Life Without M.J. and The ‘Clutch Gene’: The Rising of Scottie Pippen
Life Without M.J. and The ‘Clutch Gene’: The Rising of Scottie Pippen
Disregarding Michael Jordan’s baseball hiatus, Scottie Pippen never had the opportunity to fully shine in his days with the Chicago Bulls. As everyone knew, Michael Jordan was the leader—he took all the big shots, dominated the court and media, and was at the forefront of all six championships—and Pippen accepted it.
On Wednesday during an appearance on The Jump, alongside Rachel Nichols and former NBA superstar Tracy McGrady on ESPN, Pippen admitted his “clutch gene” never existed because of playing alongside arguably the most clutch player in league history, Michael Jordan.
“I’m not afraid to say that, I don’t have clutch genes,” said Pippen to the surprise of everyone in the panel. “I played with a guy that took all the clutch genes off of me. I had the best clutch player ever and I’m good with it.”
Scottie Pippen also noted he always knew Jordan had the upper hand when it came to leadership and final shots, and that’s just the way their decade-long basketball relationship panned out.
“Yes,” Pippen said instantly. “You know what you’re doing. It was a relationship that me and Michael [Jordan] had, it was a relationship built to where I knew where I wanted the ball at the end of a game and I knew who wanted the ball at the end of that game. You would never see a game where you’d see Michael [Jordan] just watch who took the last shot, that would just kill him,” he finished.
Batman and Robin. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Considered the greatest duo of all-time, Jordan and Pippen had extreme success winning three straight NBA championships from 1991-1993. A fourth title seemed conclusive heading into the 1993-94 season, but when Michael Jordan suddenly announced he was stepping down from basketball to play baseball at the age of 31, Pippen, his teammates and the world were stunned.
Why would the best player in the world retire in his prime? Jordan’s profession change was dedicated to his father, James, who was murdered on July 23, 1993 at 56-years-old. His father always implied he would have loved to see his son turn professional in baseball, rather than basketball. Sure, this action plagued Chicago’s quest for a fourth straight title, but Jordan was not in the correct state of mind to return to basketball, and it allowed Pippen to lead a team for the first time in his career. Pippen instantly became the alpha dog in the “Windy City.”
Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls struggled in the playoffs from 1985 up until 1987, when Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson arrived. Another few seasons alone in Chicago without a promising player beside him, Michael Jordan would have continued to struggle to win if Pippen weren’t there. Chicago won its first title in Pippen’s fourth full season, as both he and Jordan entered their primes. Pippen had a shaky start to his career, finishing his rookie season with 7.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, but doubled his scoring and rebounding per game the next season, as he became a starter. Season-by-season improvement earned Pippen his debut NBA All-Star selection in 1990. Pippen was emerging as one of the best all-around players in the league; he could do it all. Scoring wasn’t a problem, nor was rebounding—his 6-foot-8 athletic frame allowed him to crash the boards at ease. Also, his impressive passing ability and speed allowed him to snatch 2.4 career steals per game.
This is not a profile on Scottie Pippen, but a vision of how much greater of a star he could have been if he wasn’t in Michael Jordan’s shadow during his prime. Without Jordan, Pippen’s numbers were excellent.
In his first six seasons, Scottie Pippen averaged 16.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 49% from the field alongside Michael Jordan. Pippen was a three-time champion, two-time all-star, one-time All-NBA Second Team, and one-time All-NBA Defensive Team by the time of Jordan’s absence. Pippen states, “[Michael Jordan’s retirement] was pretty shocking, and very emotional.” Pippen had no doubt in leading a team without Jordan—he took it as a challenge. A few players who won three-straight titles remained in Chicago including B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant, while sharpshooter Steve Kerr and big men Bill Wennington and Luc Longley were added to the shaken roster. The three additions of Kerr, Wennington, and Longley were important, but European sensation Toni Kukoc brought an overseas swagger to the Chicago and was extremely valuable. Kukoc, one of the greatest European players of his time, was Scottie Pippen’s new running mate. The Chicago Bulls were off to a shaky start, going 5-7 in their first twelve games, but exploded to win their next 30 games over a 35 game span. Pippen let the league know he was something special not just by putting up consistent showings during the first half of the season, but also by winning the 1994 All-Star Game MVP award. Pippen stole the show, finishing with 29 points, eleven rebounds and four steals against top-of-the-line competition.
Heading into the 1994 NBA playoffs with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and third-best record in the entire league, Scottie Pippen and the Chicago Bulls were on their way to the postseason for the first time without Michael Jordan and looked to make a statement. The Bulls finished the season with a 55-27 record, and completed their fifth straight 50-plus win season.
Pippen was up against Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon and San Antonio Spurs big-man David Robinson in the MVP voting, but eventually fell short to Olajuwon for the award. Pippen ranked eighth in scoring (22.0), 23rd in rebounding (8.7), 19th in assists (5.6) second in steals (2.9), and averaged 0.8 blocks per game while shooting an impressive 49% from the field. Pippen carried the team on his back during Jordan’s absence and gained newfound respect in the NBA world that he could win and be a superstar on his own.
The Chicago Bulls were off to a hot start in the 1994 NBA Playoffs, taking out Mark Price and the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-0 in the opening round. Then, for the fourth straight year, the New York Knicks re-lived their long rivalry with the Bulls, just this time, No. 23 was not there to facilitate. In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Patrick Ewing and the Knicks took a commanding 2-0 series lead. Chicago struck back, taking the next two contests at home evening the series at two games apiece. Chicago would eventually fall to New York in six games. The Knicks later defeated Reggie Miller and the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals before ultimately falling to the Houston Rockets in seven games in the Finals. Chicago Bulls center Bill Wennington praised Scottie Pippen at the end of the 1994 postseason, admitting, “Scottie [Pippen] was the heart and soul of that team. He put that team on his shoulders and was taking all the big shots.” B.J. Armstrong agreed, saying, “[Pippen] was just incredible. He was running around and doing things, really getting a chance to explore every aspect of his game. I think it really answered a lot of questions in the back of his mind.” Pippen, really did it all.
Take a look at Scottie Pippen’s 1993-94 season compared to the greatest small forwards in NBA history at 28-years-old (Via. NBA.com):
Scottie Pippen (1993-94): 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals in 38.3 minutes **
- Elgin Baylor (1962-63): 34.0 points, 14.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists in 42.1 minutes
- Larry Bird (1984-85): 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.6 steals in 39.5 minutes
- Julius Erving (1978-79): 23.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.7 steals in 35.9 minutes
- John Havlicek (1968-69): 21.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.4 assists in 38.7 minutes
- LeBron James (2012-13): 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals in 37.9 minutes
What if Scottie Pippen was the top dog on all teams he’s been apart of during his career? What if he had a dominant big man playing alongside him? What if there was no Michael Jordan from the start? A series of questions came about after Pippen’s extraordinary 1993-94 season. He erased all doubts about whether he was just a sidekick who played so well because of Michael Jordan. Clutch gene or not, Scottie Pippen was now seen as a top-tier star across the league.