Chicago Bulls: Scottie Pippen’s sudden and precipitous post-Bulls decline

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Scottie Pippen is best known as the greatest sidekick in NBA history. After leaving the Chicago Bulls and getting paid, however, he was never the same.

Scottie Pippen is unquestionably best known as the most famous and potentially best NBA sidekick in the league’s history. Alongside Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen was a terror on both ends of the court and played the perfect complementary piece en route to six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls. Though many players have been compared to Scottie Pippen since his playing days (perhaps most notably, Kawhi Leonard) he was clearly a unique talent in the league.

Many often gloss over Scottie Pippen’s career post-Bulls, and perhaps with good reason. Scottie went on to play six seasons after his time with Chicago, of which only one of those seasons he was able to play all 82 games.

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Decline in productivity is normal as a player ages; as the adage goes, “Father Time is undefeated”. However, Pippen’s precipitous decline was particularly noteworthy and surprising. In his final season as a Bull, Pippen averaged 19.1 points per game to go with 5.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists, certainly decent numbers for a 32-year-old secondary option to arguably the greatest scorer and player to ever lace up a pair of sneakers.

The very next year, however, as a freshly minted player of the Houston Rockets with a significant pay raise, Scottie Pippen would see his scoring output take a hit, dropping to only 14.5 points per game. Though his assist and rebound numbers did improve slightly, his numbers dropped across the board in almost every statistical category.

Unlike the typical gradual decline that comes with a combination of aging in the wrong direction and a somewhat reduced role, Pippen actually averaged a career-high 40.2 minutes per game in his season with the Rockets. Largely, the dip in his scoring output can be attributed to his inability to get to his spots on the offensive end as he was able to in prior seasons. This is evidenced by his reduced field goal attempts from within the 3-point line, as his attempts from beyond the arc were largely unchanged, from 4.4 to 4.2 per game.

In this season, Scottie averaged fewer dunks and hit a higher percentage of his corner 3s. And though his true shooting percentage was still a few ticks above league average, Pippen was clearly no longer statistically speaking, a star player in the league.

The likely best explanation for his sudden decline? Scottie Pippen did have back surgery after sustaining an injury and playing through it in the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz. Though the surgery was deemed a success and not necessarily career-altering (Pippen had the same surgery in 1988), Scottie was approaching his mid-30s and would have likely experienced some decline regardless.

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Predictably after his miserable stint in Houston, which was also famously fraught with in-house bickering involving the ever-mercurial Charles Barkley, Pippen’s career slowly and uneventfully fizzled out as he declined to a shell of his former self.

The once athletic defensive-minded pit-bull who helped revolutionize the point forward position and remains the blueprint for many successful players today. His impact on the game can be witnessed through the likes of the previously mentioned Kawhi Leonard, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and even Paul George to an extent.

Of course, it is easy to make the somewhat lazy connection that Pippen’s decline coincided with him leaving the comfort of having Jordan as a teammate, Phil Jackson as a head coach, and the triangle as a scheme to rely on. Such an allegation is almost impossible to refute with certainty, but the sheer breadth of Scottie’s body of work certainly extends deep enough to minimize the credibility of a take along those lines. The biggest of those factors would almost certainly be having the consensus greatest player, Michael Jordan, as a teammate. And far from being a crutch for Scottie, he actually proved he could thrive in Michael’s absence.

Scottie Pippen was never able to re-capture the greatness of his youth but thankfully is still remembered by many as the player who Michael Jordan needed the most to cement his legacy.

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