I don’t imagine many people really remember it at this point, but Cynthia Cooper of the Houston Comets may have been the most dominant force in professional basketball in the late 1990s. Apologies to Jordan, Duncan, and Shaq but from 1997-2000 Cynthia scored 4 consecutive WNBA Finals MVP trophies. That has never been matched in the NBA (Jordan twice had 3 in row, Shaquille once). She also won two regular season MVPs and led the league in scoring 3 times. Her metrics are out of this world as well. She twice led the league (two out of her four seasons) in PER and still carries the highest carrier PER. She led the league in Win Shares 3 times and still has the best career Win Share per minute. The only excuse anyone could find not to call Cooper the greatest WNBA player of all time is the relative shortness of her career, but that is of course primarily due to her age when the league came into existence. Her Comets won the first championship in WNBA history. Also the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th championships in WNBA history. Then she retired. Beat that.
Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen may become the first players ever to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame twice in the same evening. Both are scheduled to enter the hall as individuals for their tremendous personal contributions to the game in Utah and Chicago respectively, and they are also going to be honored as members of the ground-breaking 1992 Olympic Men’s Basketball Team, the first and only Dream Team. If any other player has ever received a double-induction on the same night, I can’t find a record of it!
During last year’s Hall of Fame speeches, while Michael Jordan wasn’t horrifying everyone, David Robinson and John Stockton had a nice tete-a-tete. In his speech Robinson took the time to name his teammate Tim Duncan the greatest power forward of all time. When Stockton got on stage he respectfully disagreed and named his teammate Karl Malone the greatest power forward of all time. Trust me, when it comes to those two guys, that’s like the climactic witness cross examination in A Few Good Men and the final rap battle in 8 Mile combined. You can’t handle how polite and upstanding they are… G. While I side with Robinson on this one, John had a case. If we define greatness as persistent excellence, then very few players have been as great as Karl Malone. He has the 3rd highest career Win Share ever, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, and both of their numbers are fudged since the full stat-set to determine Win Share was not tracked prior to the NBA-ABA merger. Obviously to some extent that speaks to Karl’s longevity more than his ability, yet his career averages after 18 seasons and playing to the age of 40 are still 25 points and 10 rebounds per game on 51.6% shooting. A total of zero players managed to put up those numbers in the last 5 seasons (not over the past 5 seasons but at all in the past 5 seasons). In the last 10 seasons 3 players have managed 25 and 10 for a season – Shaq 3 times, Duncan once, and Webber once. Karl averaged it for 18 seasons. Yeah-huh. There’s an argument to be made even before we start debating his two MVP awards and how he was the best player on two Finals teams that were assassinated by a few truly otherworldly Jordan performances.
Scottie Pippen is a strange player for me to write about. He’s one of my very favorite players of all time, top 10 easily, but I find myself defending Michael Jordan against the greatness of Scottie Pippen more and more as revisionist history elevates his game and erases his weaknesses in an attempt to tether the legend of the GOAT. Take this recent article quoting Bulls’ owner Jerry Reinsdorf:
“A lot of people liked to talk about Scottie as being Batman’s Robin or the Lone Ranger’s Tonto,” said Reinsdorf during a recent interview at the Berto Center. “I never thought that was the case and I liked to think of them as 1 and 1A. They were very, very close.”
“It came along slowly,” Reinsdorf said of the Bulls’ rise to prominence. “I don’t think anyone right away saw what a great combination Michael and Scottie would become. It just grew. Scottie got better and better. First, he became a really good three-point shooter, even before he was a good two-point shooter. Then, he became probably the best bank shooter that I’ve ever seen in the NBA. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player that could shoot bank shots like Scottie could.”
“The key to that series was Scottie defending Magic,” said Reinsdorf of Phil Jackson’s decision to put Pippen on the legendary five-time NBA champion. “We didn’t have the great confidence and arrogance in that series that we did later on. We lost the opening game to the Lakers and had to go to Los Angeles tied 1-1, having lost home court advantage. And we almost lost the first game out there. It was a brilliant move by Phil.”
Okay, now I love Scottie Pippen’s game and what he did for Chicago, but I gotta say that none of that is true. Pippen was not on a level with Jordan in the eyes of opponents or of the team. Michael was the unquestioned leader. There is not a biography out there that is unclear about that. It was obvious watching them on the court and on the bench that MJ was the general and Scottie the talented lieutenant. Which is good. Two generals is a power struggle. The next piece by Reinsdorf is completely indefensible. Pippen became a really good 3 point shooter before he became a good 2 point shooter? The best bank-shooter of all time? What? Now I loved how Scottie would hit it off the glass on the run. I actually copied that in my own game. But let’s be real. Larry Bird he was not. Scottie only managed to shoot over 30% from the 3 point line once prior to the league moving the line in and then just barely – though he hit some very timely 3s over the years. And finally, the big switch that Phil made to move Scottie onto Magic never actually happened. Jordan was the primary defender of Magic throughout the 1991 Finals. He started on him every game, covered him until he got in foul trouble, and then Pippen took over. Pip did a fantastic job both as a help defender when Jordan was on Johnson and as a primary cover, but the idea that they made some big switch and everything changed is a complete fallacy. In fact Chicago’s team defense was the key, the ability to trap Magic in the open court with Jordan & Pippen, Jordan & Grant, and Pippen & Grant and get the ball out of his hands was big – and that 1 loss Chicago suffered was a fluky one where both Michael and Scottie missed potential game winners, not some strategic foul up.
Now that that’s out of the way let me say this about Scottie Pippen: He is bar-none the best perimeter defender of all time and I’m not even willing to debate it. He could seamlessly switch from guards to forwards, could orchestrate a defense like Kevin Garnett, and could lock a guy down like Payton. He was faster and longer than most guards and much more physical than you’d think from his skinny build. Forged under the fire and hammer of Jordan in practice and Rodman in the playoffs he was as mentally tough as you could ask and undaunted by a challenge. His versatility is matched by few – LeBron, Magic, maybe Garnett. He has an argument as the best point guard of the 1990s despite the fact that he was a forward. He had tremendous athletic gifts and skills but was willing to play second fiddle for the sake of winning titles, and even when he was left to be the main cog never tried to do too much. He’s a player who took nothing off the table and added whatever his team needed from him. Because he could play 3 positions and defend four, there’s not a team in NBA history that would not have benefited from the addition of Scottie Pippen.
The Dream Team isn’t the only US Olympic squad entering the Hall this Friday. The 1960 team featuring what must be the best amateur squad of all-time highlighted by a backcourt of Oscar Robertson and Jerry West is coming in at the same time. Think about just that for a second. We’re going to see Michael, Magic, Oscar, West, Stockton, and Drexler… we’re one Kobe short of the all the greatest guards ever. Of course the 1960 team was an amateur squad rather than an All-NBA team, so the big time stars list is shorter, but they did have Bob Boozer, Jerry Lucas, and Walt Bellamy manning the front court. They won their games by over 40 points and dominated at almost the same level as their successors in 1992, and it’s very cool that they are being honored together.
The Dream Team is said to have captured the imagination of the world and globalized the sport. I think that may be hyperbole, but it certainly captured my 12 year old imagination and deepened my appreciation for our national stars and the incredible things they could do. Jordan, Bird, Barkley, and Pippen were already four of my favorite players, but I finally got to root for the other guys. Magic, Drexler, Stockton&Malone, Ewing, Mullin, Robinson – my teams’ rivals became allies, and they created some truly beautiful basketball together. They meshed in a way that no all-star team ever had the time or inclination over their one long weekend. Five different players played point guard. The overall passing and off the ball movement was like magic …er Magic. The raw athleticism that Jordan, Pippen, Drexler, Barkley, and Robinson brought to the table was amazing. The shooting of Mullin and Bird. The shotblocking of Ewing and Robinson – not to mention the high-low passing from big to big that shredded the FIBA zone defense. The dominant rebounding from Malone and Barkley. The mini two and three man games that would spark up when players found themselves in familiar positions on the court, but where once Bird would be working a post up guard play with Dennis Johnson, now he had Michael Jordan burying a man on the block. The reads they made were inspiring. And then there was the fastbreak. With such great shotblockers and rebounders on the backline, the guards were in every passing lane and hounding ball-handlers. Steals led to outlet passes led to finishes at the rim or open js for trailing shooters again and again. It was both methodical and harmonious. Oh, man! We should make Walt Frazier do color commentary on the films! Harmonious synergizing leads to dishing and swishing!
It will be fun to watch all those players together again, particularly with two of the least celebrated among them receiving the biggest individual accolades of the night. Pippen and Malone, two unheralded forwards from small schools who exploded in the NBA will get top billing over Jordan, Magic, Bird, Oscar, and West for this one night, and lord knows they both put in the work to deserve it.