Monday, April 11, 2011

Michael Jordan: Not a One Man Show pt. 1

Originally written June 30, 2010. Updated 4/11/11.

My biggest pet peeve, when it comes to basketball, is people saying or implying that Michael Jordan won six championships by himself. When people bring up the Lakers most recent championship, they always talk about how much help that Kobe has. Yeah, well Kobe’s sidekick isn’t one of the top 30 players of all-time. Gasol and Odom are good, but Pippen and Rodman they are not. Scottie Pippen is one of the top 25 or 30 players to ever play the game. If Mitch Kupchak could trade Kobe’s supporting cast for Jordan’s supporting cast, I believe he would do it. People tend to forget, or not realize, how good Jordan’s teammates really were, so let’s examine them. The first part of this series will focus on the big three of Jordan’s teammates: Pippen, Grant and Rodman.

Scottie Pippen (all six championships)
In Elliot Kalb’s book Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Basketball?, Scottie Pippen is ranked as the 29th best player ever. In Bill Simmons’ book The Book of Basketball, Scottie Pippen is ranked as the 24th best player ever. I will quote both of these books often, as well as using some quotes from Charley Rosen that I’ve used in a past blog, to provide multiple assessments of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. (By the way, I highly recommend both of these books for any serious basketball fan)

Here’s some quotes from Bill Simmons’ book:
“The first five Dream Team choices were Jordan/Magic/Bird, then Robinson and Pippen in that order. Those were the five ‘no-brainers,’ according to the committee.” Think about that for a minute. On a team that included Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, and Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen was chosen fifth as a “no-brainer.”

“Of anyone I’ve ever seen in person, Pippen was the best defender.”

“a consistently destructive presence who became nearly as enjoyable to watch defensively as Jordan was offensively.”

“Nobody covered more ground or moved faster from point A to point B. It was like watching a cheetah in a wildlife special – one second Scottie would be minding his own business, the next second he would be pouncing. Everyone remembers Kerr’s jumper to win the ’97 Finals, but nobody remembers Pippen tipping the ensuing inbounds pass, then chasing it down and flipping it to Kukoc to clinch the game.”

“Only Jordan was a better all-around player in the nineties…and that was debatable.”

“Ron Harper to SI in ’99, ‘Everybody talks about MJ first, but Pip had a more all-around game. Defense, offensive rebounds, defensive boards: Pip made the game easier for us to play.’”

“he became one of four postmerger players (along with Cowens in ’78, Kevin Garnett in ’03, and LeBron in ’09) to lead his team in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in the same season.”

“And he redefined the ‘point forward’ concept during the nineties, allowing the Bulls to play any combination of guards without suffering in the ballhandling/defense departments.”

“Chuck Daley created a great term to describe Scottie: a ‘fill in the blanks’ guy. If a teammate was getting killed defensively, Scottie had his back. If you needed rebounding, Scottie went down low and grabbed some boards. If you needed scoring, Scottie could create a shot or attack the rim. If you needed a turnover, Scottie had a better chance of getting it than anyone. If you needed ballhandling, he could do it. And if you needed to shut someone down, he did it.”

“During the Dream Team practices, Daly called Scottie his second-best player and told David Halberstam, ‘You never really know how good a player is until you coach him, but Pippen was a great surprise in Barcelona – the confidence with which he played and the absolutely complete nature of his game, both on offense and defense. No one else really expected it.’ According to Halberstam, MJ returned to Chicago after the Olympics and told Phil Jackson, ‘Scottie came in as just one of the other players, and none of the others knew how good he was, but then he kept playing, and by the end of the week it was clear that he was the top guard there – over Clyde and Magic and Stockton. It was great for people to see him in that setting and see how good he really was.’ For those of you scoring at home, that’s sixteen combined rings paying homage.”

“Jackson told SI in ’99, ‘[Scottie] was probably the most liked player by the others. He mingled. He could bring out the best in players and communicate the best. Leadership, real leadership, is one of his strengths. Everybody would say Michael is a great leader. He leads by example, by rebuke, by harsh words. Scottie’s leadership was equally dominant, but it’s a leadership of patting the back, support.’”

“NBA draft code words ‘upside,’ ‘length’ and ‘wingspan’ were pretty much invented during the Pippen draft.”

“Irrefutable fact: Jordan never would have retired in ’99 unless he knew for sure that Scottie was leaving.” How about that? Michael Jordan retired, because he didn’t want to play without Scottie. You know what that says to me? Michael Jordan wouldn’t win without Scottie Pippen. If he thought he could just get someone else, and win more championships, wouldn’t you think he would do it? People say, “Kobe’s never won it without Shaq or Pau.” Yeah, well Jordan never won it without Pippen. And with Scottie leaving in ’99, he refused to try.

Here’s some quotes I’ve used in a past blog:
Charley Rosen- "an incredible defender and facilitator. With his length and athleticism, Pippen could excel at every position except center. Like a middle linebacker in the NFL, it was Pippen who called the defensive signals."

Rosen- "Indeed, there were times when Phil Jackson would berate a player for departing from the previously designed defensive alignment. Only one self defense was acceptable: ‘Scottie told me to do it.’"

Bill Cartwright- "Former teammate and current Bulls coach Bill Cartwright flatly states that Pippen 'was as much a part of winning the championships as MJ. I don't think it would have gotten done without him.’"

Tex Winter- "Michael realized how easy it was to play with him and how he helped make his teammates better. It's often said Jordan needed Pippen and Pippen needed Jordan. I'm not sure Jordan didn't need Pippen more than Pippen needed Jordan." Hold on. Did everyone read that? The “Michael Jordan Did It Alone" Car just came to a screeching halt. Former Bulls Assistant Coach, and mastermind of the Triangle Offense, just considered the idea that Jordan needed Pippen more than Pippen needed Jordan. That is a telling statement.

If the above quotes aren’t satisfactory in proving the phenomenal player that Pippen was, here’s some quotes from Elliot Kalb’s book for good measure:
“One of the best defensive players in the game, with the ability to guard – lock up and shut down – virtually anyone under seven feet tall. In the 2003 season – his 16th – Pippen would guard anyone from Atlanta power forward Shareef Abdul-Rahim to San Antonio point guard Tony Parker to Boston small forward Paul Pierce. This gave his teams incredible versatility.”

“He had excellent ball-handling skills and was a skilled passer.”

“Doug Collins: ‘Scottie and Michael were the two best perimeter defensive players ever. Scottie could shut down anyone and take away half the court.’”

Let’s do a little recap, shall we? Phil Jackson, Chuck Daly, Doug Collins (three great coaches), Assistant Coach Tex Winter, former teammates Ron Harper and Bill Cartwright, and sports analysts Charley Rosen, Bill Simmons, and Elliot Kalb all singing the praises of Pippen. Notice how quick people in the Bulls organization (Jackson, Winter, Harper, Cartwright, even Jordan himself) are to talk about how great Scottie was and how much influence he had on the success of the team? When you’re said to be the second best player on the Dream Team, the greatest team ever assembled, you’re pretty dang good.

Horace Grant (first three championships)
Charley Rosen:
"an outstanding post-up defender, quick and sure on his defensive rotations, Grant was also a dependable jump shooter from the vicinity of the foul line, a runner, and a determined rebounder. Sure, sometimes he zigged when he should have zagged, and he was often Jackson's scapegoat — but, through it all, Grant always came to play."

During the Bulls’ first three-peat, Grant’s averages were:
‘91- .547 FG% and 8.4 rpg
’92- .578 FG% and 10 rpg
’93- .508 FG% and 9.5 rpg

Grant’s three year average of .544 FG% and 9.3 rpg would put him in the top 10 and top 15 of those respective statistical categories, in 2010.

In his book, Elliot Kalb outlines the affect that Grant, and later Rodman, had on the Bulls:
Chicago Bulls Rebounding
1993 +269 rebounds than opponents
1994 +309 rebounds than opponents
Grant leaves
1995 +80 rebounds than opponents
Rodman joins teams
1996 +541 rebounds than opponents
1997 +403 rebounds than opponents
1998 +426 rebounds than opponents

The rebounding numbers dropped pretty dramatically when Grant or Rodman weren’t around.

Dennis Rodman (second three championships)
Here’s some quotes from Elliot Kalb’s book:
“Rodman led the NBA in rebounds with three different franchises. He won two rebounding titles with the Pistons. He won twice with the Spurs. He was the league’s leading rebounder with the Bulls three consecutive seasons.”

“He should be remembered for being the player who hustled non-stop – and did all the dirty work. He would dive on the floor. He would deny the entry pass. He would pass up shots so his teammates would be happy. He gave his team more extra possessions than anyone.”

“Rodman was the greatest defensive forward of all time.”

“What team wouldn’t be excited to have a player do all the dirty work, shut down the opposing team’s leading scorer, and dove for every loose ball?”

“For a three-year period that encompassed the 1993, 1994, 1995 NBA seasons, Dennis Rodman averaged 18.1 rebounds per game. Of those 223 games, he grabbed 20+ rebounds in 94 of them.” You’ve got to be kidding me! In 42 percent of his games over three seasons, he pulled down 20+ rebounds. That’s just astounding. Kalb went on to say, "And why is that impressive? No other player has averaged as many as 18 rebounds per game in a single season (nevermind three consecutive seasons) besides Rodman since 1974." Rodman is the best rebounder of his generation. Over three and a half decades (1974-2010), no one comes close. Bill Simmons, in his book, chimes in, “Statistically, he’s one of the greatest rebounders ever (along with Russell and Chamberlain) because he grabbed such a significant percentage of his team’s boards.” He adds, “The ’92 Pistons averaged 44.3 rebounds a game; Rodman grabbed 42% of them. Russell’s highest percentage for one season was 35%; Wilt’s highest was 37%.” His numbers are even more impressive, considering the guy was only 6’8”."

Kalb adds another layer to Rodman’s rebounding, by pointing out that he didn’t take rebounds away from teammates:
“Robinson’s rebound total in two years with Rodman were 10.7 per game and 10.8 per game. Do you know what Robinson’s career average is? It was 10.8 per game. Scottie Pippen’s rebound totals in three years with Rodman were 6.4, 6.5, and 5.2 per game. Scottie’s career average for rebounds was 6.6 per game. Michael Jordan’s rebound totals in three years with Rodman were 6.6, 5.9, and 5.8 per game. Michael’s career average for rebounds was 6.2 per game.”

Elliot Kalb also pointed out that the ’95 Spurs were 42-7 with Rodman, 20-13 without him. A similar effect happened in ’99, when Rodman joined the Lakers. That year, the Lakers started out 7-6. Rodman joined the team, and they won 9 straight, but he only stayed with them for a total of 23 games that year. In total, the Lakers were 17-6 with him and 14-13 without him.

Past quotes from Charley Rosen:
"[he] solved the mysteries of the triangle offense in a matter of weeks. He was smart and quick (vertically and horizontally). He willingly sacrificed his body, ran the court, and played madcap defense."

"For sheer athleticism — jumping (both elevation and quickness off the floor), speed, hand-eye coordination, flexibility, anticipation, reaction and instinct — Rodman was indeed in a class by himself. Also, his on-court intelligence was vastly underrated. For example, where players like Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Darrell Walker, and several others were never able to grasp the intricacies of the triangle offense, Rodman picked it up in a flash. Plus, Rodman's court awareness was as accomplished as the league's most celebrated point guards. And he lead the NBA in rebounding seven times while being an integral part of five championship teams."

A quote from Bill Simmons’ book:
“He guarded Larry Bird better than anyone. Nobody else came close. Other than Kevin McHale, nobody could defend so many different types of players effectively: Magic, Bird, Malone, Kemp, Barkley, Worthy, Jordan…”

Dennis Rodman positively affected four franchises (Pistons, Spurs, Bulls, Lakers), and helped two of them win five championships.

No one should ever say that Jordan won with only Pippen and Rodman. You don't put an only in front of two of the greatest, if not the two greatest, defensive forwards of all-time. What wins championships? Defense.

That wraps up part one. Part two will be about the role players Jordan had.

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