In The Big Book of Basketball, author Bill Simmons theorises that the memory of greatness is slowly eroded by the course of time. I have a hard time believing that we will ever forget Michael Jordan. He is, and will forever be the greatest basketball player of all time. But will we forget Scottie Pippen? The thought haunts me. Pippen’s greatness may have been in part overshadowed by Jordan, but we can’t be allowed to forget his input to two three-peat teams. We can’t be allowed to forget how he helped a 72 win Bulls team, that until the Warrior’s won 73 games in 2015/16, was the most winning-est team in an NBA history. We can’t forget how he kept the Bulls warm for Jordan’s eventual return from his baseball sabbatical. But most of all, we can’t be allowed to forget that it was Scottie Pippen that allowed Michael Jordan to be Michael Jordan. Scottie Pippen was, and will always be the ultimate second banana.
So, to celebrate all the Robins to their franchises Batmen, to etch Scottie into NBA folklore and to continue TFPP awards season, allow me to introduce the Pippen Prize – the award for the NBA’s best second best, in memory of Scottie Pippen’s greatness.
But as with all awards, there must be established rules surrounding players’ eligibility.
Rule # 1 – The Best Second Banana Must Come From a Successful Team
Scottie Pippen was drafted in 1987. In his first 11 seasons as a Bull, Chicago made at the very least the Conference Semi-Finals. So, the Pippen Prizewinner needs to come from a playoff team to truly live up to #33’s mettle. Thankfully, the Four Point Play’s Power Rankings gives us a list of contenders for this season.
Players Ruled Ineligible: Everyone But Those on the Above Teams.
Rule # 2 – The Best Second Banana Must Be the Undisputed Second Banana
Phil Jackson said in his book Eleven Rings that it was Scottie who allowed Michael to be Michael. It is clear that Jordan is the GOAT, but it was Pippen that allowed him to get there. If it wasn’t for Pippen, it is entirely possible that Jordan’s career would have panned out like Elgin Baylor’s – a dominant player that for all his ability would never win a Championship. It presupposes that being the Best Second Banana requires a definitive standing as a teams second best player, and is readily accepted as such by the entire team.
With that in mind, let’s metaphorically travel back in time to the 1996/97 season, right in the middle of the Bulls’ second three-peat. Let’s metaphorically find a hundred of the most die hard basketball supporters on the planet and ask them the following question:
‘Who is the best player on the Chicago Bulls? Jordan or Pippen?’
What percentage votes for Jordan? 100 out of 100? 96? Either way, I cannot fathom it being anything less than 90 – and a definitive statement in Jordan’s favour.
Now, let us travel back to the present day and ask a hundred of the most die hard basketball supporters on the planet the following question:
What is the expected result? The All-Star Game voting – if any indication (and it shouldn’t be) – would have Curry just ahead of Durant. But, statistically and visually it has to be Durant. Either way, the result would unlikely be as one-sided a response as the metaphorical Jordan or Pippen vote.
Durant and Curry are realistically the number 1 and 1.5 best players on the Warriors team, and that excludes either player from winning the Pippen Prize which demands a clear-cut number two. We can also put Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in the same category.
The same rule also needs to be applied the other way, with the case in point being the Rockets. There is no doubt that James Harden is the Head Honcho for Houston, but who is his deputy? Eric Gordon or Trevor Ariza? The popular vote may be Gordon, but statistically it’s Ariza if we make win shares the defining statistic (5.8 vs. 3.9). Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whom is Harden’s right hand man, the fact that it is so difficult to tell excludes both Ariza and Gordon from the Prize.
Players Ruled Ineligible: Steph Curry, Eric Gordon, DeMar DeRozan.
Rule # 3 – The Best Second Banana Must Be Able to Play Multiple Positions.
Chuck Daly called Pippen the ‘ultimate fill-in-the-blanks guy’, and Phil Jackson in Eleven Rings credits himself for creating the ‘point-forward’ to best tap into Pippen’s abilities (not sure you’re the pioneer on that one Phil). I happened to recently catch Game 4 of the 1993 NBA Finals between the Charles Barkley led Phoenix Suns and the Chicago Bulls (Sorry David!). Even though Jordan scored 55 that night, what catches the eye was Scottie Pippen’s all-round ability. He would be guarding either Kevin Johnson or Dan Majerle on the wing in one possession (two vastly different offensive players), then receiving an outlet pass and pushing the ball up the court like a point guard. Then he would find himself defending Barkley on the low post, then find himself on the low block with the ball, backing down a smaller defender. Truly a man who could (and did) do it all.
That type of versatility is a vitally important eligibility rule for the Pippen Prize. Whilst the eventual winner is not expected to play four positions on either end of the floor a la Pippen (Ben Simmons could be a future Pippen Prize winner because of his versatility, and if we had created this award last season it may well have been Draymond Green’s to lose), a multiple positional player is certainly required or at least a player that can give a team multiple different looks as a result of his skill set.
Of the players who have survived Rules 1 and 2, the following are culled as a result of Rule 3:
Rudy Gobert – As his shot chart suggests, Gobert can only really play close to the rim. As good as he is defensively, and as good as he is in the pick and roll game, Gobert can only play as a Center in the modern day NBA.
Blake Griffin – As good a dunker as Griffin is, and for all his athleticism, he is a poor rim defender, blocking 1% of shots when he is on the floor (in comparison, Gobert is at 6.4%) and makes less than one three point shot per game in the era where stretch bigs are of prime importance. Those skill deficiencies make Griffin position-ally inflexible.
Kyrie Irving – I love what Kyrie Irving brings (except for bringing the ‘Earth is Flat Theory’ back into the mainstream, wasn’t the theory disproved a few centuries ago?), but Irving has only ever been a scoring point guard with the Cavs. He is saved because LeBron is, well, LeBron and can play 1 through 4, allowing Irving and every other Cav to almost be whomever they want to be.
Bradley Beal – The most difficult cull of all. Firstly, the skill of shooting can be a band-aid on inflexibility, being able to fill either wing is flexibility of sorts and a spread-the-floor guy is huge for great one-on-one talent. But you can’t move Beal to point guard to be the prime play-maker. At least not yet. Coach Scott Brooks has experimented with Beal at point throughout the season, but at this juncture we can’t add that position to his arsenal.
Players Ruled Ineligible: Blake Griffin, Rudy Gobert, Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal.
If we compare the pair against the first three rules of the Pippen Prize:
Rule 1 – Most Wins & Win Shares At the date of writing, Al Horford had played 62 games for 42 wins (68%) at 5.9 win shares. In comparison, LaMarcus Alridge has played in 67 games for 51 wins (76%) at 6.8 win shares. Winner: Aldridge.
Rule 2 – Definitive Second Banana If you look at win shares, Horford is third for the Celtics with Jae Crowder second, however Horford pips Crowder at win shares per 48 minutes. Aldridge is a clear second behind Kawhi Leonard for the Spurs. Winner: Aldridge.
Rule 3 – Flexibility Look at the two stat lines below, and select which on you would rather:
47% FG, 43% 3pt FG (0.8 makes per game), 81.5% FT, 7.5 rpg (2.5 orpg), 2.1 apg, 0.6 spg, 1.2 bpg, 17.5 ppg.
47% FG, 36% 3pt FG (1.3 makes per game), 80% FT, 6.9 rpg (1.5 orpg), 5.1 apg, 0.8 spg, 1.4 bpg, 14.1 ppg.
It’s got to be Line 2, right? Not as much scoring or rebounding, but five assists per game plus at least one three point make per night drags it over the line. Winner: Horford
That would seemingly put LaMarcus Alridge as the clear winner. But not so fast, there is one last rule for the Pippen Prize.
Rule # 4 – The Best Second Banana Must Be A Different Leader to the Best Banana.
Michael Jordan was a notorious task master. He expected everything and more from his teammates. Notoriously getting into fights and destroying teammates’ confidence in scrimmages, but no one ever could claim that he never led by example. The times he dragged the Bulls to wins or out of precarious situations are too numerous to count. Scottie on the other hand, led a different way, less combative and more collaborative. Even in leadership, Pippen provided the perfect foil to Jordan.
It’s extremely difficult to analyse and discuss players leadership during a season, for the simple reason that it is mainly demonstrated behind closed training facility doors and post-game locker rooms. We only hear about leadership qualities through anecdotes, and snippets from media interviews, but it is the only measuring stick we can use.
Isaiah Thomas leads by doing on the court. His fourth quarter dominance has become legendary, justifiably earning him the Game of Thrones inspired nickname ‘The King in the Fourth’. But Al Horford is the guy that has helped create the culture, and led in his own way, more subtle sure, but equally as effective.
In comparison, the leadership for the Spurs is shared – spread across veterans, stars and Championship winning role players alike. It’s the beauty of the Spurs franchise, with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker winning multiple championships, and the influence of Timmy Duncan still hanging in San Antonio’s hallways. Aldridge is still a leader – just as he was in Portland – but his leadership requirements aren’t as heavy as that of his Boston counterpart.
Ladies and Gentleman, let me introduce the co-winners of the inaugural Pippen Prize… LaMarcus Aldridge and Al Horford!
The similarities between the two justify them as co-winners, and both certainly epitomise what it means to be the ultimate sidekick. Kawhi Leonard and Isaiah Thomas are elite players that deserve to be thrust in to the spotlight, but as Scottie Pippen would tell you, elite players need support slightly off-stage, as Horford and Aldridge are doing, toiling away in the shadows.
Exactly the way a true second banana would want it to be.