Scottie Pippen turns 50 on Friday, so naturally the Internet and NBA TV is chock full of reflections on the all-time great right-hand man. Pippen is rightfully recognized as only the second-greatest player in Chicago Bulls history, but he’s severely underrated in his own right. He was much more than the sidekick to Michael Jordan. Look no further than his historic 1993-94 season.
Jordan famously left for professional baseball after the Bulls’ three-peat in 1993. Pippen was given his first opportunity be the go-to player of Chicago after six seasons as the second fiddle in the Second City. It’s quite rare for a player of Pippen’s ilk to get his first shot as “The Man” at the age of 28, but boy he didn’t disappoint when the opportunity emerged.
Pippen averaged 22 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals and 0.8 blocks while shooting 49.1 percent from the field in a virtuoso 1993-94 season. He cracked career-highs in nearly every category and proved to the NBA and its fans that he was much more than a very good role player.
Few others in NBA history have come close to that kind of production, as Jordan and Magic Johnson are the only other players to average at least 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists and 2.5 steals in a season, according to Basketball-Reference. Both of the MJ’s only did it once. Pippen did it in back-to-back seasons (1993-95).
Pippen was so good that Chicago hardly lost a step despite losing the greatest player in the history of the game. The Bulls won 57 games and the third championship in franchise history during the 1992-93 season. Pippen led the Bulls to only two less wins the following season despite Pete Myers, yes the assistant coach Pete Myers, starting in MJ’s place for 81 games.
The 55 wins alone was a remarkable accomplishment for a Bulls team with no expectations, and if not for a terrible call in Game 5 of a second-round matchup against the Knicks, they likely would’ve reached even greater heights (that series also included Pippen’s monster dunk on Patrick Ewing, which is considered by many the greatest poster dunk ever). The Bulls remained dangerous because Pippen was capable of doing everything.
We’ve seen plenty of versatile players before, be it Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and now LeBron James, but no one has excelled at every aspect of the game quite like Pippen. He wasn’t as deadly of a scorer as Jordan or as prolific of a passer as Magic, nor was he as dominant as LeBron, but Pippen managed to be an above-average scorer, magnificent passer and possibly the greatest wing defender ever (the fact that a highlight reel of Pippen’s defense has almost three million views speaks to his defensive prowess).
Pippen was capable of completely dominating the game on the defensive end with his terrorizing length, wiry strength, off-the-charts athleticism and maniacal motor. Jordan was an outstanding defender in his own right, but Pippen was far more versatile on that end. People often say the phrase “Player X is capable of guarding 1-5,” but that doesn’t do Pippen justice. He was capable of shutting down any player, at any position. Pippen was named to the All-Defensive First Team during the 1993-94 season after averaging a career-best 2.9 steals on the year. His six defensive win shares that season were unprecedented for a wing player.
Per Basketball-Reference, there have been only 10 seasons in the three-point era (post 1979-80) where a player 6-foot-8 or shorter has amassed at least six defensive win shares. Pippen and Jordan are the only players to appear on that list twice. Pippen put his whole arsenal together in a regular-season game against the Hawks in 1994 that was never seen and may never be seen again.
Pippen led the Bulls to a 116-95 victory with, take a deep breath, 39 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, a block and NINE steals (!). No one in Basketball-Reference’s database (steals only date back to 1985-86) has ever finished a game with that line, and only two other players compiled at least 30 points, 10 assists and nine steals in a game. This game often gets lost in the shuffle because of Pippen’s 1994 All-Star Game when he deservedly won MVP after finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds and four steals.
Among the other accolades he garnered that season was First Team All-NBA, the aforementioned First Team All-Defense, and a third-place finish in MVP voting. But even more important than those awards, Pippen validated himself as a bona fide star. His doubters could no longer claim he was piggy-backing off the GOAT’s success. He proved that he was capable of running a team on his own and doing it damn well. He was also just as effective the next season when Jordan played only 17 games, proving that the 1993-94 season wasn’t an anomaly.
Pippen’s ability to take over the game on the defensive end and excel at everything else might not be seen again. Luckily we had the 1993-94 season to see him do it every night.