The Importance of Being Pippen

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My wife and I went to Maine to visit my mom and her hubby for Thanksgiving, and I had two very telling basketball conversations on the trip. First I met Double Dribble’s biggest / only fan, and we talked about the Celtics while other people cooked. Havlicek’s all-around game, Cowens’s unremembered athleticism, Parish’s selflessness, Lewis’s tragic end, Bird’s brilliance, even the one half season of helpful shooting from Rodney Rogers came up (while we were trying to recall what Boston got in exchange for Joe Johnson). Knicks fans get credited with being the most knowledgeable group of fans out there, but long-time Boston fans know their history and understand the game with anybody. We may need to manufacture a new Boston / New York rivalry contest around sports fan knowledge. Some combination of Trivial Pursuit meets Family Feud with lots of profanity and alcohol. I’m thinking Spike TV as a stop gap show between Pros vs. Joes and the Ultimate Fighter. We could call it The Gaaahh-den versus Madison Square.

My cousin, Erik, came to Thanksgiving, and while we watched NBA highlights on ESPN that night, he asked me about the positions in basketball. He knew what differentiated a center from everyone else – he’s the big guy who tries to keep Shaq from dunking on every possession – but other than that, he couldn’t tell one from the next. Everybody does the same things on the court to varying degrees. It’s not like football, where you have position-specific responsibilities that don’t really overlap. It’s not like baseball where you have positions designated by assigned areas on the field. In basketball position is a matter of practicality rather than a matter of regulation.

Scottie making plays.

I tried to break it down for him and hit an immediate snag. Erik was never a basketball fan. He was a Michael Jordan fan. He watched every Bulls game he could, and that’s it. You try explaining NBA positions using the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. They had a 6′ 2″ shooting guard who couldn’t dribble against pressure and defended point guards at the other end. They had a 6′ 6″ small forward who dominated in the post and was introduced as a guard from North Carolina at the beginning of every game and defended shooting guards most of the time. They had a 6′ 7″ point guard who primarily defended small forwards. They had a hyper-athletic power forward who played from the high post and did most of his scoring on dump downs and kick outs from that 6′ 6″ small forward from NC up there. They had a 7′ center who didn’t rebound or block shots. Good luck!

I actually used the 1997 and 1998 Utah Jazz to explain. Stockton, Hornacek, Russell, Malone, and Ostertag was an almost prototypical collection of players. Point guard runs the plays. Shooting guard moves without the ball and shoots. Small forward does the same plus some rebounding. Power forward gets rebounds, runs the floor, and scores. Center blocks shots and only shoots bunnies in front of the rim.

The conversation brought to mind the impact Scottie Pippen had on those Bulls teams. He may not be the best second banana ever – that’s one of Kobe, West, Baylor, or Chamberlain (take your pick). He may not be the first great point forward. That’s Rick Barry (and maybe Hondo for a season), and you could toss in Magic while Nixon was still a Laker. What made Pippen special was his ability not only to run the team from the forward position but to fill the forward role at the same time, crashing the boards, making good aggressive cuts, and he could defend all three positions and do it all while taking a backseat. He filled in everything the team could ask for and allowed Michael to focus his energies on scoring and trash-talking.

Thanks, Scottie. Screaming at Luc Longley is just exhausting.

How many teams have ever had a starting forward so good at running the team offense that it could play significant minutes to Steve Kerr, a spindly, 6′ tall, supremely skilled catch and shoot specialist who could barely dribble while the other guard spent most of his time filling in as the team’s go to power player in the post? LeBron comes to mind, but could he sublimate his need to dominate and actually take that sort of a backseat? That’s the thing about Scottie. Michael was undoubtedly the superior creator off the dribble and the best passer on the team, but Scottie knew how to manage the game. He took a special pride in getting the ball to the right player at the right time, keeping everyone involved, riding hot hands, orchestrating the whole game. Point guard. Pure point guard. Err, uh, forward. It’s hard to explain. See in basketball position is about practicality not regulation.

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4 Responses to “The Importance of Being Pippen”

  1. UNK Paw Says:

    Jason, you and I are almost always 100% spot on when it comes to hoops (and many other things as well) but in your statement of Best Point Forwards (“He may not be the first great point forward. That’s Rick Barry (and maybe Hondo for a season), and you could toss in Magic while Nixon was still a Laker”), I have to totally disagree with you. Rick Barry (yes I know you know we have a history) was certainly NOT a point forward. Point Forwards look to pass get their teammates involved and provide tempo. But Rick Barry;s game was never about making other players better rather his game was all about Rick Barry!! Rick was a look to shoot first, shoot second, maybe look to shoot third and finally shoot!!! In my opinion, Point Forward (especially in Pippen’s case) was also to regulate temp on the defensive end. How many times did we see Pippen guarding the opposing point guard full court to disrupt a half court offense or to stop a fast break? You NEVER saw Rick Barry playing that way on defense. Yes, Rick Barry was a different beast than we had seen before in the NBA. His skills count for themselves and I am sure his stats are very worthy. But as a player who helped teammates be better and playing the ultimate team game…that was NOT rick barry! That WAS Scottie Pippen.
    Love the article and you definitely hit the nail on the head. There was a time you could look on the court and tell who was the skinny, short point guard, the slim athletic shooting guard, the taller, socks hiked up to his knee, but only an average outside shot forward, the bulky, can’t wait to put someone in the stands power forward…and the tallest guy on the court was the center. Nowadays your average player is 6’6″, who can dribble, shoot, defend and as athletic as an Olympian.

  2. Dave Says:

    Bravo Jason! I was glad that I didn’t bore you too much with my “old basturd” basketball talk before we chowed down at Thanksgiving! I’ve been following the Celt’s since ’66—right on through to the present.

    I understand what UNK Paw is saying, about Rick Barry–he definately looked to shoot first—but (and I saw him play) he was a great passer—I feel as good as Larry Bird.

    For 5 out of 6 years between 73-74 and 78-79, Rick averaged 6 assists a game. I agree he was probably not the “prototypical point forward” but when he was of the mind, he could distribute the ball. I can distinctly remember in the ’75 championship series over the Bullets Rick’s jump passes to Clifford Ray et al hanging under the basket helped the Warriors upset the Bullets. UNK Paw is pretty much dead on about Rick’s defense though.

    The first player ever recall being referred to as a point forward was Paul Pressy when he played with the Bucks in the early 80’s. Another player, who I never heard referred to as a point forward, but was one non the less—was Randy Smith. He was a 6′ 3″ forward in the NBA ~~’70-’80, and when Ernie D wasn’t hogging the ball—Randy could pass, defend, rebound and dribble. (He could jump through the gym)

    I’m down with “some combination of Trivial Pursuit meets Family Feud with lots of profanity and alcohol.” I thnk that the GAAAAH–den will triumph. Hey do the Yankees still have more wins in November that the Knicks and the Nets?

    • jpalumbo Says:

      The Yanks still have as many November victories as the Nets, Giants, and Jets combined. The Knicks have won 3 games out of 14 in November. Booyah!

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