Converting for Era – Part 1: Could Scottie Pippen Play 3 and D?

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Recently I’ve been listening to an excellent podcast over at Hardwood Paroxysm called “Over and Back” where they do comprehensive career retrospectives for retired players, and having heard a few of these, I think it’s time to discuss player comparisons and historical context again.

What got me thinking about the tangled mess of cross-generational comparisons is that these podcasters like to include a topic about how a player would play in today’s game or who a good comparison might be, and for three out of three players they’ve discussed, (Scottie Pippen, Reggie Lewis, and Rick Barry), one of the chief concerns has been lack of three point shooting. That’s understandable. Three point shooting is a key skill for wing players in today’s game. With some key exceptions like Dwyane Wade, basically all your star perimeter players can function as floor-spacers when playing off the ball.

A guy like Scottie Pippen doesn’t seem to have that skill set when we examine his shooting percentages, and the fellah’s on “Over and Back” came right out and said that Scottie wouldn’t be a 3 and D guy in today’s NBA. Obviously the problem isn’t with the D, since Pippen is arguably the best perimeter defender of his era and possibly all time.

Pippen’s career three point shooting percentage is 32.6%, and he only shot over 35% for a season twice, both times while the line was moved closer. So Scottie could not be an adequate floor spacer in the 2010+ NBA. Right? Well, maybe. There are couple other points to examine.

Unfortunately we don’t have shooting charts for Pippen’s era, but luckily for my valued readers, I watched a ton of 1990s Bulls games and remember some of Scottie’s tendencies. One of his bad habits that irked me to no end as a fan was that he liked to pull up in transition for at least one top of the key three-pointer per game, and he wasn’t very good at that shot. On the other hand, Pippen was not the designated corner three specialist for the Bulls (that task went to Craig Hodges, John Paxson, BJ Armstrong, and Steve Kerr), but from my memory, he actually shot pretty well from the right side on catch and shoot opportunities.

As I mentioned, we don’t have shot charts to verify exactly how well players shot from different areas from this time in the NBA; however, we don’t need to be exact to make a point about types of shots taken and team role. Pippen played point forward for Chicago. He brought the ball up the court and initiated the offense. So he didn’t spend a ton of time on the wing waiting for kick-out passes. Those mostly came to him in isolation sets for Michael Jordan (what assistant coach Bach referred to as the “Archangel offense” where Jordan spread his wings and rained fire from on high).

Let’s do a “what if” shooting exercise. Andre Iguodala is in many ways a poor man’s Scottie Pippen, an athletic guard-forward with a good handle and court vision, known for his defense and not so much for his individual scoring or shooting acumen. Last year Iggie shot 35.4% from 3, which is all I think a player needs to do to adequately punish teams that leave him open on the perimeter. Interestingly, Iggie’s shot chart shows exactly what I would expect for Pippen. He’s terrible from straightaway (generally a pull-up spot) at 27.3% and good from the right corner (generally a catch and shoot spot) at 40%. He also shoots a solid 35.5% from the left corner, a good 38.9% from the right wing, and a poor 29.6% from the left wing.

But for now let’s simplify and pretend that there are only two shooting spots, the top of the key and the right corner. We’re also going to operate under the assumption that Scottie’s percentage breakdown is similar to Iggie’s…

If Pippen takes 3 three pointers a game and shoots two of them from the top of the key at 27 FG% and one from the corner at 40 FG%, he would make .94 three pointers out of three attempts per game for a 3P% of 31.3%. That also amounts to 94 points per 100 possessions for the team, not a great figure.

If he shot one 3PA from the top of the key and two 3PAs from the corner, we would expect him to make 1.07 three pointers out of 3 attempts for a 3P% of 35.7%. That would be 107 points per 100 team possessions, which is better than today’s league average, about in line with Golden State.

We just turned Pippen into a floor-spacing wing, and all we had to do was adjust his shot selection, something that would probably happen naturally based on modern metrics and coaching trends. We didn’t factor that he might become a significantly better shooter if a coach told him that making threes was going to be an increased part of his role and he should practice them more. We didn’t factor changes to Pippen’s opportunities that might arise by putting his teammate Michael Jordan in today’s context with the no-hand check rule and the overloaded strong side defensive semi-zone. These defensive tendencies among today’s teams would almost certainly present Pippen with more open shots.

It’s tempting to look at statistics, especially for players we’ve never or rarely seen play, and assume they tell what a player COULD do. We need to consider the numbers as signifiers only of what a player was REQUIRED to do. NBA players, especially the stars, are by and large versatile and multi-faceted athletes capable of adapting to circumstances. Increased emphasis or opportunities in a particular area would very likely produce improved results.

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6 Responses to “Converting for Era – Part 1: Could Scottie Pippen Play 3 and D?”

  1. Evin Demirel Says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    I love these cross-generational comparisons, and this is a very good, nuanced look at what kind of offensive player Pippen would likely be in the modern NBA era. I’d love to see a similar one done with Drazen Petrovic – he was an absurdly efficient shooter (with unlimited range) that my intuition is that had the 1992-93 version of Petrovic been dropped into the 2014-15 NBA season, he’d be considered one of the top 5 offensive players in the game.

    • jpalumbo Says:

      Thanks, Evin. Next on the docket was Isiah and Iverson, and what it means to have to true bugs offensive rebounding instead of spacing the floor. Drazen and the increased value of great shooting will make the list for sure.

  2. ayc3434 Says:

    I imagine if you kept Pippen in the corners he could become a competent Bruce Bowen type 3 point shooter. But Pippen didn’t really need the 3 to be valuable. the Bulls had plenty of other players to shoot the 3; what Pippen and MJ did that they couldn’t was slashing to the basket, drawing in defenders and creating those wide open looks from 3

    • jpalumbo Says:

      Exactly. But I’m noticing that younger folks writing stories or doing podcasts tend to think that wings of the 80s and 90s who weren’t three point shooting specialists COULDN’T shoot threes, and I think it’s much more of the case that they DIDN’T shoot threes.

      • ayc3434 Says:

        In the case of Pippen, I don’t know how much better he could get. I don’t think of him as a pure shooter. OTOH, I think someone like Jordan would shoot the 3 much better today.

  3. ayc3434 Says:

    PS Rick Barry was considered one of the best shooters of his time, so I think he would’ve done fine with the 3. In fact, he got to shoot the 3 while he was the ABA; he shot .412 from 3 in his postseason ABA career.

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