league (if not the best, as he was for several seasons). But Shaq scored more points and was infinitely more exciting, which is why it's easy to make this mistake. Thinking Shaq was better than Scottie during this era is still wrong, but it's at least understandably wrong.

Charles Barkley

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Barkley: Look, I love Barkley. I really, truly do, the same way I love all original NBA prototypes. A 6-foot-6 power forward who rebounded half a foot above his size, scored at a shockingly efficient clip (as long as he wasn't hoisting up ill-advised threes), was a much better passer than you remember, and was utterly, relentlessly terrifying on the fast break? Combine that with the fact Barkley is the funniest NBA player of my lifetime (as evidenced by his broadcasting career), and how could you not love that dude? But while Barkley was clearly better on the offensive end than Pippen, the issue here is defense: Chuck could never guard anyone and didn't seem particularly interested in trying.

On the whole, Chuck may have had a better career than Scottie (his prime certainly lasted longer), but let's go back to that 1990-97 stretch I keep talking about - you know, the same one in which Barkley won his MVP award. Pippen's VORP in that period? 43 even. Chuck's? 38.4. The numbers become a lot starker from 1993-94 to 1996-1997: 26 to 18.2. Chuck clearly had the edge before '93 (and especially from '87-'89, when Scottie wasn't ready yet), but for a four-year period afterwards, Pippen was clearly a top five player in the league and Chuck wasn't. This isn't debatable.

David Robinson posts up against the Seattle Supersonics.

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Robinson: Of any of the guys here, this is the closest. I would have rather had Scottie from 1990-97, but I can't really argue with anyone who feels otherwise. Unlike the other guys here, The Admiral's peak matches up nearly perfectly with Scottie's, so it's easier to compare them. If you leave out '89 (Robinson was ready, Scottie wasn't quite yet) and '97 (Robinson hurt his back and his foot, missing all but six games that year), you're left with a 1990-1996 stretch in which Robinson beats Scottie on VORP 50.8 to 36.9. Robinson also won an MVP Award, a Defensive Player of the Year Award, and led the league in scoring one year during that stretch - Scottie never managed any of those things (even if he deserved at least one DPOY, if not multiple).

So how is this even close? Because of the postseason. Both Robinson and Scottie were secondary players - neither could win a title unless they had a better guy playing alongside them. But unless he was actively injured (and yes, the migraine game counts here), Scottie tended to come up big in big games. Admiral? Not so much. It's difficult to imagine Scottie ever getting absolutely undressed in the playoffs the way Hakeem embarrassed Robinson in the '95 playoffs (his MVP year, no less!), an ass-kicking so thorough it has a widely-viewed YouTube compilation. Hakeem didn't just beat him, he embarrassed him, unleashing on Robinson with the sort of ruthless glee only Jordan could've matched. You can make the argument that didn't happen to Scottie because the one guy who could've done it was on Scottie's own team, but that still counts for something.

Still, I can't fault anyone who picks Robinson over Pippen. But even including Jordan and Hakeem, that's still only three guys. Which brings us to...

Patrick Ewing

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Ewing: If you think Patrick Ewing was better than Scottie Pippen, you have officially transitioned from "defensible but wrong" to "wearing his underpants on your head." From 1990-97, there was not a single season - hell, there may not have been a single month - when Patrick Ewing was a better basketball player than Scottie Pippen. Neither of them were true franchise guys, but if we're being honest, nobody in the game was a true franchise guy during the '90s except for Jordan, Hakeem and (at the tail end of the decade) Shaq and Tim Duncan. At no point in his career was Ewing as good as his rep, while at no point in his career did Scottie's rep live up to his game. Young Ewing was a defensive terror with a solid if unspectacular low-post game...but by the time the 1990-91 season had rolled around, his knees had started to go and he had become a largely one-dimensional shot-blocker; there's a reason Hakeem so thoroughly embarrassed him in the '94 Finals. He could never pass, he was turnover prone (3.4 per game for his career, way more than any of the other good '90s big men or Scottie himself), his hands were crap, he was only a so-so rebounder - Ewing just wasn't that good. The VORP numbers from 1990-97 are a bloodbath: Scottie 43 to 30.

Let's go back to VORP and look at 1993-1997 (since that's the period Scottie was unquestionably a top five player). Here are all the relevant guys, leaving out Jordan (because of the baseball vacation):

Robinson: 28.7

Scottie: 26

Hakeem: 21.4

Shaq: 19.8

Barkley: 18.2

Ewing: 15.6

You can quibble with some of this - the numbers curiously underrate Hakeem, for one thing, although he more than makes it back in win shares - but that's a pretty clear snapshot, isn't it? Apart from Hakeem, everyone is pretty much right where they should be.

I don't know how else to express this: as an all-around player, Scottie was one of the best I have ever seen, in his era or any other. His only weakness in the modern game would be a so-so three-pointer (which wasn't even that weak when you adjust for era), which would've been at worst average if his role was to spot-up for corner looks. Moreover, you could put Scottie on any contender today and he would instantly push them over the top; there wasn't any style of play to which he couldn't adapt. In particular, small-ball running lineups with Scottie at the 4 would absolutely decimate teams now, particularly if you threw in a center with a three-point shot (something that didn't exist in the '90s).

Heck, forget just today; Scottie would've fit seamlessly on any championship team in NBA history. To declare he wasn't a top five NBA player from 1990-1997 (let alone from 1993-97, when the difference becomes even more stark) is to fly in the face of sanity. Scottie was a superstar, and don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

MORE: Scottie Pippen's Net Worth: How the NBA Icon Almost Squandered His Fortune