Backpicks GOAT #23 Scottie Pippen

Key Stats and Trends

  • All-time level perimeter defense led to impressive seasons without Jordan
  • Mediocre scorer but excellent passer and creator

Scouting Report

Scottie Pippen was an athletic specimen — an incredibly long 6-foot-8 wing with an absurd vertical leap. On offense, he entered the league with top-shelf finishing prowess, using bounce and size to attack the rim. Defensively, he bloomed into one of the greatest perimeter defenders in league history.

The following video catalogues all of Pippen’s positive attributes as a defender: His active hands and ability to protect the rim, jump passing lanes, guard the post, harass ball-handlers, induce charges and cover the court with alert rotations. It’s worth it to view all six minutes:

For this series, I tracked 700 Pippen possessions, mostly from 1990-98, and in that time he was a turnover-creating machine. In addition to his elite steal percentage — Pippen’s two best years rank 43rd and 44th all-time — he added another 1.3 forced turnovers per 100 from deflections and drawing offensive fouls. These are estimates from a sample, so they should not be taken as gospel, but they reflect what’s evident on the film; Pippen caused all kinds of chaos on defense.1 In addition, I scored an additional 3.5 percent of his possessions as “good” man defense — usually from an excellent contest or shutting off a drive  — which is elite among the wings I’ve sampled.

Still, Scottie wasn’t blessed with the quickest feet and was vulnerable to quick dribble penetration. Most top-shelf perimeter defenders do not make a lot of errors, but some will rack them up trying to contain elite penetrators.2 In my sample, Pippen had a relatively high error rate, around 2 per 100 (16th percentile), but he offset this by suffocating slower opponents. There is no single better example of this than Game 1 of the 1998 Eastern Finals against Indiana, when Pippen terrorized Mark Jackson for most of the game. It only takes a minute or so of viewing to get a feel for the disruption Scottie unleashed:

Offensively, Pippen was never a great primary scorer. His best attacks came when he found an angle and glided to the hoop in two sweeping steps. He had a passable mid-post game, with a hook and an old-fashioned bank shot. He was a mediocre shooter, but found success during the seasons the NBA shortened the 3-point line (1995-97), shooting 36 percent from downtown in those years.

While he was a phenomenal finisher and transition player, Pippen’s best offensive attribute was his passing. By my estimates, he dolled out “good” or “great” passes on about 3 plays per 100, which, for comparison, was slightly behind John Stockton’s rate. Scottie’s estimated creation rates seem inline with his hand-tracked ones, around 6-7 per 100 during his prime years. His shot selection was sound, launching only his pull-up 3-pointer too hastily.

The following video showcases Pippen’s passing ability — tight transition passes, advanced interior dishes and high-level shot-passes. While he possessed excellent vision, notice that there’s still a pass or two in there that arrive a half-second late (at 8:40 and 8:56):

Pippen had a meteoric rise, cracking the starting lineup during the ’88 playoffs as a rookie before blossoming into a key contributor in ’89. He showed signs of elite defense then, sprinkling in the occasional outside shot and aggressive rim assault. He was always a phenomenal rebounder, and his peak defensive rebounding rate (19.4 percent) ranks in the 99th percentile among non-bigs.3 By the end of 1990, Pippen was squarely in his prime, and over the ensuing years he polished his passing and scoring, peaking between 1994-96.

By 1997, Scottie started to slow down, losing some pop in his incredible athleticism. After toe surgery to start the ’98 season, he returned a step slower, and following back surgery that summer, was never the same physically again. He showed flashes at times, but by his Portland days, he struggled to contain dribblers as well and couldn’t finish at the rim with the same efficacy.

Impact Evaluation

Pippen’s rise to stardom coincided with Chicago’s emergence as a contender. His results without Michael Jordan hint that he’s a borderline superstar, capable of buoying the offense while anchoring an elite defense. And more detailed plus-minus metrics paint him as a high-impact performer.

In his first three seasons in Chicago, Jordan’s Bulls never eclipsed a 45-win pace (1.3 SRS). Reinforcements arrived in 1988, as Pippen and fellow rookie Horace Grant provided defense and athleticism off the bench. By the time Phil Jackson came aboard in 1990, Pippen and Grant rounded into form and the Bulls emerged as title contenders. The ’90 team finished the season with an offensive efficiency 4.2 points better than league average (rORtg), nearly 3 points better than the previous season. While credit should be given to the efficacy of Jackson’s triangle offense, the Bulls ascension also coincided with the improvement of their ’88 draft class.

Pippen, Grant and the Bulls carried their growth into the 1991 season and Chicago capped an 18-month ascension with its first of six titles. Pippen carried the second-largest load of the offensive dynasty (behind Jordan), with only BJ Armstrong a close third in 1991.4 While the defensive results weren’t earth-shattering — their average defensive rating from ’91-93 falls in the 85th percentile historically– they were impressive given Chicago’s lack of a traditional rim-protecting big man. I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that Pippen “anchored” those defenses, but he was certainly the most notable and disruptive force (statistically and on film) alongside Jordan and Grant.

Per the scouting report, Pippen’s finer points — defense and passing — are not readily captured by the box score. His scoring rates were relatively low during the first three-peat and he regularly hovered around league average efficiency. Here’s how his Big 4 box stats stack up against contemporaries, first from 1991-93, and then in his best three-year stretch (from ’96-98):

In 1994, Pippen assumed the lead dog role and upped his scoring and creation with essentially no loss in efficiency. Given the makeup of Chicago’s roster and its implementation of the triangle, this was probably Pippen’s maximum offensive output, as he peaked in offensive load at 43 (96th percentile) while the Bulls posted a respectable +2.2 rORtg when healthy, better than any offense Michael Jordan led before Phil Jackson arrived.5

Pippen’s non-Jordan seasons were particularly impressive because of the overall heights of the team. In ’94, the Bulls played at a 55-win pace when healthy (4.7 SRS). There was undoubtably malaise during the 1993 season after deep postseason runs and the Barcelona Olympics, so a direct comparison between ’93 and ’94 is apples-to-oranges. Still, the ’94 Bulls added Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley, replaced Jordan with a defensive-centric Pete Myers, and posted close-to-contending results. In 1995, with key cog Horace Grant lost to Orlando (and Ron Harper aboard), a healthy Bulls team still played at a 52-win pace (3.8 SRS) with an rORtg of +1.1 before Michael Jordan returned.

After deploying a hodgepodge of big men in ’94, the ’95 team leaned on Will Perdue to protect the paint with Grant gone (Longley came off the bench) while Kukoc served as a secondary playmaker and Armstrong provided high-end spot up shooting (43 percent from downtown). For that team to produce an above-average offense and cross the 50-win plateau is not only a testament to Jackson’s coaching and Pippen’s all-around impact, but the powerful interaction between great passing (Kukoc and Pippen) and spot-up shooting (Armstrong and Kerr). Pippen seamlessly scaled up next to Jordan (again) in 1996, and Chicago’s new Big 3 produced a record 13.7 SRS at full-strength (72-win pace).6

Pippen’s best years hit the beginning of the plus-minus era, and his numbers are impressive. After a marginal year in ’94 (86th percentile), he posted scaled Augmented Plus-Minus values in the 97th percentile in ’95 and ’96, followed by a season in the 98th percentile using adjusted plus-minus (APM) in 1997.7 His augmented ’95 season was second in the league to plus-minus goliath David Robinson, while his ’96 season trailed only Robinson, Jordan and the venerable Penny Hardaway.

In total, Pippen’s perimeter defense, rebounding and strong passing make him a highly scalable asset, capable of supercharging all kinds of teams. He played second fiddle on excellent offenses alongside Jordan, spent most of his prime leading good or great defenses, and his brush with the MVP in 1994 is inline with my estimation of his peak as a weak MVP candidate.8 However, Pippen’s prime was shortened by injuries, and his last high-level year was in 1997. (He was stellar at times in 1998 until his back flared up in the postseason.)

He’s entrenched in the group of players from 22-26, with a peak strong enough to edge out Stockton, but one that lags behind the players ahead of him. After his back surgery, he churned out two more All-Star level seasons, giving him 11 or 12 by my count. That’s just enough longevity to earn the nod over a similar-peak challenger, Moses Malone, for the No. 23 spot on the list.

  1. His 1.3 forced turnovers per 100 would rank fourth in my 2010-11 study among 121 players with at least 500 possessions tracked.
  2. According to my 2010-11 tracking data, six of the top 20 players in DRAPM were in the bottom third of the league in defensive error rates.
  3. That’s the 34th-best defensive rebounding rate for non-bigs and the 22nd-best relative rate (+5.8 percent) ever.
  4. In ’91, Jordan’s Load was 50, Pippen’s 36; In ’92, Jordan was at 49, Pippen at 40; In ’93, Jordan at 55 and Pippen 39.
  5. Including the postseason, Chicago played 71 games that year with Grant, Kukoc and Pippen in the lineup. In 10 short games without Pippen, the offense posted a -2.6 rORtg.
  6. If you’re scoring at home, Randy Brown replaced Myers as a defensive stopper, Perdue left but Longley was healthier, Armstrong left but Jordan and Dennis Rodman were added. Despite his reputation as a defender, Rodman’s quality passing and all-time level offensive rebounding added offensive value during those years, an effect corroborated by his plus-minus scores.
  7. It’s worth noting that APM thinks Pippen is a neutral defender from 1998 onward, consistent with his injuries and physical decline noted in the scouting report.
  8. Pippen earned .386 MVP shares in ’94, including seven first-place votes, the only year he would receive multiple firsts.